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How Music Sparks Our Memories

Why a song you haven't heard in years can take you back to a different time

By Randi Mazzella

I've been trying to go for a long walk every morning with the lovely late summer weather. I lace up my sneakers, adjust my air pods and turn on some music. A few days ago, my music app suggested a random mix of songs titled "Happy Mix" that I thought I would like. It was a gorgeous day and the mood seemed fitting, so I pressed play and started walking.

Singer Tom Jones wearing a suit while singing on stage. Next Avenue, music and memory
While waiting for our cookies to come out of the oven we watched the "This is Tom Jones" show on television and he was singing "It's Not Unusual." My grandma just loved Tom Jones and the two of us had the best time dancing along in my living room.  |  Credit: PBS

The song selection was eclectic, jumping through different eras and tempos. I was enjoying the music just fine until a particular song popped up.

It was the Tom Jones song, "It's Not Unusual," that was released in 1965. The minute I heard it, I was transported. No longer was I a 55-year-old woman in my suburban New Jersey neighborhood on a walk. Instead, I was a six-year-old girl in my Queens, New York, house. My parents were out for the evening, so my grandma was babysitting.

I hadn't thought about that evening in a long time and even now, I was surprised by how vivid and detailed my memory was as I heard that song.

We were waiting for our cookies to come out of the oven and while we did, we watched the "This is Tom Jones" show on television and he was singing "It's Not Unusual." My grandma just loved Tom Jones and the two of us had the best time dancing along in my living room.

Neighbors who saw me that morning must have wondered why I had such a huge smile. It's because, for those three minutes, I was somewhere else. I hadn't thought about that evening in a long time and even now, I was surprised by how vivid and detailed my memory was as I heard that song. That is part of the magic of music, the ability it has to transport us back in time.

"Listening to music has been linked with activity in the brain to include regions of the brain responsible for emotions, creativity and memory, " explains Dr. Anjali Ferguson of Richmond, Virginia. "Our brains are actively storing information and memories both explicitly and implicitly. Often, it's easier for us to remember information that is associated with beat or rhythm."

A study published in Neuron in 2015 finds that human brains don't just recognize the music, but that evolution has produced a dedicated neural circuit for music. In an article in Greater Good Magazine, author Jill Suttie writes, "Listening to music and singing together has been shown in several studies to directly impact neuro-chemicals in the brain, many of which play a role in closeness and connection."

Music and Our Emotional Centers

Music can also connect to emotional centers in the brain. "Our minds love to categorize information," explains Ferguson. "We may categorize or associate a person to a specific song in time based on the emotional experiences of that time. It's easier to retrieve memories when they are linked to emotional connections like music and a person. Therefore, if there is a song or melody that may be particularly relevant to a given time in life or a very emotional event, we may also make associations to people who are part of that time."

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If someone asked me, "What song makes you think of your grandmother?" I don't know if I would automatically have chosen that Tom Jones song. But upon hearing it, I had an immediate reaction. I remembered not just my grandmother but so many exact details of that moment in time. I don't think the memory would have ever re-entered my mind had that song not been playing on the TV as a soundtrack on that Saturday evening.

The Power of Music to Connect

Many parents sing their young children lullabies before they fall asleep. They may also use music to keep their child entertained in the car. Ferguson says, "Music is attention captivating and pleasurable for children. The rhythms and beats can gain a child's attention and keep them curious. When a parent engages in singing a song with their child, the pleasure centers of both parental and child brains are activated, which increases parental bonding."

"I'll listen to it sometimes when I'm alone in the backyard and thinking of him."

That same bonding that music can have between a young child and parent can also be true for adult children and their parents.

In May 2020, Andrew Chernicoff's father passed away at 82. When he was sorting through his father's belongings, Chernicoff, 54, of Hoboken, New Jersey, found a notebook full of songs along with single sheets of paper and backs of envelopes with songs written down. He says, "Some were in order and numbered, others were written in margins, or anywhere he could find room."

Chernicoff says that he knew his father loved music, especially the oldies like songs from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Al Martino.

"There weren't too many big surprises on the list, except maybe 'Memory' by Barbra Streisand," Chernicoff says. "I still cannot bring myself to finish going through his paperwork, so there may be more surprises in store for me when I am ready."

Creating Lasting Bonds with Music

Chernicoff says that while he also loves music, his taste differs significantly from his father's. But he decided to make a playlist of the songs which he plays on his father's birthday and Father's Day. "I'll listen to it sometimes when I am alone in the backyard and thinking of him. I've also shared the playlist with a few friends who knew my Dad when we were kids. It was important to me for them to listen."

Singer and songwriter Cher released the song "If I Could Turn Back Time" in 1989. Perhaps we do have the power to turn back tine after all and it is the music itself. The right song can take us back in time and connect us to the past.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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