Music and memory

Associate Professor Muireann Irish is interested in the powerful relationship between music and memory. Join her at City Recital Hall Sydney on Thursday 9 August from 12.30 pm for a free lunchtime event to discover why a piece of music can suddenly transport us back in time to relive defining events from our past.

How can we harness music to improve wellbeing and quality of life for those affected by dementia? Loss of memory represents one of the most devastating symptoms of dementia, yet mounting evidence suggests that musical abilities and memory for musical pieces may be preserved in these syndromes.

Associate Professor Muireann Irish is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the Brain and Mind Centre, The University of Sydney.

Motivated by her grandmother’s experience with Alzheimer’s Disease, Muireann has dedicated her research career to exploring the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying memory loss in dementia, with a view to uncovering how we can intervene effectively to improve wellbeing and quality of life.

“Music can take us back to past times, evoking memories and powerful emotional experiences. Music can give us chills, bring us to tears and excite us. We can even become obsessed with music – for example, that annoying tune that gets stuck in your head,” she said.

Muireann says that music seems to be a universal way of communicating: it can break across languages, cultural differences and age.

“From children to adults we respond to and are moved by music – it touches us all. We sometimes find ourselves jigging along to a catchy tune, clicking our fingers to a beat, swaying, tapping and so on, indicating a strong motor response.”

Researchers are still working to understand how music exerts these effects. Muireann says that it seems like there is no one region in the brain responsible for our response to music.

“Our response to music involves a very widespread network of regions that also serve other functions such as attention, language, movement, and emotional regulation.”

There is also a debate as to whether our response to music serves an evolutionary adaptive purpose, or whether it developed as a by-product of other cognitive functions

“For me, the power of music is most evident when we consider its potential to reach patients where many other interventions have failed,” said Muireann.

“For example, in late stage dementia, even when speech and cognitive function is diminished, music can calm and reorient a patient and bring back some of the memories that have been lost.”

Attend our Festival event

All welcome to join Associate Professor Muireann Irish at City Recital Hall Sydney as part of Sydney Science Festival in National Science Week to learn about her research at The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.

When: 12.30 pm Thursday 9 August
Where: City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
Cost: Free with booking. Register to attend

By Jackie Randles, Manager Inspiring Australia NSW and curator of This Sounds Like Science, a series of free lunchtime events co-produced with Inspiring Australia.