Musical memories have been known to remain in the brains of people who otherwise have lost their memory in other areas. Some researchers suspect musical memory is separate from long-term memory or short-term memory, and could even be a totally different section altogether.

Powerful recollections of musical notes, and even long pieces, have been found in otherwise memory-impaired people. This has astounded, and delighted researchers, and opens up a whole new area of brain study.

Now a brain-scan study has revealed where this it taking place in our brains – in the part known as the pre-frontal cortex that lies just behind the forehead.  Cognitive neuroscientist Petr Janata from the University of California, Davis suspected the medial pre-frontal cortex is a music processing and musical memory region when he observed brain activity as he was tracking chord and key changes in music. He had previously seen studies that indicated the same region of the brain lit up in response to self-reflection and recall of autobiographical details (past experiences). From this, he decided to pursue the study of musical memory.

According to Janata, “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” and added “It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.”

Janata recruited 13 students from UC-Davis who were linked up to an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) as they listened to 30 randomly selected songs from the Billboard “Top 100” charts – back from when the students were between the ages of 8-18. Researchers were signaled when a certain 30-second musical tract triggered an autobiographical memory – not just a familiar or unfamiliar song.

The students filled out a survey immediately after the fMRI session that detailed their memories and explained the specifics of their recollections. Most of them recognized about 17 out of the 30 musical samples, on average, with about 13 having moderate or strong links with a memories from their lives.

“This is the first study using music to look at [the neural correlates of] autobiographical memory,” Janata told LiveScience. His full study is detailed online journal Cerebral Cortex.

Janata observed that tunes linked to the students’ strongest autobiographical memories triggered the most vivid and emotion-filled responses. Corresponding findings from the brain scan showed spikes in mental activity within the medial prefrontal cortex at this time. The brain region did respond quickly to music signature and timescale, but also reacted overall when a tune was autobiographically relevant. In addition, music tracking activity in the brain was stronger during more powerful autobiographical memories. This could explain why even Alzheimer’s patients, who although having severe memory loss can still recall songs from their distant past. Behavioral observations of Alzheimer’s patients showed they sang along, or brightened up, when familiar songs came on. “What’s striking is that the prefrontal cortex is among the last [brain regions] to atrophy,” Janata noted.

Janata said that his research merely tried to establish a neuroscience basis for why music can tickle memory. He hopes that his and other studies could encourage practices such as giving iPods to Alzheimer’s patients in order to improve their quality of life through the power of music. “It’s not going to reverse the disease,” Janata said. “But if you can make quality of life better, why not?”

About the author:

Ron White is a two-time USA Memory Champion He speaks at seminars and to large groups all over the world on how to improve memory, speed-reading and memory techniques. In addition, his website sells CDs and programs to improve memory skills and advise for success.



Live Science – Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain: