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Music And Memory: Memory For Melodies And Lyrics In Alzheimer’s Disease

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Music is the universal language of mankind, allowing communication across cultural and linguistic boundaries. It is expressed and shared by all ages from an unborn child to an elderly person. Every culture around the world has some form of music and song, each with their purpose, some might be to accompany a dance, soothe an infant, express love or express grief or many other purposes. Whilst it has these enormous numbers of benefits, what specifically caught my interest was the link between music and its ability to enhance cognitive functions to help promote healthy aging for older people. It was during a conversation with a close friend of mine, who happens to be a leisure and lifestyle worker at an aged care that, that I truly understood how research from articles such as ‘Lifespan Memory for Popular Songs’ (Bartlett & Snelus, 1980) and others truly impact the leisure activity planning process of these workers. James C Bartlett is a key theorist, whose work has influenced many the researchers in this field to examine and explore the link between music and elderly people with cognitive impairments such as memory loss. Bartlett is known as a pioneer in researching how people perceive and recall non-verbal information, and avantgarde researcher in a large number of fields regarding memory. Additionally to being a researcher who publications has been cited over three-thousands times, his bachelor’s and doctoral psychology degree allowed him to become the head of the doctoral program for cognition and neuroscience in the School of Behavioral and Brain Science at The University of Texas. Bartletts’ article Lifespan Memory for Popular Songs, examined how middle-aged and elderly subjects long term memory performed. His findings implied that certainly popular songs during one’s life were held in long term memory as people aged and that the temporal judgments were based on episodic memory for information at least partially independent of lyric representation. This article although it was one of Bartlett’s earlier works, certainly was one of the findings that initiated the idea of MEAMs, Music Evoked Autobiographical Memory (Janata, Tomic, & Rakowski, 2007). MEAMs’ played a key role in helping those with memory loss impairments, music allowed them to access memories and connect with their young self as well as with their loved ones. This was one of the key ideas that took my attention, as our autobiographical memories are our life stories, this helps us, specifically patients with neurological disorders to gasps a sense of self that they might be lost due to their illness. Another significant research of Bartlett was his work regarding the comparison of recognition of melodies with young, elderly, and elderly Alzheimer patients(Barlett, Halpern, & Dowling, 1995). This opened up doors to other research with Alzheimer patients, as it indicated how these patients were more liberal in recognizing traditional tunes than modern tunes. Similarly, another work of his found that early-stage Alzheimer adults were able to near perfectly discriminate familiar tunes, like holiday tunes(Halpern & Bartlett, 2010).

Article 1 – Characterisation of music-evoked autobiographical memories

Music has always been crucial to many lives, highlighting highs and lows in one’s life. A traditional way of exploring MEAMs has been to explore how music evokes autobiographical memories and emotions associated with them, however, most of these studies focus on the musical pieces themselves such as their title, the singer, or the year it was popular. These methods tended to overlook the memory attributes that served as the focus, Janata and her colleagues explored this component of whether participants were able to describe characteristics of memories evoked by said music and to what extent they were able to connect with the evoked memories (Janata et al., 2007). In their article titled Characterization of music-evoked autobiographical memories, they build on previous studies that compare semantic and episodic knowledge concerning autobiographical knowledge. They do not just build on previous studies but also try to explore the common challenges faced by articles in the field of MEAMs, such as finding a suitable method (Janata et al., 2007). Some previous methods have required participants to report on aspects of memories elicited by cue words or life events (Crovitz & Schiffman, 1974) whilst some attempted a more longitudinal method, allowing initial periods of days during which participants recorded events which were then followed by a test period where the memory recorded early was tested (Cabeza et al., 2004; Levine et al.,2004; Thompson, Skowronski, Larsen, & Betz, 1996; Wagenaar, 1986). Janata and her associated took into account the advantages of these designs and their challenges and decided on a hybrid method to examine MEAMs’, where some questions where presented with a fixed scales and others asking for extra descriptions from participants of their memories. Although the findings of this article weren’t distinctively aimed for the elderly age group, its findings established a normative baseline measure of the frequency for which participants identified songs as autobiographically salient and the degree of detail in which participants described the memories evoked by the music. These findings were quite impactful in the field of MEAMs’ as they provided evidence that musical fragments had potential retrieval cues for autobiographical memories, thus a useful tool for further studies on different levels of autobiographical knowledge. Although the findings were quite meaningful, they weren’t able to pinpoint the exact cause of their results, thus faced some of the same challenges past researchers faced, not being able to distinguish where the reported memories were because they were encoded to a higher extent at the time of emotional salient event or whether the because participants were motivated to describe the memories experienced more intensely at that moment (Janata et al., 2007). The findings did back up some of the interactions I have had with my grandad, 80 years of age, who has always tended to recall certain songs from his youth as well as his tricenarian days to a greater extent, the findings explained how this is probably because of how he has a stronger positive emotional connection to those certain songs.

