Music and Memory: Travelling Without Moving

| September 14, 2010 | 8 Comments
lantayai Music and Memory: Travelling Without Moving

Sunset over Koh Lanta Yai. Photo by Patrik M. Loeff (Creative Commons).

There’s no doubt that music can evoke powerful emotional and physical reactions. In many cases, as soon as it is heard, it can transport you back to a particular place. For example, Jack Johnson’sBrushfire Fairytales’ immediately takes Katie and I back to our stay on Koh Lanta Yai. We first heard Jack Johnson beachside. He was playing over the stereo at a bar we frequented. I can even recall what we were drinking that afternoon—gin and soda with a squeeze of lime. In like manner, Paul Oakenfold’sTravelling In Asia’ takes me back to mainland China—it was the only disc I had with me for my discman. Hard to believe my travels through China predated the mp3!

Throughout the years, we’ve compiled playlists to capture certain memories, or evoke a particular time in our lives. To this day, it’s the single best way Kathryn and I know of to recall a memory and to be transported back to a moment in life. Stronger, it would seem, than even the power of photography.

Matching our intuitions about music, researchers have found that music is an important influence on our memories. We associate songs with emotions, people and places we’ve experienced in the past. By mapping the brain activity of a group of subjects while they listened to music, a researcher at the University of California now believes that he has the answer. Reports Science Daily: “The region of the brain where memories of our past are supported and retrieved also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion.”

This isn’t to say that songs or music are the only influence on memory. Of course, the photos we took, the sights we saw and the words we wrote about our trip will also help to preserve it in our minds for many years to come. But music might be the most immediate and powerful connection.

Ray Mueller, a member of the Arts Council of America says, “Research has located specific areas of mental activity linked to emotional responses to music.  Therefore, it seems music is a human need and the brain is able to act as a function to satisfy that need.” The most interesting thing about Mueller’s suggestion is he regards it as a human need—just as we require food, air and water. Mueller’s research suggests that a lack of music in a person’s life can actually be detrimental. As Boethius, a highly regarded philosopher of the early 6th century wrote: “Music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired”.

What are your thoughts?  Can you think of a specific song that brought you back to a time in your travels?  What memories did it recall?  Did it bring up individual emotions?

Recommended Reading

  • Brain Hub That Links Music, Memory And Emotion Discovered: We all know the feeling: a golden oldie comes blaring over the radio and suddenly we’re transported back — to a memorable high-school dance, or to that perfect afternoon on the beach with friends. But what is it about music that can evoke such vivid memories?
  • Ten Tunes to Download Before your Next Trip: For many travellers and backpackers, their iPods and MP3 players provide the soundtrack of their trip. Remember way back in the old days—like the 1990s—when music was stored on plastic discs called CDs? Or, even further back to the 1980s, when we carried music around on vinyl?
  • Metafilter—Songs About Travelling: Suggestions for a list of travel-oriented songs in any genre, specifically ones that hit on the independent, vagabonding, adventure, exploration style.

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Check him out on Google+.

Comments (8)

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  1. It can all be traced back to brainwaves, can’t it. My most viscerally installed music memory is from the song I was listening to while on the train going from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The scenery was changing fast from the arid tans and browns of the upper Urumbamba Valley to the lush greens of the area surrounding Aguascalientes. It happens quick, the landscape transition, all within about 10 or 15 minutes, and I was listening to U Plabu Zoru, a fabulous song by Pink Martini on the ipod. The song’s pretty dramatic and help narrate the change in scenery so perfectly I’ll never forget it.

    I don’t quite get why people argue so adamantly to leave your ipod at home when traveling. I couldn’t travel without mine. And every time I listen to that song, which is fairly often, I’m instantly transported back to that amazing moment on the train in Peru. It’s like a little aural postcard.

    Take a listen to the song if you like. It’s here:
    http://bit.ly/9pW7b3

  2. Keith says:


    Love this and totally agree. Music is hugely important for me, and I use playlists to form the structure of memories. I write a monthly segment on Traveling Savage called trackpacking in which I pick artists that inspire me to travel.

    Very interesting quote from Science Daily.

  3. Kristen says:


    I absolutely agree with this! The song “Jezebel” by the 10,000 Maniacs always conjures up images of walking home through the rainy streets of Tokyo in July. It’s funny because I had the album on my iPod before the trip, and started listening to it only after I got there (14 hours on a plane will make you sick of all the usual music on your iPod REALLY fast, I’ve found), but now it brings me back immediately. Great post!


  4. What a great post and so true. I’m with Nico – why on earth leave the iPod at home? I’ve got loads of songs that transport me, but the strongest is Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah. I hear it and I’m immediately sitting in the basement of Baggies Backpackers in Brighton, Fosters in one hand, self-rolled cigarette in the other, surrounded by amazing friends all having a “moment of silence” for THE song of Baggies.

  5. Merav says:


    I can think of many songs which takes me back to places I have been to or events which had a strong emotional impact on me. I can’t travel in silence (but I do have arguments with the husband about the chioce of music…).

  6. Andrew S says:


    I also love music. I always like to listen songs when i`m in my car, and traveling for big distances. It`s so relaxing.


  7. I can think back as far as 8th grade (1996) to a particular cd (Bad Religion – Grey Race) which still reminds me of a trip to Washington D.C. where I bought it. My iPod is top 3 important things I carry when I travel, couldn’t sleep sober in a hostel without it!


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