Just thinking about a particular song can evoke vivid memories of the past or special events in your life.
“We thought that actually hearing the song would bring back the most vivid memories,” said Richard Harris, professor of psychology at Kansas State University (KSU) and co-author of the study.
“But in our study there wasn’t a lot of difference in memory between those who heard the song and those who didn’t. What we determined was happening is that you already know the song and you’re hearing it in your mind.”
The study was co-authored by Harris and Elizabeth Cady, a 2006 KSU doctoral graduate in psychology. J. Bret Knappenberger, a 2004 K-State bachelor’s graduate in psychology, also was co-author.
Harris said the study fit his other research on the intersection of media and memory. In another project, Harris explored why people like to quote movies. He said the project with Cady was one of the first times his research delved into the medium of music.
“Most people have this idea that music can be a powerful memory cue,” Harris said. “You hear a song on the radio and it brings up memories of senior prom or graduation. That’s why oldies stations are so popular — not because the music is good but because it reminds us of specific times in our lives,” he said.
The researchers wanted to understand whether memories were cued by actually hearing the song or by thinking about it in other ways.
They tested 124 subjects between the ages of 18-20 in spring 2003. A pilot study had the subject’s list songs from five stages of life: early childhood, grade school, middle school, high school and college.
In the second part of the study, the subjects were given a short list of the songs that were chosen with the most frequency in the pilot study. The subjects were asked to pick one song from each category that had a strong memory attached to it, write about the memory and rate how vivid it was.
Harris said that he and Cady were surprised at how many participants reported strong memories associated with the same song.
For the grade-school era, 26 percent of participants had strong memories associated with Vanilla Ice’s song “Ice Ice Baby.” For middle school, 36 percent reported strong memories associated with Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
A control group was given only the names of the songs, while test groups either heard short clips of the songs, read the lyrics or saw art from the album or a photo of the artist, said a KSU release.
Harris said the vividness of memories didn’t vary much from one group to another, leading the researchers to determine that the subjects were “hearing” the song by being reminded of it in one way or another.
The study was recently published in the journal of Psychology of Music.