The Phenomena Behind Music, Emotions, and Memory

The human ear doesn’t experience music in the same way, music has a different effect on all of us. This statement is enough to point out that a piece can never be graded.  Music has a remarkable effect on human life and our emotions as well. While it is hard to absorb information from a textbook, you can catch the pitch and rhythm of a song immediately after you hear it. It’s clear that we have a long-lasting relationship with music, and when it comes to grading what is “good” or “bad” music, so much of how music is received is determined by our individual associations and can’t be categorised so easily.

While listening to Xenia Manasseh’s “Niambie,” the crisp and harmonic vocals and Xenia’s voice, the timbre and the way the production comes together makes me think of love, the way you might watch your favourite rom com, a song will come on and you immediately know the scene that’s coming up.  I don’t necessarily  feel the same way when listening to Wakadinali’s “Morio Anzenza”, because the arrangement is different and so it has a different association for me. 

Instrumentals evoke a subjective experience. Because emotions enhance memory processes and music evokes strong emotions, music could form memories, either about pieces of music or about episodes and information associated with a particular theme. Favorite songs associated with important personal events can trigger the memory of lyrics and the experience connected to the music. Beloved music often calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others.[mfn]

An opposite pattern occurs when remembering vocals, where the titles of the songs are much better cues than the melodies. The finding of this link between text and music, which suggests that music is encoded in semantic memory like text, is particularly significant. Neurological studies have established that music is encoded in the brain by a memory system, which organizes the information into melodies and rhythms, rather than by the semantic memory system, which encodes meaning. Music ignites emotion which later ignites our memory.[mfn]
       Thus, emotion enhances not only memories for verbal or pictorial material but also musical pieces. Emotional music we have heard at specific periods of our life is strongly linked to our autobiographical memory and thus is closely involved in forming our view about ourselves. We can practically see this in the real world after Megan Thee Stallion popularised “Hot Girl Summer” in her songs, resulting in better body positivity. Didn’t Devi from Netflix’s ” Never Have I Ever” make it clear “ my mom doesn’t tell me how to live my life, Megan Thee Stallion Does”. Listening to music at any period activates many psychological functions (emotion, memory, attention, imagery and so on) located in a distributed, overlapping brain network.

The pervasiveness of genre as a way of sorting music can give the impression that these categories are fixed, but there’s no set standard. Genres evolve, and the associations with personal memory and individual experience of music further break down the idea of genre and even the institutions around music critique and review.  Music review, music hierarchies and genre categories are more useful for marketing than a way to experience music for yourself.

When we look at how streaming has blown up in recent years, algorithms associated with streaming platforms group people and genres into similar categories to drive up sales and collect information on listeners.[mfn] Music has so much more to it, it’s the soundtrack to our lives, a way to memorialise certain emotions on an individual and on a collective level. 

No genre can be trash, it’s necessary for the business side of music because everyone is always looking to profit, but we can do better than trying to grade music pieces. It’s just like colors, some people see a wider range, while others can’t distinguish between pink and fuchsia. Music is formative, it awakens us and allows us to remember certain times in our lives, influencing specific emotions and  modulating many cognitive functions.

Footnotes

  1. “Music & Memory,” Dwight Foster Public Library, September 28, 2018, https://www.fortlibrary.org/adults/music-memory/.
  2. Susann Eschrich, Thomas F Münte, and Eckart O Altenmüller, “Unforgettable Film Music: The Role of Emotion in Episodic Long-Term Memory for Music,” BMC Neuroscience 9, no. 1 (May 28, 2008), https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2202-9-48.
  3. “The Persistence and Problems of Music Genre – OPEN SHELF,” November 11, 2014, https://open-shelf.ca/music-genre/.