The Reason Why Music Can Trigger Forgotten Memories & Nostalgia

Posted by Anne-Sophie | November 28, 2016 | MUSIC

Listening to a song can bring back some pretty intense memories – your first kiss, your first car ride, your first heartbreak or happy moments with the family. In times of hardship a lot of people turn to the music of their youth for solace. Almost all sensory experiences can trigger nostalgia, most famously Proust’s Madeleine (a type of French sponge cake). In the book ‘In Search Of Lost Time’, Proust describes how he dips the cake into some tea and it suddenly sends him back to a childhood memory when he ate Madeleines with his Aunt. It has become a famous literary reference used to describe a situation where a gesture or object triggers a long forgotten memory buried in the subconscious mind.  But, Madeleines aside, music can induce nostalgia faster and easier than almost anything else.

According to scientists Schulkind, Hennis, Rubin and Professor Ira Hyman, a song triggers an emotion that matches the emotion felt at the time the event happened. In order to evoke memories, sensations need precise connections. In other words it’s a set of events in your memory waiting for another event or sensation to match the original.  It’s a miracle of memory which highlights the complexity of the brain and its infinite capacity to store information in a box. The music is the key to that box. The ‘madeleine’ is a powerful thing. Which is why no matter how our consumption of music changes, it will never change the impact music can have on us as emotional beings.

We reached out to a few friends, who told us about  songs that had recently triggered forgotten memories and nostalgia.


Earth Wind and Fire – ‘In The Stone’

A group of young British children watching television in October 1988. (Photo by Express/Getty Images)

When we were kids, there was a program on French TV called ‘Cine Dimanche’. When the theme song came on, it meant that a film was about to start. But the music also meant it was time for bed and we would feel an utter sense of frustration. Whenever I hear it I get nostalgic for my youth.

Jeanette – ‘Porque Te Vas’
It was the first time I encountered sexual fantasy.

Alain Souchon – ‘Les Cadors
I used to go skiing with my little brother and parents. He and I would go home for lunch and lie on the carpet together staring at the ceiling of our chalet. I felt a sort of inner peace. I had a happy childhood and this song reminds me of that.


Cranberries – ‘Ode To My Family
I would read a book on the top of my bunk bed listening to that song.

Madonna – ‘Papa Don’t Preach
This song used to be on every time I played at the fairground opposite my grandparents’ house in Buenos Aires.

Eagles – ‘Hotel California
This was a short time before my parents’ divorce. My dad would try and play it on the guitar. It was so out of tune but I loved it.

Mike Oldfield – ‘Tubular Bells
My dad loves Mike Oldfield and it was the only album he kept in his car. When I realized it was the soundtrack to the Exorcist, I suddenly found him really awesome and badass. I was 8 years old.

Harry Belafonte – ‘Angelina

My brother and I used to try and imitate David Copperfield’s magic tricks. We used to do it on Harry Belafonte’s ‘Angelina’ for some reason. I still love Belafonte, it represents the innocence of my youth.

Stevie Wonder – ‘Isn’t She Lovely?
‘Isn’t She Lovely’ reminds me of my dad driving me around in his crappy Renault 5 car. Whenever I hear it I get this sad but fuzzy feeling of nostalgia.

Ray Charles – ‘Georgia On My Mind
I used to write love letters to my childhood sweetheart listening to that song. I was 13 years old and whenever I met up with her in summer we would listen to it together.

Indochîne – Salômbo
It was 1988. I used to shut myself up I my tiny London bedroom. We lived not far from Holland Park. It was winter and already dark by 6pm. I used to listen to that song whilst secretly flicking through my parent’s erotic comic books. Whenever I hear that song, it transports me back to that room in a flash.

Serge Gainsbourg – ‘La Chanson de Prévert
This song reminds me of my granddad. When I need to go back to somewhere safe in my mind, I go there. I sing it to my children now and sometimes thinking about it makes me cry.

Janis Jopelin – ‘Piece of My Heart
Every Saturday my brothers and I used to practice gym routines with my mum in the living room. I lived for that moment.

Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody
My dad would play it on repeat while we played with lego bricks together.  Whenever I hear it my heart tightens and I wish I could go back and play lego with him again.

Audrey P
Leonard Cohen – ‘The Future

My mum used to play it on a weekend and she would carry me so we could dance to it together.

Julie Andrews – The Lonely Gothard (The Sound Of Music)

I remember dancing around my grandma’s carpeted living room with my dad, with my itchy white wool tights slipping down. My gran would slap on the record every time I came to visit. I was 4 years old, best childhood memory ever.

Tell us yours, we’re dying to know!

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