The link between music and our memories

Why do some songs evoke such vivid memories in us?

When I was visiting my cousins this summer in Tours, France, my favourite overplayed
song was “Please Do Not Lean” by Daniel Caesar featuring BADBADNOTGOOD.

When this song comes up on my playlist now, it brings back memories of tram rides over
the Loire River, late-night bike rides around an Auchan parking lot and my cousins’ faces. In
fact, this song smells like Tours to me.

This phenomenon is known as a music-evoked autobiographical memory (MEAM), which,
as the name suggests, is when a memory from your life is triggered by music. MEAMs can
be triggered by a wide range of music, and typically occur when performing routine tasks like
commuting and housework, on average about once a day.

Daily MEAMs are reported as being vivid, involuntary and followed by feelings such as
happiness or nostalgia. This suggests that music can act as a powerful cue to recall the
feeling that was felt at a particular moment when a song was played, which I believe to be

A song can evoke emotional memories that do not correspond to the mood of the song,
since the feelings of the event will be what the association is built on. That is to say that
“happy” songs can still stir up negative emotions if paired with a negative experience, and
vice versa.

I think the same can be said about pieces of music that you associate with people, places
and periods of your life. There are songs that I pair with certain people and locations,
however there is no real correlation between the song and the thing, or why it reminds me of
said thing.

“Song Cry” is a rap ballad by Jay-Z that reminds me of my brother. In the song, Jay-Z raps
about the breakup of a relationship and how much of it is his fault. However, his pride and
masculinity won’t let him visibly show his emotions, so he hopes that the song can express
them instead. None of this applies to my older brother.

Nonetheless, it was a clear-sky, sunroof-open kind of summer day when my brother drove
me to the mall and blasted this song in the car, windows rolled down, of course. He
immediately began rapping it bar-for-bar as I sat, annoyed, in the passenger seat. When I
hear this song now, I associate it with him and hot summer days.

I believe one of the main reasons that an association between a song and memory is
formed is due to classical conditioning, which is the process where a natural response to
something is paired with a different, neutral stimulation, so that eventually that stimulation is
all that is needed to get the same response.

When it comes to music, the response that I believe is conditioned is the summoning of
memories that trigger an emotional response when listening to the song.

In my first year of university, I would listen to “Ice Water” by Loyle Carner on the bus
almost every morning during my commute to campus. Now, anytime I hear the intro it
reminds me of fall 2019, and makes me feel a calm happiness. Those were simpler times.

I was a first-year student who was naive, happy and confused, but still hopeful about the
future because it was full of opportunities. Now, I’m a burnt-out fourth-year student with the
future pounding on my door, but my door is securely locked as I idly continue to watch

Music allows me to have these moments of reminiscing, and to reflect on the past and
present. Life moves so quickly that you never really get a chance to process what’s going on
until you get to the end of a chapter and review the summary.

Since I listen to music every day, I get little daily chances to explore my past and live in
nostalgia, which I normally would not be able to do.

Music acts as a potent time capsule for my memories by bringing them back to focus when they
get cloudy.