Listening to a favorite, familiar, or “throwback” song can instantly transport you to another time in your life, bringing back the details with amazing clarity. And it’s not just a fancy feeling: there’s science behind how our minds connect music to memory.
There has long been a beneficial association between music and patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Repeated listening to music that is personally meaningful has been found to improve brain adaptability in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.
These songs had a unique meaning, like the music people danced to at their weddings, and led to increased memory performance on the tests. The findings could support the inclusion of music-based therapy in the treatment of patients with cognitive impairment in the future.
The changes were most noticeable in the prefrontal cortex, known as the brain’s control center, where decision-making, moderation of social behavior, expression of personality and planning of complex mental behavior occur.
When the patients listened to music that was personal to them, it ignited a musical neural network that connected different regions of the brain, based on MRI scans taken of the patients before and after listening to the music. This was different from when they heard new and unfamiliar music, which only activated a specific part of the brain tuned to listening.
There were only 14 participants in the study, including six musicians, and they listened to specially selected playlists for one hour a day for three weeks. But these participants are the same ones from a previous study that identified the 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 a key to your memory, to your prefrontal cortex,” said Thaut, who is the director of the Collaboratory of research in music and health sciences at the University of Toronto and a professor in the Temerty Faculty of Music and Faculty of Medicine, in a statement. He also holds the Canada Tier One Research Chair in Music, Neuroscience and Health. “It’s simple: keep listening to the music you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, those pieces that are especially meaningful to you, make it your brain gym.”
The research is a promising start that could lead to music therapy applications with a broader purpose.
It also highlights another connection: music and our personalities.
Like-minded music fans
Music is connected to our desire to communicate, tell stories and share values with each other, and has deep roots in early human cultures.
So it is perhaps not surprising that as humans we have forged connections and bonds with certain genres or styles of music as a way of expressing ourselves and conveying our personality.
A recent study spanning six continents with more than 350,000 participants showed that personality types are linked to certain musical preferences.
The music fell into five main categories of style. “Mellow” is associated with soft rock, R&B and adult contemporary music, including romantic lyrics and slow beats, while “intense” is louder and more aggressive music such as punk, classic rock, heavy metal and power pop. The other categories include “contemporary” (upbeat electronica, rap, Latin and Euro-pop), “sophisticated” (classical, opera, jazz) and “unpretentious” (relaxing or country music genres).
The findings revealed direct links between extroverts and contemporary music, conscientiousness and unpretentious music, kindness and soft or unpretentious music. The opening was connected to the soft, intense, sophisticated and contemporary music.
That means songs like Ed Sheeran’s “Shivers” appeal to extroverts, while nice people would be happy to hear Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Meanwhile, open-minded people tend to enjoy Nina Simone or David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity.” And all these types of songs have an appeal that crosses national borders, according to the study.
“We were surprised by how well these patterns between music and personality replicated around the world,” said study author David Greenberg, an honorary research associate at the University of Cambridge and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bar-Ilan, in a statement.
“People can be divided by geography, language and culture, but if an introvert in one part of the world likes the same music as introverts in other places, that suggests that music could be a very powerful bridge. The music helps people understand each other and find common ground.”
These were all positive associations, but they also found a negative connection between mindfulness and intense music.
“We thought that neuroticism would probably go one of two ways, preferring sad music to express their loneliness or preferring upbeat music to change their mood. In fact, on average, they seem to prefer more musical styles intense, perhaps reflecting inner distress 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’ll look at that in more detail.”
The researchers acknowledge that musical taste is 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.