"We thought that actually hearing the song would bring back the most vivid memories," Richard Harris of the Kansas State University said in a statement. "But in our study there wasn't a lot of difference in memory between those who heard the song and those who didn't. What we determined was happening is that you already know the song and you're hearing it in your mind."
Harris and Elizabeth Cady, a 2006 doctoral graduate in psychology, and J. Bret Knappenberger, an undergraduate, wanted to understand whether memories were cued by actually hearing the song or by thinking about it in other ways.
They tested 124 subjects ages 18-20 in spring 2003. A pilot study had the subjects list songs from five stages of life -- early childhood, grade school, middle school, high school and college.
Harris said he and Cady were surprised at how many participants reported strong memories associated with the same song.
For the grade-school era, 26 percent of participants had strong memories associated with Vanilla Ice's song "Ice Ice Baby." For middle school, 36 percent reported strong memories associated with Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise."
The findings, published in the Psychology of Music, found music is autobiographical and people can remember events from a long time ago, with strong emotion associated with the songs played at the time.