We can explain our most pivotal life experiences vividly by using the two parts of our long-term memory: episodic (memory associated with our personal experiences) and flashbulb memories (memories associated with important historical or autobiographical events), but some wither away into the darkness of our minds and are simply forgotten. Why? Well, it could be for a number of reasons. Quite possibly, that memory didn’t make it from our working memory (short-term storage, data currently in use) to our long-term (indefinite, seemingly endless memory storage), or did it and we just can’t recall it? Have you ever forgotten something and then you smell, hear, or see something and all of the sudden that memory comes flooding back to you? I sure have. Though I can count many instances where my eyes or nose have helped me remember an event, experience, or person, my ears have been much more useful over the years and one very important audio stimulus has been the most helpful: Music.

Much of my life has been spent listening to music and with each and every song I listen to, the memories surrounding them seem to connect themselves with those tracks; It’s as if I have created a soundtrack to my life that helps me go back in time and retrace my life all the way back to when I was a young, bright-eyed child. As I came to realize that, I also started to realize that music is more than just a bunch of notes and words that you listen to, it also helps us form, make, and retain our memories, whether they be pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. Most of the time, however, your recall won’t be completely accurate. You receive a cue (a sort of reminder like a song you listened to when you were a child) then it jogs your memory and you remember that song. Sometimes you won’t know why and this will be quite frustrating. I know, I have experienced this before. Luckily, I had my mom there to fill in the blanks. We were riding in the car to one of my brother’s soccer games. A song came on and its melody was quite catchy, but it was also quite familiar. I sat there perplexed trying to figure out how and why I knew this song, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t come up with an answer. Then, the lyrics came in and my mouth started to sing the words perfectly word for word without any hiccups. It was a bizarre experience. My face became even more confused as time went on and I continued to spout off the words, like I had listened to the song over and over again at some point in my life. I remember saying something along the lines of, “I don’t remember learning the words of this song, but I know them.” My mom looked back and said, “You don’t remember this song?” I knew of the song, Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” but I didn’t know I knew the words until that one particular moment. She continued to explain, “You loved that song when you were little and would always sing it.” Though I couldn’t consciously recall learning that song as a young girl, my mind somehow remembered every line. It was in this moment that I experienced the power of memory cues, particularly in the form of auditory ones like music.

Though it’s not always clear why you remember something, a good chunk of the time it is clear as day. We bond, laugh, cry, dance, celebrate, and grow to music, to name a few. We also communicate and express ourselves with music, so it’s no surprise that it hardwires itself into our memories. It becomes part of who we are, how we think, and how we live, and it delves itself deep into the neural networks of our brain to land deep into our long-term memories. For instance, when I hear Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” I remember my dad signing along to the song. His voice sounded really sweet and calm. He had glasses on his face and his hair was longer than it is now. He was starting to look less like a rocker and more like a dad. For some odd reason, I feel he was singing me to sleep and almost comforting me. So, that song became more than just a pleasing song I danced around to as a kid, it is a pleasant memory and reminder of my father. On the other hand, music has also created some unpleasant memories, like my first big breakup. I can feel the pain I felt at the time like it was yesterday when I hear the song “Screaming Infidelities” by Dashboard Confessional. The lines, “As for now I’m gonna hear the saddest songs. And sit alone and wonder how you’re making out,” really sink in and I can picture myself sitting at home on a Friday night in a funk of depression. Sure, it was a time of teenage heartbreak and utter angst, but it’s a song that will always take me back to that time whether I consciously intend it to or not.

Music connects us together, but it also connects our memories. It sometimes serves as a cue to help us remember memories we once thought were lost or even didn’t know were there; in addition, it also helps us form and retain those memories, so that we can remember the events, experiences, and people in our lives as vividly and accurately as possible.

Has a particular song helped you remember a person, event, or experience in your life? Share your experiences with us in the comments.