Music, Song, Powerful Memory Triggers

Music and memory often go hand in hand, bringing the past back to life.

But you don't have to hear the song itself. Simply seeing the title, lyrics, or a picture of the artist is enough to launch the memory, according to a new study.

Just ask Elizabeth Cady, a cognitive psychology doctoral student at Kansas State University. Cady studied 124 college freshmen and sophomores, asking them to describe their strongest positive memory from a group of songs popular in their childhood and youth.

Click here to read Web MD's "Kids Who Take Music Lessons Boost Verbal Memory"

Play List

The songs included Ice, Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice, Hangin' Tough by New Kids on the Block, Thunder Rolls by Garth Brooks, Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio, We Are the Champions by Queen, In the End by Linkin Park, and songs by Ja Rule and Nelly.

Some of the students heard a minute of the songs. Others saw the lyrics, song title, album cover, or a picture of the artist(s) for a minute. Then the cue was removed, and the students wrote down their memories. They described the memories on various scales, including vividness, specificity, and pleasantness.

"It was very easy to do," Cady tells WebMD. "Only four could not do it."

Click here to read Web MD's "Making Music Switches Off Stress."

Flashback's Cue

"I thought hearing the song would bring back more vivid memories. It really didn't," says Cady. She says the title, lyrics, or pictures were just as good at prompting vivid and specific memories.

Cady also asked the students if they could "hear" the song playing in their head. Once again, those who only saw the words or pictures were able to "hear" the songs in their mind as well as those who had listened to a minute of the song.

"There was no difference there," says Cady, who had chosen the song list in an earlier study.

Which song got the biggest reaction? A lot of people chose Ice, Ice Baby, says Cady. That song hit No. 1 in 1990, when the students were little kids.

The songs inspired many family-related memories, especially in the students' early years, says Cady. She presented her findings in Los Angeles at the American Psychological Society's 17th Annual Convention.

Click here for Web MD's "Learn How to Boost Your Memory."

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: American Psychological Society's 17th Annual Convention, Los Angeles, May 26-29, 2005. Elizabeth Cady, cognitive psychology doctoral student, Kansas State University. News release, Kansas State University.