Music & Life

Any mainstream American pop tune, Beethoven symphony, or British children’s song shares a common thread: Western harmonies. Why does Western culture center on specific chords? What is the link between memory, harmony, and ear training? Does music improve memory?

Growing up in Western culture, your ear and brain absorbed a specific “musical hierarchy” where the tonic of a scale had more importance than other pitches.[1] For example, in D Major, your ear automatically gravitates towards the pitches D, A, and G, and finds notes like C# dissonant. Even as an infant, you demonstrated a clear preference for specific Western harmonies. [2] Why is this?

Since childhood, the music you listened to impressed upon your long term memory a distinct preference for the tonic (D) and the dominant (A). Musical training affected your perception of music and your ability to recognize pitch. [1] The more musical exposure you experienced, the greater the impact on your brain and memory.

To recognize a pitch during ear training, your brain performs mental gymnastics. For example, you hear the pitch A in the key of D Major. Your brain quickly compares the pitch to the tonic of the scale, D. Is it the same? If so, then you have recognized the pitch. If not, then your brain jumps to the next probable note, the dominant or A. Is this the correct pitch? Yes, it is. Whether you were conscious of the process or not, you successfully recognized the pitch A.

A musician regularly taps into memory. When a jazz clarinetist improvises during a club gig, his fingers recall the correct fingerings through schematic memory, and when a conductor directs a symphony without looking at the score, she relies on her episodic memory to bring to life thousands of musical symbols stored in her brain.  [1]

So memory helps musicianship – but do these musical exercises reciprocally improve the brain’s ability to remember?


Does Music Improve Memory?

  1. Music leads to beneficial neurological activity that increases memory specific to musical experiences. [4]
    Whether you are playing with the latest ear training app, jamming on the drums, or listening to your iPod, your brain benefits on multiple levels. Each time you learn a new interval or sing a melody, you increase your power of memory.
  2. Musicians perform better on ear training exercises regarding pitch and intonation. [3]
    Remember the earlier example of identifying a pitch? The more musical training you have, the quicker your memory skills will help you identify a pitch, or interval between two pitches. Even if you aren’t a professional musician, doing ear training will help increase your memory skills.
  3. Music helps you remember a specific time, place, or person in your life.
    Research has demonstrated that familiar songs help you recall relationships and time periods in your life – especially those associated with romantic feelings! [5] These resurfaced memories are often vivid, positive, and emotional in nature.
  4. Music enhances memory in patients with Alzheimer’s. [6]
    Music helps Alzheimer’s patients learn new information despite the onset of dementia. Studies have shown that music increases the Alzheimer’s patient’s ability to remember new instructions. In fact, researchers like Petr Janata hope that devices like the iPod will someday be used to help alleviate memory difficulties for Alzheimer’s patients.

How can you use music to increase your memory?

  1. Listen to music.This seems simple, but take the time to really listen to music instead of tuning it out. Pop in the latest Esperanza Spalding album, check out a local indie band, or try tickling the ivories.  You might like to try out the NML Jazz app from Naxos or find the latest indie show using Nokia’s Gig Finder app .
  2. Train your ears.
    Easy Ear Training has several ear training apps and resources that will help you work your memory and your ears. The best selling Relative Pitch app makes interval training fun while the new app Chordelia: Triad Tutor simplifies harmony with some fundamental chord exercises.
  3. Make some music!
    You don’t have to be a concert pianist to benefit from musical training! Join the local community choir, play in a garage band, take up guitar lessons, or learn the art of DJing.


Music keeps your mind young, increasing memory and exercising your brain.

Tell us about your musical experiences! Share in the comments below. We would love to hear from you!

Show article sources


  1. Diana Deutsch, et al. “Psychology of music.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Apr. 2011 .
  2. Trainor, Laurel J., Luann Wu, and Christine D. Tsang. 2004. “Long-term memory for music: infants remember tempo and timbre.” Developmental Science 7, no. 3: 289-296.
  3. Dankovičová, Jana, Jill House, Anna Crooks, and Katie Jones. 2007. “The Relationship between Musical Skills, Music Training, and Intonation Analysis Skills.” Language & Speech 50, no. 2: 177-225.
  4. Encyclopedia of the Human Brain. Oxford: Elsevier Science & Technology, 2002. s.v. “VIII. MUSIC AND NEURAL PLASTICITY,”
  5. Janata, Petr, Stefan T. Tomic, and Sonja K. Rakowski. 2007. “Characterisation of music-evoked autobiographical memories.” Memory 15, no. 8: 845-860.
  6. Simmons-Stern, Nicholas R., and Andrew E. Budson, and Brandon A. Ally. 2010. “Music as a memory enhancer in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.”. Neuropsychologia Journal.
  7. Hsu, Jeremy. “Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain.” 2009.

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