More than a feeling

Music is powerful. It can make our attention turn away from external stimuli and redirect it to our inner thoughts. Sometimes we become so inward-focused after we bring a piece of music to mind, that this “earworm” stays with us long past the point where we’d rather forget that tune.

In addition, one of the most common uses of music in our society is to regulate our moods: If we want to feel triumphant (who wouldn’t?), we might listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or to Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory—apparently those two are among the 5 most triumphal pieces ever written. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that they both include cannon and gun fire.

So if you want to be put in a triumphant mood, here is Wellington’s victory over Napoleon:

But music does more than regulate attention and emotion. It turns out to play an important role in cueing retrieval from autobiographical memory, as researchers Signy Sheldon and Julia Donahue showed in a recent article in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Memory & Cognition. While Wellington is still fresh in your mind, try to recall an event from your past in which you were personally involved, that was specific in place and time, and that lasted less than a day. What was the memory that came to mind, and how long did it take you to think of it? Based on the work by Sheldon and Donahue, there is a good chance that you thought of something fairly quickly and that it was at least uplifting if not downright triumphant.

If it didn’t work, listen to the 1812 Overture first and then try again:

If you have been listening to those pieces and tried to recall any memory from your past, you will now already understand the basics of Sheldon and Donahue’s procedure: In their study, participants were presented with solo-piano classical pieces that varied in emotional valence (positive or negative) and arousal (high or low). All pieces were created for the purposes of research and were therefore guaranteed to be novel to the participants.

Each piece lasted somewhere between 8 and 16 seconds, and participants were instructed to recall an autobiographical memory and to press a key as soon as they thought of something suitable. Once participants pressed the key, the music stopped and participants typed a brief description of the accessed memory. If no memory came to mind after 30 seconds (the piano piece was repeated if necessary to fill the time), the next trial commenced.

Participants went through a number of such trials, and on each trial they also rated their memory on various attributes. There were two emotional scales that tested the emotional content of the memory and its emotional intensity. In addition, participants rated the vividness of their memory, and its uniqueness, social content, and energizing nature.  The figure below provides an overview of the procedure on each trial:

Sheldon and Donahue found that memories came to mind much more quickly when the music was happy and high in arousal than when it was scary or sad. It took participants less than 12 seconds to think of a memory with happy and arousing music, compared to nearly 14 seconds for sad music.

In addition, participants rated their recalled memories as more positive when the music was happy, and as more negative when the music was sad or scary. The ratings of valence were, however, unaffected by the level of arousal: memories were as positive for “peaceful” music as they were for highly-arousing “happy” music, and they were as negative for “scary” music as they were for “sad” pieces. In addition, memories were rated to be significantly more social and energizing when the music was happy than when it was sad.

Intriguingly, the effect of the type of music on the valence of memories was observed irrespective of whether or not the music pieces were “blocked” by their happiness and arousal. For half the participants all pieces that were happy and arousing were played back to back, and so on for the other three types of pieces (happy but not arousing; sad and low in arousal; and scary high in arousal). For the other half of the participants, the four types of pieces were randomly intermixed.

The difference between those two modes of presentation is quite diagnostic: if the effect had been confined to the blocked condition, then it might have reflected an effect of the music on participants’ general mood. Perhaps you begin to think of happy memories after your mood has been lightened by a handful of happy pieces, and likewise for a sequence of sad pieces, and so on. However, the fact that memories were sensitive to the nature of the music even when the pieces were randomly intermixed suggests that the cueing effect was quite specific: 10 seconds of stirringly positive music will elicit a positive memory, and another few seconds later a brief sad piece will evoke sad memories.

The results of Sheldon and Donahue provide an addition to our existing knowledge about memory and emotion. It has long been known that positive events are more easily recalled because we have an overall bias towards accessing positive life experiences. We have also known that the valence of recalled autobiographical memories tends to be congruent with one’s mood at the moment. Sheldon and Donahue’s study tells us that the valence of recalled autobiographical memories can be nudged quite extensively by just a few brief seconds of piano music.

This result is not without practical implications: In another study, it has been found that abrupt changes in music—from happy and arousing to calming—while driving in demanding simulated traffic conditions improved driving performance and reduced the incidence of accidents.

So for your next rush hour drive, avoid Wellington and try this:

Article focused on in this post:

Sheldon, S. & Donahue, J. (2017). More than a feeling: Emotional cues impact the access and experience of autobiographical memories, Memory & Cognition, DOI: 10.3758/s13421-017-0691-6

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