Skip to main content

4 Reasons Lost Memories Can Live Again With Music Therapy

People have long known that music can trigger powerful recollections, but now brain-scan studies show us what is really happening, and why when we use the right music we can actually help keep our memories in good working order.

Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of California, describes what music does. He says that when a piece of familiar music matches an experience in our lives, a mental movie starts playing in our head. Memories flood back to us, often in great detail. Even things that someone has long been unable to recall are still there, waiting to be woken. Information thought long inaccessible can still be revived.

This information is important to the music therapist because it confirms that under the right conditions, music can help the client remember important events and people through the music they associate with that event or person. Identifying the music that triggers memories can be useful in helping to recall memories and keep those memories sharp.

Here are four pieces of science that can guide the music therapist in developing a treatment plan to support their client’s desired goals and growth related to memory:

1. Memory is short.

Unless interested in a topic, most adults have an attention span of 20 minutes. Researchers estimate that the adult attention span has decreased by about 12 minutes in the past decade.

Since all generations have different attention span lengths, a client’s age will determine the pace of each session, as will any neurologic impairment.

It is important that the music therapist breaks the session down into several interventions (techniques, exercises, activities) using a variety of elements (tempo, tone, space) in order to maintain highest levels of engagement for the full 30- to 90-minute session. Repetition also plays a critical place in music therapy. Repeating a song, key word, or short phrase all aid memory development and recall.

2. Most significant memories are created between 15 and 25 years old.

60% of all memories are made between 15 and 25 years old. The “reminiscence bump” is the tendency for older adults to remember events that occurred during their adolescent and young adult years.

A recent study had participants who had suffered severe traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) listening to number-one songs from this prime time of their life to see what memories were evoked. Compared with using a standardized interview known as the Autobiographical Memory Interview, playing number-one hits was more effective in eliciting memories.

The music therapist uses this concept during assessment and treatment but also considers that additional research indicates that people have ‘mini reminiscence bumps’ for the music their parents listened to, and even for their grandparents’ music 

3. It is impossible to erase bad memories.

Sometimes I truly wish we could relieve our clients from their traumatic memories. There has been some advancement with the use of drugs; studies suggest that beta-blocker drugs interfere with the recollection of memories, especially, strong emotional memories related to trauma.

The music therapist is highly sensitive to the fact that music can open doors to communication, but that for some it can also cause emotional and even physical pain. Music therapists must therefore be very careful to not reignite the traumatic events people are hoping to forget. The goal is often to focus on positive memories, using music to strengthen a person’s emotional and physical state.

4. Damage to the brain can change memory capacity.

The brain’s hippocampus plays a significant role in transforming short-term memories into long-term ones. Unfortunately this area of the brain does decline with time and by the age of 80, 20% of its nerve connections may be lost. If one side of the hippocampus is damaged, it won’t affect memory at all. However, damages to both sides will stop the storage of any new memories.

Eating well, exercising, and listening to music that challenges your brain are all known to help grow your hippocampus. One of the reasons the link between music and memory is so powerful is that it activates such large areas of the brain. A recent brain imaging study found that music activated the auditory, motor and limbic (emotional) regions.

Music therapists are sensitive to where our clients are at – how they are feeling and what their current needs are in the moment, with the goal of helping them reach their goals. This monthly blog series – ‘Maximize Your Music’ – will feature the many goals and dreams our clients present to us.