Music, Memory, And Therapy

The power of music is undeniable. Just a few lines in a song can transport us back to a particular time, place, and event in our lives. Research shows that those suffering dementia or traumatic brain injury who listen to familiar music from their past have triggered long, lost memories. This relationship between music and memory has already been used with dementia patients but has continued to spur new research. These researchers are now working to better understand how music and memories support the therapeutic effect.

As a young teenager, song lyrics and poetry helped to heal me and give me a voice. For some friends it was about the guitars, drums, keyboards. For me it was the words. To this very day, as a senior who more often has memory gaps, I can sing lyrics from decades old songs. What is it about music that seems to stay with us and can automatically place us in a time machine, retrieving vivid feelings and memories from days gone by?

When working with young people in counselling sessions, I have observed music aid in the release of emotions that may otherwise have remained buried deep inside. Somehow music seems to illicit the feelings that words cannot. Music moves us in ways like no other and has always been present in the most poignant times of our lives.Whether it be our happiest moments of celebration, like birthdays, weddings, graduations, or our darkest moments at funerals in the loss of a loved one music is always there. Music always seems to be an identifier in our lives, marking a particular event or moment in time.

When examining the impact music plays in our lives, it is important to have a basic understanding of the brain and memory.The hippocampus and neocortex are crucial areas of the brain when we examine memory. As mentioned previously, it is not always easy to retrieve certain memories and we may literally be at a loss for words. It appears that the structure of a song, along with the melody and rhythm of the words help to evoke images that stay with us. These songs appear to provide a conduit for the memory. As early as kindergarten we teach children their A,B, Cs , prayers, and stories via rhyme and song. Lyrics or song is a vehicle that not only aids the transmission of memories but also seems to illicit strong feelings. So why is it that music often allows us to access these strong feelings?

When researchers examine memory, they identify two very different kinds of memory: explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory is a very deliberate type of memory in which we very consciously attempt to retrieve information. It often occurs when we are sharing stories.We may ask ourselves specific questions about a particular event in time to try and narrow down the details. “Was that my first year of university? Who was my roommate? Was that the year we went to Boston? What movie did we see?” On the other hand, implicit memory tends to be unintentional and sometimes come up when we least expect it. It is often precipitated by a smell or a sound, such as the smells from a walk in the woods or listening to a song from your past.

Implicit memory appears to come from a different part of the brain and is sometimes referred to as unconscious memory or automatic memory. We remember past experiences without ever thinking about them. Memories that are stimulated by music most often come from a time in our lives as teenagers or young adults where music had great significance with where we were in our lives and in fact seemed to be the sound track of our lives. In psychology this is referred to as the “reminiscence bump” where we remember more from late adolescence and early adulthood than any other stage of our lives. As we age, we tend to harken back to our youth when everything was new and fresh. Researchers have theories regarding the reason why we remember more from this period in our lives, most common being the brain’s ability to transcribe novel information more than the day to day mundane ones. However, there are still not enough studies to confirm this theory. That being said, we do know that with Alzheimer patients it is usually the explicit memory that is most impacted. It appears that it is the implicit memory being activated when listening to generational music.

Though we still do not have enough research based evidence regarding the impact of music on our brains and how it relates to memory, and therapy, I believe the research we do have and even anecdotal evidence points to the importance of music in our lives. Music produces endorphins that help us to relax and provide a temporary escape from the day to day stressors of our lives. Music can give a voice to people who may feel they do not have one. Music can move us to access the deepest part of our souls and memories from bygone days. Music can make us laugh, and music can make us cry. Music can help to calm and heal. Music is an accessible and viable tool that we all need in our tool box. Hopefully, as more study and research is done in this area, the better able we will be understand and use music in our day to day lives and in our counselling spaces.

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