Durham research: even negative music can trigger positive memories


Led by Durham University Music Department’s Dr Kelly Jakubowski, researchers pioneered a set of experiments to investigate the relationship between music and its ability to evoke memories.

Dr Jakubowski aims to gain an improved systematic understanding of the conditions in which music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) occur. This will allow her, and fellow researchers, to expand knowledge on the interactions between music, emotions, and memory. Previous research performed by Dr Jakubowski and her team revealed that music from our teenage years elicit the most memories.

They also found that compared with TV programmes, music evokes more vivid and emotional memories.

MEAMs can be measured through valence, positive or negative, and arousal activation or deactivation. The results that the Jakubowski team unveiled were a ground-breaking revelation, that showed that music consistently evoked positive memories regardless of emotional valence.

Compared with TV programmes, music evokes more vivid and emotional memories

This was achieved through four experiments, where 350 participants were played unfamiliar music, from different genres ranging from metal to classical. They were also exposed to everyday emotional stimuli, namely environmental sounds, and displayed single, well-known words. These auditory and visual stimuli were matched based on emotional valence (e.g. happy music with happy sounds, and sad music with sad words) and then were exposed to the participants to act as cues to evoke autobiographical memories.

The effectiveness of the cues was measured by the number of memories cued and the speed and intentionality of access. The phenomenological characteristics of the memories, such as vividness, uniqueness, and their social content, were also measured.

Music, as an inherently emotional memory cue, was shown to spark primarily valence positive memories regardless of its emotional valence. For example, sad/angry music (e.g. a heavy metal piece) can evoke just as positive memories as cheerful songs. However, negative sounds (e.g. factory machinery ambience) and words (e.g. insanity) would bring back more melancholy memories. However, sounds and words had a higher likelihood of conjuring more memories at a quicker pace, and concrete words were more effective cues to evoke memories than abstract words. MEAMs were also more frequently of longer periods and extended/repeated events, rather than specific moments.

These were rather shocking conclusions because we tend to connect sad songs to more gloomy feelings. After all, Spotify would not suggest a playlist called Sad Beats on a sunny day – that would shatter the laws of pathetic fallacy, right? We also associate pieces composed in minor keys, in particular D minor, with true sorrow, where we can finally live out our romcom moment: looking out of a taxi window, post-heartbreak, on a rainy Saturday.

The authors suggest that the positive reminiscences achieved by pieces resembling dirges and requiems could be explained by the positive context the music was enjoyed in. It could also be due to the triggering of a positive emotional response, which consequently brings back positive memories. Further work will need to be done to determine the temporal order of such responses. Another possible extension is to compare exposure to unfamiliar versus familiar music.

These results are particularly interesting for therapeutic use, where music, no matter type or tone, can be used as an effective medium to stimulate the retrieval of positive memories in clinical patients, but is not ideal for the rapid retrieval of many memories. People with post-traumatic stress disorder and autism spectrum disorder are just a few notable groups that music therapy has helped. How effective the delivery of music therapy can be is reliant on this Durham-led research continuing to produce fascinating insights into music’s effect on the human mind.


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