Everything Swift does makes news these days, but excitement around this record feels singular. Many of my group chats suddenly turned to talking about the re-release, and it was quickly the trending topic on global social media. I got push alerts from news organizations breaking the news. My best friend was at the show and Facetimed me just as the announcement ended, and I could sense the deafening roar inside the stadium. Even my brothers, who collectively know three Swift songs despite growing up with someone who knows every song by heart, had found out and seemed interested.
Like many other Swift fans, I can trace much of my life through which of her albums I was listening to at the time. Each album conjures specific life events that took place during the period I listened to it. 1989 is lodged in my heart and brain as the soundtrack to my college years, the backdrop to so many of my nights and early mornings, so many parties, adventures, and regrets. To this day, listening to the album conjures the fearless, sometimes reckless joie de vivre of young adulthood. It wasn’t a perfect season of my life, but it was formative and a ton of fun.
So how is it possible that queuing up "Out of the Woods" takes me right back to 2014 like I never left—nearly 10 years (!!) after the fact? Amy Belfi, PhD, neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychological science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, says this warm feeling can likely be attributed to something called music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs): particularly strong emotions and vivid memories that are provoked by music.
Dr. Belfi says there are a few key factors that may explain why music-evoked autobiographical memories are so potent. “We know that emotion facilitates memory, and something that’s highly emotional is going to be remembered better than something that’s neutral—and oftentimes music carries a lot of emotional weight,” she says. “You listen to it in very joyful times or very sad times, so I think this emotional potency is part of why music is so effective at triggering memory.”
"I think this emotional potency is part of why music is so effective at triggering memory."—neuroscientist Amy Belfi, PhD
You hear music all over the place, too: on the radio, in the aisle at the grocery store, at parties, at weddings, at a coffee shop or bar. All these exposure opportunities mean more chances to form connections between events in your life and music. Compared to other mediums like film (where you do have to actually focus on the movie and be in front of a screen), you can do any number of activities with music as the background—theoretically creating more opportunities to ingrain songs in your autobiographical memory. "The music is part of the context and when you hear it later, it kind of puts you back into that original experience you were having," Dr. Belfi says. However, she notes that music doesn't trigger memories more frequently than other mediums, just that the ones it does trigger tend to be more vivid.
Dr. Belfi co-authored a 2015 study published in the journal Memory that outlines the richness of music-evoked autobiographical memories. To compare the strength of music-evoked autobiographical memories to other memory cues, study subjects were given clips of the top 20 songs from the Billboard Hot 100 from the time period when they would've been between ages 15 and 30. They were also shown pictures of famous people from that period, too. For example, a 35 year-old subject would hear popular songs and see photos of people at the peak of their fame between 1998 and 2003, such as New York Yankees player Derek Jeter and Friends star Jennifer Aniston.
Participants were then asked to describe the memories each conjured, and the music-evoked ones were consistently more detailed, specific, and rich than the ones associated with the famous faces, says Dr. Belfi. "The memory would be something like, 'that Lady Gaga song reminded me of when I was in college, and I remember dancing on a table at a party and singing with my friends,'" she explains.
You don’t even have to like a song very much to form a potent memory association with it. The context is what matters here, says Dr. Belfi: songs that are familiar are more likely to be associated with a memory, and so are ones that go with an experience. For her part, Dr. Belfi says Rihanna's songs remind her of being in grad school. "I was at the bar, so even though the Rihanna song was in the background of what I was doing, it was part of the whole experience," she says. "Even if it wasn't my favorite song, it's now bound with the other experience in my mind and they're like a single unit, so when I hear the song it helps me retrieve the experience because they're one and the same."
Not every song evokes a MEAM, and these memories aren’t voluntarily formed, either. “It’s incidental learning versus more intentional listening to your favorite artist,” Dr. Belfi says. (Basically, you can't force an association with a song or an album—those form through experience, and often happen unintentionally.)
Autobiographical memories play a key role in forming personal identity, too, so it makes sense that the soundtracks to those memories evoke strong feelings and emotions. In my case, since I associate Taylor Swift with so many of the formative events in my life (and I genuinely enjoy her music), it makes sense then that her songs would be doors to my own memories.
Dr. Belfi had a similar experience recently when she saw Less Than Jake, a ska band popular in the '90s, in concert. The band played an album she loved on its 25th anniversary. "That was more special to me than if I had just gone to a regular concert," she says. "That album was so meaningful to me because I listened to it in high school a lot," adding that she could tie each song to a specific memory from that time. "I know the feeling of this Taylor Swift thing because it's these very meaningful and special memories, and that association with your identity almost, that make it so meaningful."
Whether you're counting down to October 27 when 1989 Taylor's Version drops or not, you can thank your brain for creating another way to get you to wherever your music-induced, nostalgic place is. Keep listening, because you never know what might pop up 10 years from now.
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