• Durham OnAir

Negative music strikes a positive note in listeners’ memories


Even negative music can evoke positive memories in people according to a new study that researchers say could be beneficial to the delivery of music therapy.


Researchers at Durham University, UK, studied the power music has on memories and found that despite the type or tone of a piece of music, it will primarily conjure a favourable recollection.


Participants were played instrumental clips from different genres of music, such as pop and classical, and a mix of environmental sounds like bird song, waves crashing or power tools to test what types of autobiographical memories they evoked. Each piece of music was compared against an environmental sound that conveyed the same emotions as the music (for example, happy music versus happy sounds).


The music clips were also each matched to a word which conveyed a similar feeling, for example “glory”, “money” and “flamingo” were words deemed to be positive and negative words included “tornado” and “insanity”.


Environmental sounds and words were more likely to trigger a memory, suggesting music is not a more effective stimulus than other emotional cues if you want a person to conjure up images from their past.


However, the research did show that music produced primarily positive memories regardless of the emotional tone of the song being played, while negative sounds, like factory noise, and negative words, like “tornado”, evoked more gloomy memories.

The researchers say this shows the potential benefits of music in evoking positive memories compared to other everyday cues and could be a useful tool for music therapists, or even in advertising to achieve a positive reminiscence.


The research is published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Lead author Dr Kelly Jakubowski, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Music, at Durham University, said: “We found that the music evoked fewer autobiographical memories and it took people longer to think of a memory, as compared to both the environmental sounds and words.


“However, music did spark primarily positive memories regardless of the type being played. Whereas negative sounds and words evoked more negative memories, sad and angry sounding music, such as a lamenting piano piece or heavy metal song, brought back just as positive memories as joyful pieces of music.


“This shows that music can be more beneficial to people than other memory cues in evoking positive memories. Even if the song you’re listening to is sad it can bring back memories of a happy time.


“One of the main things we know about music is that it is inherently emotional, and this could be the reason why it has often been found to be a more powerful memory cue than various other everyday prompts. Our research is the first to rigorously match music to other emotional memory cues, thus extending previous findings to show that music still brings back more positive memories than other, equally emotional stimuli.”


In total, 350 people took part in the study, which was funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

The songs they listened to were wholly unfamiliar to them, which was important for ensuring that participants did not differ in their levels of previous exposure to particular music clips.

The researchers say further work will be needed to compare familiar versus unfamiliar music. This will enable them to see how both familiarity and the emotional tone of the music might affect different aspects of the memories evoked.


The study is part of a larger research programme on how music can have an effect on our autobiographical memories.


Previously this team has examined the prevalence of music-evoked autobiographical memories in everyday life, and found that music from one’s teenage years evokes the most memories, and revealed that music evokes more vivid and emotional memories than TV programmes.