Music-evoked remembering in the age of Big Data (2014-15)

This two-year project, representing researchers from psychology, statistics and linguistics, will expand research on memory by imaging how the brain encodes memories with music. The project will also create a website that lets visitors share memories a piece of music evokes.

PI: Petr Janata, Psychology and the Center for Mind and Brain
Collaborators: Duncan Temple Lang, Statistics and the Data Sciences Initiative; Raúl Aranovich, Linguistics and Arne Ekstrom, Psychology and the Center for Neuroscience


Music lies at the heart of cultures and societies around the world, intertwining with the lives and personal histories of millions of individuals. The fact that concerts routinely attract groups of fans, numbering from the tens to tens of thousands bespeaks music’s ability to shape social identities. 

Music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) are considered by most listeners to be a point of emotional attachment, not just to the music, but to the events, people, and places those memories comprise. Music-evoked remembering provides not only a window into the minds of individuals and collective minds of social groups, but also a vehicle for mental time travel that bridges the personal past and future.

The research proposed herein is a small but part of a larger, multifaceted and interdisciplinary research agenda. The focus of this two-year project is to begin mapping the dynamic structure of autobiographical remembering experiences in the human brain.

The basic idea is this: Individuals use a web app to attach hundreds or thousands of memories to pieces of music that have personal relevance. Once a suitable number of memories are contributed to an individual’s “memory scrapbook,” we use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity as a person listens to a large representative sample of the music for which he or she provides memories.

The aims are much broader than opening up a new frontier of memory research. A core objective is a social website that allows for the sharing of memories evoked by music, thereby creating a database of immense value for social science researchers, and even more importantly affording a cost-effective mechanism for improving psychological health and palliative care by fostering nostalgia.

The website also serves as a music recommendation service that is driven by the latent structure of shared personal experiences, in contrast to current music recommendation strategies that are based on structural features of music or social factors such as song popularity.

Learn more about this project.