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The Effect Of Music On Emotions And Memory

Life is for living and music is the expression of living. Our musical journey starts even before we are born. A fetus in the womb can hear the music their mother listens to whilst pregnant, and may be able to remember it after being born. It is almost an unspoken time capsule in our mad, mad world.

I hope you agree with the overall sentiment that music has a role to play for our emotions and memories. My music taste resists an easy definition.

The first genre I got into as a teen was indie rock. There was just so much music to absorb - The Japanese House, The Smiths, Bob Dylan - what started as a few catchy riffs and energetic melodies, formed the basis of my eccentric persona at 14. This developed into my Romantic poetic period, it was like I was possessed by the album ‘I Like It When You Sleep..’ by The 1975. During this time, I would rummage through dusty record and book stores in Notting Hill whilst sporting an oversized suede hunting jacket, armed with a book of poetry by Allen Ginsberg.

It is with a tinge of reminiscence we realise how ignorant we can be towards the richness of life during the present - it is only with the rose tinted glasses of hindsight, we appreciate how beautiful the past may have been. However, music has the power to unlock very specific emotional memories, which are coloured by melodies and notes. There are so many neural pathways which link long term memory, emotion and music, specifically in the limbic system. Notably, an area in the brain called the nucleus accumbens processes pleasure and rewards - listening to music you like releases dopamine in this part, which can produce as much pleasure as taking cocaine. This means that music can bring a more emotional reaction than perhaps a visual stimulus like a picture.

So, whilst in coronavirus lockdown, it is safe to say that I have been struggling with my mental health more than usual, as has nearly every person I have talked to during this time. During a time when it is hard to make new happy memories and I cannot escape the sad boy hours, I turn to music.

Cigarettes After Sex songs are my 3am lullabies. D’Angelo reminds me of long strolls through Hyde Park in the summer sun. The 1975 cajole my soul to write incessantly, and to feel all the emotions behind their music.

What are the different types of emotional reactions towards music? There are several types, but I shall go through the three that I find most interesting. The brain stem reflex looks at music through a primal, unconscious lens - sounds that are ‘sudden, loud, dissonant or feature fast temporal patterns’ (Juslin & Vastfjall. 2008; Berlyne 1971; Burt et al. 1995; Foss et al. 1989; Halpern et al. 1986) are interpreted as unpleasant. This is an evolutionary feature to keep humans safe from unpleasant or dangerous stimuli by producing certain physiological reactions such as faster heart rate and fear. As Death Grips seem to use all these features, it would be interesting to see why so many people like their music.

The next one is evaluative conditioning, which is similar to Pavlov’s dog experiment, however this type of conditioning focuses on experience being paired with sound rather than learning how to ring a bell.

Music can be unconsciously paired repeatedly to either a positive or negative experience, thus when a particular song is played again, one may feel the same emotions linked to the original experience. In films and TV shows, thematic melodies can induce feelings such as fear (if repeated enough times) one could feel scared even before the visual fear-inducing stimuli is introduced into the scene. An example of this could be the frightening and discordant theme song for Jaws.

Lastly, episodic memory refers to when one feels a particular emotion when listening to a song as it reminds them of a specific memory. The purpose of this for many people is to feel nostalgic about the past, which is something I do a lot. Cat Videos and Green Day brings back the times when I would bring speakers into school and everyone would vibe to it in the English corridors; or recently, the happier days of lockdown are defined by Jay-Z and dvsn.

Research on music and its effect on memory can lead to many beneficial applications. One can look at the Mozart effect (Rauscher et al. 1993), which states that listening to his music can increase one’s IQ and mental development. Music can not only encourage the neurogenesis in the hippocampus (process of neurons being produced in the brain (Fukui & Toyoshima, 2008)), it can also be used in a wide range of applications to ease symptoms of certain mental disorders such as Aphasia, dementia, Tourette’s syndrome and dystonia (as described in Oliver Sack’s book, Musicophilia, 2012). It can also be used as a form of therapy for individuals who have anxiety, PTSD or depression, for example listening to a relaxing song when an individual is having a panic attack.

Music allows us to document the emotions, people and places that define our finite time on this planet. It also can create interludes that help us escape from the monotonous tempo of life, or from the exhaustive state our minds can fabricate when one is depressed. More areas in the temporal lobe of the brain respond to music than to language, showing how important it is. Now, especially during a lockdown limited life, the intersections of our different emotions can be easily accessed on a Spotify playlist.

To put it briefly as Jake Bugg has, music documents our ‘love, hope and misery’ that we all come across in our lives.

Thank You.

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