Some Reflections on Music & Lifetime Memories: An Interdisciplinary Conference

From 1-2 November 2019 we were very pleased to host an event entitled Music & Lifetime Memories: An Interdisciplinary Conference. This event featured 20 speakers from 11 countries across the globe (with some travelling from as far as India, China, and Brazil) who gave talks from a variety of disciplinary perspectives (e.g. psychology, musicology, computing, health sciences, anthropology) on the topic of music and lifetime memories. Four keynotes, given by Dr Alex Lamont, Professor Andrea Halpern, Professor Catherine Loveday, and Professor Lia Kvavilashvili, provided an excellent framework for the rest of the event that highlighted many of the important issues across this domain, from the development of musical preferences and associated memories across the lifespan to the challenges of studying memory for music itself and new paradigms for eliciting musical memories in controlled experiments.

I will not summarise the content of specific, individual presentations here (interested readers can refer to the Book of Abstracts to read more details about the individual research projects). Rather, the following summary comprises themes that emerged across the conference as a whole, primarily those that came out in the final Panel Discussion session as points of overarching interest or importance. As this summary comes from comments given by both the panellists (the four keynotes) and delegates at the event, it should be clear that these ideas represent a joint effort from all the conference attendees—I do not claim sole ownership over any of them, but merely present my own take on them here.

Gergely Loch presents a model derived from his findings on the autobiographical compositions of Ákos Rózmann.

New interdisciplinary links

 A main aim of the conference was to encourage the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas from researchers of different backgrounds. Although during the initial stages of the event there seemed to be a lot of apologising taking place from all sides (musicologists apologising for not being psychologists, psychologists apologising for not being musicians, etc.), it soon became apparent that despite the differing disciplinary perspectives the group of people involved in this event were truly interested in engaging with and learning from one another, as particularly evidenced in the Q&A sessions following many of the talks. In the final discussion session one of the questions posed revolved around the idea of emerging interdisciplinary links. One major theme that emerged from this discussion was that the music psychological perspective on this topic to date is somewhat narrow in comparison to the approaches being adopted across other disciplines. For instance, music psychology studies of music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) have typically used recorded music (most often pop music) to cue memories of life events in individual participants. The perspectives afforded by the musicological and anthropological studies presented at this conference inspired discussions of the extent to which different forms of music should be used in studies of MEAMs (e.g. in addition to recorded music– live performances, tangible objects such as musical scores and musical instruments), and how to better incorporate aspects of collective memory and cultural evolution rather than focusing solely on private experiences of single individuals. Contributions from non-Western musical perspectives at the event were also acknowledged and there was a general sentiment that more perspectives from cultures that engage with music in different ways are needed.

Keynote from Catherine Loveday, who has cleverly used the radio programme Desert Island Discs as a methodology for studying music and lifetime memories.

Is music ‘special’ as a memory cue?

A central theme that came up across many of the presentations was the extent to which music may be ‘special’ in its ability to bring back lifetime memories. In the final session there was much discussion around the need for more studies comparing music to an active control condition, including what such a control condition might comprise. Music is an engaging and fun activity for many people that can boost mood, and any comparison condition should ideally try to match these and other important properties of music. The frequency with which people engage with music is also another important point to be taken into consideration, as well as the type of lifetime events that music typically co-occurs with (there was also some discussion of the fact that music is often playing in the background during co-occurrent activities and events, whereas certain other hobbies, such as reading a novel or watching a film tend to require more full attention). The task of devising a control condition that is entirely comparable to music is indeed a formidable one; one might even argue that such a task may actually be impossible, as perhaps music has evolved to occupy such an important and specific place in our lives because it is different to all other hobbies and daily activities. However, it may, at the very least, be possible to match music on different aspects (emotional, social, etc.) to a few different control conditions over the course of a series of similar studies to try and isolate different potential contributing factors in order to gain a more functional understanding of what makes music-related memories ‘special’.

Keynote selfie (Catherine Loveday, Lia Kvavilashvili, Andrea Halpern, and Alex Lamont)

Changes in listening technologies and cohort effects

 Another topic that was broached during the final discussion, as well as in several presentations throughout, was the fact that the way people engage with music (including how music is purchased and shared, how it is listened to, and the devices that allow it to be listened to in different situations) has changed dramatically over the past few decades. This is an important point to take into account in particular when attempting to study effects of ageing in cross-sectional studies. However, it was pointed out that more could be done to actually study such changes in their own right, rather than simply trying to partial them out as unwanted cohort effects. It could be potentially interesting, for instance, to compare music to other cultural products and art forms, such as TV and visual art, which are also being increasingly consumed in different ways than 20 years ago. The fact that listeners now have very easy access to music from across many different genres and eras at the click of a mouse also provides new, exciting avenues for exploring what music survives and thrives in a climate of such extensive media choice.

Andrea Halpern’s keynote on aspects of music that may last a lifetime (or not…).

What are the next steps forward in this research area?

The final question I posed to the panellists and delegates was something along the lines of “If we were to hold this conference again in a few years, what new research do you hope will have emerged by that point?” Beyond the points already highlighted above, there was a general sentiment that we need to do more work to probe music-related memories across the full lifespan. It was pointed out, for instance, that there are many studies of young adults, and also an emerging body of literature on healthy ageing (typically adults ages 60+), but not much work being done in 30- to 60-year old adults, in this or many other areas of music cognition research. It was also suggested that attempting to study the actual formation of reminiscence bump memories in adolescents (e.g. studies of teens and pre-teens) could reveal new insights about this key period in music preference (and related autobiographical memory) formation. Said another way, what is actually happening around age 15 or so to make those memories more accessible in older age? Although costly and time-consuming, longitudinal research was also encouraged as a way to study the formation and evolution of musical preferences and related memories over time, as well as a way to control for cohort effects. Finally, a call was made for more investigation into the content of MEAMs, including whether the music was present at encoding and how the emotional content of the memory and the music itself are linked. Although several studies that were presented during the event made some first attempts and provides some hints at the contents of MEAMs, a full analysis of the different ‘types’ of MEAMs that may emerge has yet to be conducted.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank all involved for an engaging and intellectually stimulating conference. The supportive environment that emerged throughout these two days allowed for some very productive cross-disciplinary discussions that I hope will continue well beyond the duration of this event.

Durham’s own Anita Ghosh presenting work from her Laidlaw Scholarship project (a diary study of music-evoked autobiographical memories).



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