Hearing a favorite, familiar or “throwback” song can instantly transport you to another moment in your life, bringing back details with stunning clarity. And it’s not just a fanciful feeling — there’s science behind how our brain associates music with memory.
There has long been a beneficial relationship between music and patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Repeated listening to personally meaningful music has been shown to improve brain adaptation in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.
These songs held unique significance, such as the music people danced to at their weddings, and enhanced memory performance in tests. The findings may support the inclusion of music-based therapy in the treatment of cognitively impaired patients in the future.
The changes were most noticeable in the prefrontal cortex, known as the control center of the brain, where decision-making, mediation of social behavior, personality expression and planning of complex mental behavior take place.
When the patients listened to music that was personal to them, it powered a musical neural network connecting different areas of the brain, based on the patients’ MRIs before and after listening to the music. This was different from when they listened to new, unfamiliar music, which tuned only a specific part of the brain to listen.
The study involved only 14 people, including six musicians, and they listened to specially curated playlists for one hour a day over three weeks. But these participants are the same as those from an earlier study that identified neural mechanisms for preserving music-related memories in those experiencing early cognitive decline.
“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never played an instrument, music is the key to accessing your memory, your pre-frontal cortex,” said Thaut, who is director of the University of Toronto’s Music and Health Sciences Research Collaborative. Professor of the Faculty of Music and Faculty of Medicine, in a statement. He also holds a Tier One Canada Research Chair in Music, Neuroscience and Health. “It’s simple—listen to the music you love all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, the pieces that have special meaning to you—build your brain gym.”
The research is a promising start that could lead to music therapy applications with broader objectives.
It also highlights another connection: music and our personality.
Favorite music fans
Music is related to our desire to communicate with each other, tell stories and share values, and has deep roots in the earliest human cultures.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that as humans, we form connections and bonds with certain genres or styles of music as a way of expressing ourselves and transmitting our personalities.
A recent study spanning six continents with more than 350,000 participants found that personality types are linked to certain music preferences.
Music falls under five main genre categories. “Mello” is associated with soft rock, R&B and adult contemporary music, with romantic lyrics and slow beats, while “intense” is loud, more aggressive music such as punk, classic rock, heavy metal and power pop. Other categories included “contemporary” (upbeat electronica, rap, Latin and Euro-pop), “sophisticated” (classical, opera, jazz) and “unpretentious” (relaxed or country music genres).
The findings revealed a direct relationship between extroverted and contemporary music, prudence and unexpected music, agreeableness and melodious or mellow music. The openness was melodious, intense, sophisticated and combined with contemporary music.
This means that songs like Ed Sheeran’s “Shivers” will appeal to extroverts, while agreeable people will be happy to hear “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. Meanwhile, open-minded people enjoy the classic “Space Oddity” by Nina Simone or David Bowie. And all these types of songs have appeal that transcends national borders, according to the study.
“We were surprised by how well these patterns between music and personality replicated around the world,” study author David Greenberg, an honorary research associate at the University of Cambridge and a postdoctoral scholar at Bar-Ilan University, said in a statement.
“People can be divided by geography, language, and culture, but if introverts in one part of the world like music as much as introverts elsewhere, it suggests that music can be a very powerful bridge. Music helps people understand each other and find common ground.” “
All of these were positive associations, but they also found a negative association between conscientiousness and intense music.
“We thought that neuroticism could go one of two ways, either preferring sad music to express their loneliness or preferring upbeat music to change their mood. In fact, they seem to prefer more intense music styles, which reflect inner anger. And frustration,” Greenberg said.
“That was surprising but people use music in different ways – some may use it for catharsis, others to change their mood. We will look at this in more detail.”
Researchers acknowledge that musical tastes are not set in stone and can change. But the study provides a basis for understanding how music can cross other social divides and bring people together, Greenberg said.