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Article 2- Memory for Melodies and Lyrics in Alzheimer’s disease

Memory for Melodies and Lyrics in Alzheimer’s disease (Cuddy et al., 2012) explanatory research design attempts to explore whether that musical memory is preserved in Alzheimer’s dementia (AD) type patients. This research builds upon their previous study (Cuddy & Duffin, 2005), as one of their aims of the current study was to evaluate the reliability of their previous findings. This was achieved through extending their sample size of Alzheimer participants, their previous study had only one severe AD case, whilst the current had 50 Alzheimer participants who were categorized into further groups (mild, moderate, and severe) depending on the severity of their disease. Additionally, they included a test for memory for spoken material as well as music which was a development done due to a limitation found in their previous research study. They concluded that AD participants faced challenges when responding to the test instructions however was frequently able to indicate the familiarity and ability to recognize any distortion which was indicated through their behavioral gestures. As the previous findings and the findings from their current study correlated, this was quite helpful in establishing the reliability of not just their previous study but also their current. Their findings were similar to the findings of Janata (2007) paper mentioned above, that music had potential to evoke memory, Janata did focus on autobiographical memories whilst this study was more focused on whether participants could identify long-term familiarity for a melody. I think although this study shows the reliability of their previous study, and found that long-term familiarity was found for the melodies played, even though those across all levels of Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t provide insight into whether any past personal memories were experienced during these sessions. As it only shows the familiarity of a melody, this study could be used as background research for future studies like Janata, as this shows the possibility of Alzheimer patients were able to recognize familiar melodies and even to some extent identify melodic distortion.

Article 3- Music evoked autobiographical memory after severe acquired brain injury: Preliminary findings from a case series

Music is a unique stimulus that has the ability to evoke and enhance autobiographical memories and associated emotions. Samson and Baird’s (2014) study was the first to explore music-evoked autobiographical memories in patients with acquired brain inquiry (ABI). Being a pioneer in this field, their sample size was quite low, with 5 patients with severe ABI between 20-60 years of age. They had their patients complete an autobiographical memory interview followed by a standard neuropsychological assessment. They found that a vast number of MEAMs’ cases were of a person/people or a period of life. The results imply that music is a potent stimulus for evoking autobiographical memories. This experimental research was quite insightful as it builds upon the concept of MEAMs’(Janata et al., 2007), where MEAMs’ predominantly associated with positive emotions, resulting in confirming that music is a potent and useful stimulus for exploring the nature of autobiographical memories (Janata et al., 2007). Samsom and Braid also build on El Haj et al (2012) study which resulted in saying that these features of MEAMs were common with ‘involuntary autobiographical memories’. Concatenating these two studies together, formed Samson and Braid to the 4 sub-aims of this study, (1) to characterise the phenomenology of MEAMs in patients with severe ABI, (2) to investigate music evoked in contrast with verbal evoked autobiographical memories, (3) to explore the possibility of music to be used in rehabilitation of retrograde, specifically autobiographical amnesia, after ABI, and (4) to provide preliminary insights into the role of frontal brain regions in MEAMs The findings state that the frequency of MEAMs’ was similar for patients and those in the control group, the songs that evoked a memory were songs with a positive association behind them. This study did find that although ABI patients were able to enhance memory, a family member such as a wife, who lived through the same memory had a more clear and precise memory evoked. So although the patients were able to elicit a memory, it certainly was not to the same extent as a healthy- brain person. This research design is targeted to help those with ABI, professionals trying to help those with ABI try to reconnect with their sense of self and help ABI patients loved ones.


The three studies, all explored the connection between music and memory, specifically the majority targeted MEAMs’ of a patient with a cognitive disorder. Their age groups were quite similar, comparing young adults and the elderly at most times. Certainly, the strength of Janata et al (2007) research was portrayed through the other two pieces of research building on that article. The concept of MEAMs’ certainly opened many pathways for potential help for patients with Alzheimer’s or other acquired brain injury. Some limitations faced that were common throughout the three articles, was the struggle faced by the patients to understand the task at hand itself, but that didn’t necessarily prevent the authors from finding the results. Future studies could look into the connection of emotions and the memory, to help recognize the mechanisms that define the unique memory-enhancing effect formed from music(Baird & Samson, 2014). They could also investigate whether repetition over a longer period of certain music or melody helps develop a memory into a more precise version.


  1. Baird, A., & Samson, S. (2014). Music evoked autobiographical memory after severe acquired brain injury: preliminary findings from a case series. Neuropsychol Rehabil, 24(1), 125-143. doi:10.1080/09602011.2013.858642
  2. Barlett, J. C., Halpern, A. R., & Dowling, W. J. (1995). Recognition of familiar and unfamiliar melodies in normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Mem Cognit, 23(5), 531-546. doi:10.3758/bf03197255
  3. Bartlett, J. C., & Snelus, P. (1980). Lifespan Memory for Popular Songs. The American Journal of Psychology, 93(3), 551-560. doi:10.2307/1422730
  4. Crovitz, H. F., & Schiffman, H. (1974). Frequency of episodic memories as a function of their age. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 4(5), 517-518. doi:10.3758/BF03334277
  5. Cuddy, L. L., & Duffin, J. M. (2005). Music, memory, and Alzheimer’s disease: Is music recognition spared in dementia, and how can it be assessed. Medical hypotheses( 64), 229–235.
  6. Cuddy, L. L., Duffin, J. M., Gill, S. S., Brown, C. L., Sikka, R., & Vanstone, A. D. (2012). Memory for Melodies and Lyrics in Alzheimer’s Disease. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 29(5), 479-491. doi:10.1525/mp.2012.29.5.479
  7. Halpern, A., & Bartlett, J. (2010). Memory for Melodies. In (pp. 233-258).
  8. Janata, P., Tomic, S. T., & Rakowski, S. K. (2007). Characterisation of music-evoked autobiographical memories. Memory, 15(8), 845-860.

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Music And Memory: Memory For Melodies And Lyrics In Alzheimer’s Disease. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
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