Why Music Strikes a Chord

Music has the power to enable the recall of incredibly vivid memories from the corners of our mind.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip… You probably don’t care that I can remember every word and note of the Gilligan’s Island theme song, and you definitely don’t want to hear me sing it. But maybe you’re curious why you, too, can remember many more song lyrics than passages of prose, and even more melodies, and why meaningless sounds arranged in meaningless patterns have the power to calm, energize, frighten, inspire, cheer, or depress you, and sometimes move you to tears. What is it about Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings that evokes pathos so reliably that it was played at the announcements of the deaths of FDR and JFK and at the funeral of Albert Einstein, among many others?

The roots of that raw emotional power are sunk deep within the brain, which seems to come pre-wired for music. Long before babies have any significant experience with music, they can detect changes in pitch, tempo, and melodic contour. They can even recognize a tune when it’s played in a different pitch or tempo. According to psychologist Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto, infants also seem to have an innate preference…