Ann-Haritonenko/ShutterstockWe want our memories to make us smile (not cry, cringe, or wonder what the heck we were thinking). It’s not always easy to keep negative memories at bay, but one way to recall positive memories is to listen to happy or peaceful music.
That’s one of the findings from a new experiment carried out by Signy Sheldon and Julia Donahue of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, which was published February in the journal Memory & Cognition.
The 48 participants in the study were played 30 seconds of 32 newly composed, unknown piano pieces, which were split into four “retrieval cues” of music: happy, peaceful, scary, and sad. Each retrieval cue differed on two emotional dimensions: valence (positive/negative) and arousal (high/low). For example, the happy music was positive and high arousal, and the sad music was negative and low arousal. Participants had to recall personal memories by hitting a computer key and typing in their accessed memory as soon as it came to mind. The researchers recorded how long it took participants to access a memory, how intense it was, and the accompanying emotions.
“We found that listening to happy music (upbeat positive music) triggered remembering past events faster than any other type of emotional music,” Signy Sheldon told Reader’s Digest. “This means that happy music leads to more direct access to our past autobiographical experiences. This reason for this could be related to one of the main functions of being able to remember past experiences—and this is to form a self identity. It’s beneficial for us to see ourselves in a ‘positive’ or ‘happy’ way, which is why it’s easier for us to remember things about ourselves like our past experiences when we hear music that’s happy compared to when we hear more negative music.”
So how exactly does a series of notes tap into our emotions? “Music is an extremely powerful cue to trigger autobiographical memories, especially memories that we recall very vividly in our minds,” explains Sheldon. “One reason for this: Music serves as a backdrop for a lot of memories that we store in our minds, but another reason is that music is very tightly linked to emotion. So a major way music affects what we remember is by the emotional baggage that it carries.”
Of particular interest to the researchers was the finding that the tone of the music (i.e. whether it conveyed positive or negative emotion) was strongly matched to the type of memory the participants recalled. “The arousal of a type of music didn’t match the arousal of a memory,” said Sheldon. “This suggests that memories in our mind may be organized according to how positive or negative they are rather than how stimulating that memory was.”
If we want to direct our music choices toward triggering happy memories, what songs or artists should we be adding to our playlists? “In our study, we used unfamiliar music, but other studies have found songs like The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ or Mozart’s ‘Symphony 41’ can induce a positive mood in a person,” revealed Sheldon.