Music memories: Tune into the playlist of your life

Music can be a vital tool for our mental wellbeing – especially as we get older, writes Margaret Jennings

HAVE you ever heard of the term reminiscence bump? It’s the psychological phrase given to the tendency we have – as we get into our older age - to have increased recollection for events that occurred during our teen years and early adulthood.

We build up autobiographical memories throughout our lifetime but those from that period, seem to be more heightened. That’s why music and songs from that time are a good starting point for making playlists that will give us pleasure.

But why bother to make playlists at all?

“Music has been found to be a very powerful cue to retrieve autobiographical memories, and such memories are associated with strong emotions and feelings of nostalgia,” says psychologist Catherine Jordan.

Currently carrying out research, as an Atlantic Fellow at the Global Brian Health Institute (GBHI) at Trinity College Dublin, Catherine is exploring how we remember music; how we can use personally meaningful music to evoke autobiographical memories, and how we can also use this to build an intervention for people living with dementia.

Research has shown that both healthy older adults and people living with dementia can really benefit from listening to their own personally meaningful music, Catherine tells Feelgood.

“We really want to get the message out there that people can build their own playlists - taking the reminiscence bump as the starting point - and then moving on to think about specific songs which are associated with personal milestones. These soundtracks can evoke memories and as such, transport us back to a time of poignant serenity and help reduce stress and anxiety.”

For people living with dementia she says:

“Music offers huge potential to them; we have numerous accounts of people describing how music which is personally meaningful, can lead to ‘transformation’ such as reducing stress and anxiety, the person becoming more engaged with their environment and those around them, and helping them regain a sense of self.

“What we really need is scientific evidence as to why this is the case. That is where my research at the GBHI is coming in.

"We want to see in real time, changes that happen in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s when they hear unfamiliar music and then when they hear music that holds personal significance to them.”

To do this, her research will involve taking brain scans of people with Alzheimer’s and of healthy older adults – aged 55 plus- as they listen to music.

Catherine has also recently founded a research network nationwide – the first of its kind – called Music and the Brain Ireland, which brings together clinicians, musicians, composers, psychologists, music therapists and neuroscientists.

In Britain a charity called Playlist for Life uses the reminiscence bump as the starting point for making your own playlist and freely gives advice on its website to help you do so, whether for yourself or a loved one who might benefit.

The charity, which was founded five years ago, launched an app in October 2017 which streamlined the process of creating a playlist and it also gives free advice online.

“Research has shown that as we go through life, the music we love becomes neurologically intertwined with our autobiographical memories,” says Maryah Itani, of Playlist for Life.

“People are becoming more aware of having a playlist of their life’s soundtrack made up in advance, but the message does still need to be spread.

“We would like it to get to the point where it’s something everyone thinks about, regardless of whether it’s yourself, or a loved one, who might benefit. We have had interest from people in Ireland and we welcome everyone to make use of our online resources,” she tells Feelgood.

Meanwhile, Jan De Vries, another psychologist at Trinity College who is a musician himself, underlines the fact that it’s our own personal selections which have the highest positive effects.

“My literature research into the benefits of music has focused on the use of music in hospitals and in particular around stressful events such as surgery,” he says. “While much of the research focused on making comparisons between different genres, the impression I got is that it is not the genre but the individual choice, that makes the most significant difference.

“For instance, a recent systematic review concluded that while music in general reduced heart rate, it was studies that used patient selected music which resulted in greater anxiety reducing effects consistent across studies.

“This makes sense to me. People who are highly musical have strong preferences, but also strong antipathies. Listening to the wrong music for you, may be sheer torture, while the right music may be bliss,” says Jan.

“If I ever will suffer from dementia, am beyond expressing my own needs, and will need care of a nursing home, I hope my wife or kids will have the good sense to go through my CD and record collection and select the most often played items and find a way of ensuring that I will be able to listen to these,” he adds.

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