The experts said the research offers an initial glimpse into these mechanisms and, somewhat surprisingly, finds that the songs that get stuck in your head help that process of strengthening memories as they first form.
“Scientists have known for some time that music evokes autobiographical memories, and that those are among the emotional experiences with music that people cherish most,” said study co-author Professor Petr Janata.
“What hasn’t been understood to date is how those memories form in the first place and how they become so durable, such that just hearing a bit of a song can trigger vivid remembering.”
The study is the first to link music-evoked remembering to a catchy song that gets stuck in your head, which is also referred to as an “earworm.”
For the investigation, the researchers worked with 25 to 31 different people in three experiments. The trials were conducted over the course of three different days, and were spaced weeks apart.
First, the study participants listened to unfamiliar music. A week later, they listened to the music again, but paired with unfamiliar movie clips. In one instance, movies were played without music.
The participants were asked to recall as many details as they could from each movie as the music played. They were also asked about their recollection of the associated tunes and how often they experienced each of the tunes as an earworm.
The results showed that the more often a tune played in a person’s head, the more accurate the memory for the tune became. In addition, the more frequent earworm, the more details the participant remembered from the specific section of the movie with which the song was paired.
After a week of viewing the movie, the effect of repeatedly experiencing a tune from the soundtrack as an earworm resulted in near-perfect retention of the movie details. These memories were as clear as when the individuals had first seen the movie.
Furthermore, most of the participants were able to report what they were doing when the catchy song ran through their mind.
“Our paper shows that even if you are playing that song in your mind and not pulling up details of memories explicitly, that is still going to help solidify those memories,” said Professor Janata.
“We typically think of earworms as random nuisance beyond our control, but our results show that earworms are a naturally occurring memory process that helps preserve recent experiences in long-term memory,” said study co-author Benjamin Kubit.
The experts said they hope their research may eventually lead to the development of music-based interventions to help people suffering from dementia and other neurological disorders to remember events, people, and daily tasks.
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.