Music and Memory

I often use the “I’ve slept since then” response, but it’s still embarrassing and annoying to be that reliant on notes. I’ve often vented in frustration “Why can’t I remove these 80’s song lyrics from my childhood and use the space for the stuff I need to remember now?!”

I am a bit of a music addict.  I’m one of those people who needs music in order to work on anything; if there is no music (or if I’m not allowed to listen to my Spotify through headphones) I have a hard time getting work done.  All my brain can do is shout “It’s too quiet!”  Since my work environment is a cubical farm, my smart phone, a pair of headphones and Spotify’s music caching ability have been a lifesaver for me; I can listen to music while I’m working without disturbing others.  I’ve felt for a long time that because music helps me concentrate, it should help improve my memory and retention as well.

Studying and music

But as I’ve gotten older, even just in the years since I’ve graduated from university, I’ve also noticed that my memory and information retention skills aren’t what they used to be.  It’s not just for stuff I don’t really use anymore (like French, which honestly I’ve had no call to use since moving to Kansas), it’s also for simple stuff like “I remember talking about XYZ in the meeting…but what did we decide?”  Or the recurring adult dilemma when you are standing in the grocery store, knowing you came here for something, but you can’t remember for the life of you what it was.

These are the times when I get very annoyed with myself.  Firstly, I should have written it down.  Secondly, I get annoyed because I know that if I heard this song on the radio…

…which is a song I haven’t heard in at least 20 years but I remember hearing as a child, I could still sing along with all of the lyrics.  But ask me to remember something from a meeting last week, and the information is just not there unless I wrote it down.  I often use the “I’ve slept since then” response, but it’s still embarrassing and annoying to be that reliant on notes.  I’ve often vented in frustration “Why can’t I remove these 80’s song lyrics from my childhood and use the space for the stuff I need to remember now?!”   Especially since I have several 80’s playlists cached in my Spotify if I’m feeling nostalgic…I can just listen to them rather than wasting valuable brain space on the lyrics!

The Association for Talent Development puts together great free webinars that I look through every week, and late last year they posted a webinar titled Tips and Tricks to Improve Memory with Dr. Alice Kim from York University in Canada. I didn’t get to watch the webinar when it was live, but I finally was able to view a recording of it.  (You can view the recording as well by signing up for the website and then viewing their webinar archive page)

Association for Talent Development

Overall, it had some really great tips for improving your memory, and things that I have always thought were true.  For example, one idea that they talked about under the question What is the best way to encode information? was called Elaborate Encoding, which is basically enriching the information you are trying to learn by associating it with things you already know or past events within your knowledge base.  I have always found that by taking things I’m learning and associating them with something I’m already familiar with (or something I’m already doing), it does up my retention factor.

But one tip that peaked my interest as well was Dr. Kim’s discussion of mood as a tool for recalling information.  She talked about how some studies (though not all) have shown that if you associate a certain piece of information with a certain mood, most likely the mood you were in at the time you learned it, you can often use that mood to recall the information.  Basically put yourself in the same frame of mind, and it should help the information come back to you.  In passing during this discussion, she mentioned that having music in the background may help with this process, as you can use the music to put you in a certain mood.

Some music puts you in a great mood

This is something that intrigued me.  We all have certain songs that we associate with certain important moments in our lives, whether the association was formal (for example the first song you and your spouse danced to at your wedding) or more informal (a song you frequently heard during a difficult time in your life can often resurrect memories of that time).  Which makes me wonder, if I played a particular song or playlist when trying to encode new information I was learning, would simply hearing the playlist allow me to have better recall?  There have been a few studies that have looked at how music training affects the brain, in particular this study which found that studying music has a demonstrable effect on the plasticity of the hippocampus, which in turn affects long-term memory.  There have also been studies that have suggested a link between music and memories.  

I think I will give this a try the next time I have important information I am encoding into memory.  I’ll make a specific playlist and listen to it while I’m trying to recall the memory, to see if it helps.  By employing the other tips suggested by Dr. Kim, and I should be able to improve my memory substantially.  What do you think?  Have you ever noticed a connection between a certain kind of music and memories…or does a certain type of music trigger certain memories in you?  Leave a comment and let us know!

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