Music, Sound & The Way We Work
6
min read

Sound, Space, and Studying: How Music Affects Memory

Hearing the world is one of the key methods by which we make sense of it, both in terms of our present reality and our past memories. Sound is orienting, and paying attention to what role it plays in our lives can impact how we remember, how we work, and how we care for those whose lived experience is not what it once was.

Sound, Space, and Studying: How Music Affects Memory
Oli Nelson

December 18, 2020

This autumn saw a renewed interest in Jim Kirby’s six-part album Everywhere at the End of Time, released between 2016 and 2019 under his alias, 'The Caretaker'. It seems like an unlikely candidate to go viral amongst a Gen Z TikTok audience, since it’s a dark and haunting reflection on Alzheimer’s disease. Intended to be an aural representation of the progression of the disease and the difficulties of memory loss and ageing, it’s a very demanding listening experience, rich with significance and commanding an intense emotional reach.

Kirby sends old Ballroom and Jazz Age records into the sonic abyss, letting them float distantly in his spacious ambient soundscapes, rather like how memories seem to move through your mind. As the albums progress and the Alzheimer’s worsens, the samples themselves decay, becoming fragmented and hazy with static noise, discerningly present, but frustratingly out of reach.


Although a difficult listen, it’s a deeply imaginative project, and a powerful meditation on the strong bond that exists between music and memory. It also demonstrates the importance of sound in our apprehension of the world around us, and in our personal relationships with space and time.


This is why music is an increasingly common feature of treatments designed to improve the quality of life of patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The affective power of music means makes it a compelling resource in improving patients’ relationships with their worlds.


Listen to Everywhere at the End of Time here.


Sonic lifeworlds


Dutch philosopher Max Van Manen’s conceptualisation of Lived Experience – four existential ‘attributes’ that can guide reflections on people's “lifeworlds” – has become an important qualitative framework in research on dementia. These attributes are: (1) lived body, (2) lived others, (3) lived time, and (4) lived space. Sound has a bearing on all of these categories.


Whether providing simple personal enjoyment (lived body), something that can be shared with loved ones (lived others), or a link to past memories (lived time), music is a key method through which Alzheimer’s patients can feel more at ease in their lifeworld. A 2018 study revealed a process “whereby lived space gradually becomes smaller for persons with dementia”. Defining lived space as felt space, more than just a patient’s immediate geography but their feeling of being ‘at home’ or ‘in place’, living with dementia can result in a feeling of “living in a space where the walls keep closing in.” Music therapy can therefore help to counteract this contracting lifeworld, by opening up a patient’s lived space to their past memories, places, and times.


Sound is an extremely powerful emotional resource, as its relationship to Alzheimer’s testifies. A form of “implicit memory”, one that is “hardwired into your brain”, music is intimately connected to how you think, feel, and experience the world around you. It’s a crucial part of your orientation, and the construction of your lifeworld. As such, controlling lived soundscapes can have a telling impact on day-to-day life.


Studyscapes


Managing your visual and aural space can be key to improving your productivity. In the relative confinement of working from home, it’s easy to feel trapped and unfocused. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that trends in ‘study soundtracks’ (such as ambient music, white noise, sounds of nature, japanese cafes – whatever floats your boat) all tend to involve some sort of mental travel. They are aurally dissociative, and I find help me to detach from the distractions of my bedroom to focus better on the task at hand.


All of these study soundtracks are underscored by a strong sense of space, which is why I think they work so effectively as focus tools. Ambient music – such as Everywhere at the End of Time feels spacious. Not linked to any specific space or time, study soundtracks are comforting because they exist outside of or above your present reality. And like Kirby’s album, there is a heightened sense that the music is itself a terrain or space that you can enter in order to work well.


For me, these study soundtracks can be immersive in the true sense of the word. I’ve always thought of listening to ambient music as like a kind of sound bubble, that you slowly enter and fade from as your focus changes. When you are really concentrated on a task, it almost feels like nothing else exists outside of you, your mind, your laptop, and your workspace. As a serial procrastinator and only very fleetingly productive person, this state of being is pretty elusive for me. However, I invariably find that I am not only at my most productive, but also enjoying my work the most, when I have a musical space to inhabit.


What's the science behind it?


So, is there any evidence to back this up, or is it just some pretentious art student mumbo-jumbo? Does music actually make you more focused, or improve your memory? And if so, is there a logic for choosing what’s best for me?


Studies have shown music to trigger the release of dopamine, and to stimulate the same regions of the brain that respond to "other euphoria-inducing stimuli” such as food, sex, and drugs. This link is key: since dopamine works in a cycle of anticipation, reward, and reinforcement, associating music with the reward of feeling productive can help to coach the brain into patterns of motivation.


In other words, if you work to music that you enjoy, and you feel good about your productivity, it's likely that your brain will reward you with a feel-good dopamine hit. (This is intensified with a morning coffee, the caffeine in which also stimulates a dopamine release). Your brain will then remember this feeling, and when it senses that this situation could be repeated – the next morning for instance – it will release more dopamine in anticipation, culminating in a peak reward, and subsequent reinforcement.


By activating this reward pathway in your brain, music can thus be a self-sustaining productivity hack. Once ‘trained’, your brain will respond to hearing your chosen soundtrack by realising that there might be a reward in store, thus helping you to ‘wake up’ and focus. 


This is why cafe or mystical library soundscapes are so popular on YouTube: music can act as a kind of bridge that helps take you to somewhere in your memory that you’ve associated with being productive. Training your brain to recognise and reinforce these associations means that music, productivity, and feeling good can all feed into one another. The key here is choosing music you really enjoy, or find comforting, or that helps you to enter into that zen state where you’re a bit detached from the world around you.


That’s why I personally opt for music that feels spacious, audio that will take me somewhere else, or provide a landscape for me to work in without pushing me to the point of diversion. Spacey musical terrains help me to relax, disconnect, and step into a work-world in which the distractions of my present space and time are less pronounced. As with Everywhere at the End of Time, a great working album itself, music can be transportive in the truest sense of the word, taking you to different imagined places, or different times in your memory.


This is why it’s such a key part of the way we think, work, remember, and care for those whose memory and lived experience is not what it once was.

Listen to my productivity playlist on Spotify here.



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