Just thinking about popular songs can evoke vivid memories of the past, if Kansas State University researchers are to be believed.
"We thought that actually hearing the song would bring back the most vivid memories," said Richard Harris, professor of psychology at K-State.
"But in our study there wasn't a lot of difference in memory between those who heard the song and those who didn't. What we determined was happening is that you already know the song and you're hearing it in your mind," he added.
He said that the project he undertook with Elizabeth Cady, a 2006 K-State doctoral graduate in psychology, was one of the first times his research delved into the medium of music.
"Most people have this idea that music can be a powerful memory cue. You hear a song on the radio and it brings up memories of senior prom or graduation. That's why oldies stations are so popular -- not because the music is good but because it reminds us of specific times in our lives," Harris said.
Describing their study in the journal Psychology of Music, the researchers said that they wanted to understand whether memories were cued by actually hearing the song or by thinking about it in other ways.
For determining that question, the researchers said, they tested 124 subjects between the ages of 18-20 in spring 2003.
According to them, a pilot study had the subjects list songs from five stages of life: early childhood, grade school, middle school, high school and college.
The researchers further revealed that, in the second part of the study, they gave the subjects a short list of the songs that were chosen with the most frequency in the pilot study.
They said that the subjects had to pick one song from each category that had a strong memory attached to it, write about the memory, and rate how vivid it was.
Harris and Cady said that it was very surprising to see how many participants reported strong memories associated with the same song.
They revealed said that for the grade-school era, 26 percent of participants had strong memories associated with Vanilla Ice''s song "Ice Ice Baby", while for middle school, 36 percent reported strong memories associated with Coolio''s "Gangsta''s Paradise".
While a control group was given only the names of the songs, test groups either heard short clips of the songs, read the lyrics or saw art from the album or a photo of the artist.
Harris said that the vividness of memories did not vary much from one group to another, and thus the team came to the conclusion that the subjects were "hearing" the song by being reminded of it in one way or another.
"Music is a very emotional stimulus. It''s autobiographical in that we remember events from a long time ago with strong emotion. These pop songs were played many times, so there''s a lot of repeat presentation," he said.
He said that there were also some responses that reflected music that were popular during a certain stage of life, such as the "Happy Birthday" song in childhood.
The researchers said that about 24 per cent of the subjects said that the 1982 song "Eye of the Tiger", which was released before they were born, provoked a strong memory of high school sporting events.
Harris believes that being multi-modal makes music a powerful memory cue. He points out that music combines words and instrumentation, for which one generally uses different sides of our brains.
"Music is a rich stimulus. If we can''t remember the words, we remember the music. I can remember advertising jingles from my childhood, but I don''t remember the slogans without the music. Music may be something that our brains are primed to understand and enjoy in the same way we''re primed to understand language, although language is much more fundamental," Harris said.