Does Music Really Have an Effect on Our Memories?

Anyone who has spent more than 30 minutes with me knows how much I love music. From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, I have music playing as a sort-of soundtrack to my life. I write album reviews on my blog. I read peer-reviewed journal articles about the effect of country music on white suicide rates (or another good one: pop music’s affect on our memories) just for fun.

Music has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories of music include listening to ’90s Celine Dion and Mariah Carey with my mom, as well as singing “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel with my dad on our way to his construction job sites.

As a kid and angsty teenager, I spent many long car rides listening to my iPod nano and staring longingly out the window of my family minivan, pretending I was in some sort of nostalgic music video. When I had a bad day in middle school, I’d come home and blast “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter or “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. At one point in my life, I strongly believed “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban was a worship song. (It’s not.)

The point is, I’ve always been intrigued by the way music influences our memories and shapes our experiences. I found some interesting information from my brief researching on JSTOR. Essentially, music is like time travel. A perfectly crafted playlist can whisk you back in time to a memory you may have buried in the depths of your mind. However, it isn’t quite the same as reading your old diary entries or seeing old photos of yourself. Music attached to memories allows you to feel “a renewed sense of how it was to be that person or self at that time,” said Bas Jansen in his journal article “Tape Cassettes and Former Selves: How Mix Tapes Mediate Memories.

I then decided to ask people what songs were most dear to their heart. And what memories accompanied those songs. Here’s what they told me. (I may or may not have integrated my own memories into the mix of anonymous voices.)

“Fall for You by Secondhand Serenade. When I was in high school, I dated this guy for a long time. He texted me to look out of my window and he serenaded that song to me. It was pretty romantic.”

“Jasmine by Jai Paul. I heard it in the weeks before I started college. It made me feel like I was coming into my own, prepared for the world ahead.”

“Homecoming by Kanye West. It sounds like such a silly thing for a Kanye song to be sentimental, but when I got into high school my big brother started driving me to and from school every day. He was a senior when I was a freshman. I was bullied and struggled with self harm, and the time I spent with him in the car was my safe place.”

“ILYSB by LANY. It’s the song [my boyfriend] played when we were just friends, and it became our song when we started dating. It honestly just takes me back to when we were falling in love.”

“Touching Heaven by Johnnyswim. It was my little sister’s first dance at her wedding, and I have never felt more love and joy than in that moment.”

“Best I Ever Had by Vertical Horizon. It was put on a mix CD by my high school boyfriend. He had the best taste in music and made the best CDs. I felt like he really meant that song… He broke up with me a few weeks after giving me the CD because his dad made him. Honestly, I was so heartbroken over it. So now when I hear that song, I think of simpler times. When relationships hinged on how good the mix tape was. And riding down the mountain on a date, watching the sunset and listening to that song, with no care in the world.”

“Unforgettable by Nat King Cole. It was my 17th birthday, and my boyfriend and I had just gotten back to my house after dinner. We wanted some privacy, so we slow danced on my porch as the sun set. It’s a great slow dance song.”

“The Night We Met by Lord Huron started playing in a little restaurant in Glacier Park while I was there with my family right after we’d finished a 13 mile hike. Now whenever I hear the song, I wish I was back in Montana with my family, experiencing the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen.”

“Are You In by Incubus. Driving along the cliffs of Highway 1 in California. Serenity.”

“My Wish by Rascal Flatts. It was the first time I had even gone to a summer camp. For a whole week, I was spending time with strangers from all over. I grew so much by being vulnerable. I had people who so genuinely cared about me and wanted me to grow. At the end of the week, this was the song that was blasted throughout the auditorium as we loaded cars and headed separate ways. Now when I hear this song, I think of endings. Although they come with sadness, it’s a period of realization.”

“Human by The Killers. It was 1 a.m., and my friends and I were driving back home from a concert. We were blasting this song in an effort to stay awake. Even though I was exhausted, it was so blissful. I can feel that same feeling every time I listen to this song.”

“Me and You by Kenny Chesney always makes me think of my dad because he sang that to me on the way to school as a child. Some of the best memories I’ve ever had.”

“If Ever I Would Leave You from Camelot. My dad used to belt it out, and it reminds me of when my parents were still married. I used to think he was singing about my mom, but I guess not.”

“Coldplay got me through my high school depression. The song Yellow and the meaning behind it is fortifying to me.”

“Back Pocket by Vulfpeck. This song means a lot to me because during the summer of 2017, I would be editing late at night and the photographers would be editing with me. And we would turn on this song and just danced a ton.”


I was so overjoyed by the responses I received that I decided to create a Spotify playlist dedicated to all these special memories. Check it out! Want me to add your song to the list? Just leave a comment below explaining a song that you have a deeply connected to a cherished memory.

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