The science behind how music marks different eras of people’s lives

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A Taylor Swift classic

Hearing “Brazil’ by Declan McKenna transports me to driving home from the pool, chasing after the fleeting sunset with the smell of chlorine flooding my car and the windows cranked down, submerging me with the cool summer breeze. I couldn’t be happier, yet it felt like any other day. 

“Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush is a classic loved among parents alike. But when the drums of the song fade in, I’m completely shifted to the feeling of excitement of trying on my prom dress for the first time and hearing the hallways of FHC packed with the chatter of eager teenagers ready for the final bell to ring so they would be let out of school for the summer. 

“16” by Baby Keem brings a chill to my spine as I step out of my car into the icy air of winter still dark outside desperately chugging an energy drink to give me a pep before I start my 8-hour day at the dreaded place we call school, wishing for the warm weather to return and for the year to finally be over.  

As I put my AirPods in and listen to a playlist I’ve titled “playlist of my year,” each song represents a different month in my year of 2022. Through the sweet melodies of those songs, I relieve that month of my year vicariously.

As I put my AirPods in and listen to a playlist I’ve titled “playlist of my year,” each song represents a different month in my year of 2022. Through those songs, I relive that month vicariously through the sweet melodies.”

I’ve often pondered over this question: why do we associate some songs positively and negatively with our emotions? I mean, after all, music is music, right? 

After extensive research, I’ve learned that the songs we associate with positive aspects of our lives actually release dopamine as we listen to that familiar tune, causing us to keep going back to it due to the positive reinforcement made by our brain. To break it down, basically, our brain has two types of memories. Explicit memories, and implicit memories. Although both are long-term memories, they are very different from each other, and music helps trigger them.

Explicit is compared to the part of the brain that recalls things from the past; for example, learning something off of a page from a textbook. But, implicit memories are unconscious and automatic memories, like remembering how to ride a bike. Therefore, an event, memory, or emotion are connecting implicit memories to the brain, causing them to be triggered each time that song or tune is played. Absolutely fascinating.

In fact, music has been proven to help with the side effects of dementia. People can relive vivid memories just by hearing a song. 

Music, in my opinion, is the closest thing we have to time travel, and still to this day can arguably be one of the most powerful things on earth. So next time you hear that song that transports you to a smell, time, or place, know your brain unlocks those memories for you to relive.