Involuntary and voluntary recall of musical memories: A comparison of temporal accuracy and emotional responses

Kelly Jakubowski*, Zaariyah Bashir, Nicolas Farrugia, Lauren Stewart

*Corresponding author for this work

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Comparisons between involuntarily and voluntarily retrieved autobiographical memories have revealed similarities in encoding and maintenance, with differences in terms of specificity and emotional responses. Our study extended this research area into the domain of musical memory, which afforded a unique opportunity to compare the same memory as accessed both involuntarily and voluntarily. Specifically, we compared instances of involuntary musical imagery (INMI, or “earworms”)—the spontaneous mental recall and repetition of a tune—to deliberate recall of the same tune as voluntary musical imagery (VMI) in terms of recall accuracy and emotional responses. Twenty participants completed two 3-day tasks. In an INMI task, participants recorded information about INMI episodes as they occurred; in a VMI task, participants were prompted via text message to deliberately imagine each tune they had previously experienced as INMI. In both tasks, tempi of the imagined tunes were recorded by tapping to the musical beat while wearing an accelerometer and additional information (e.g., tune name, emotion ratings) was logged in a diary. Overall, INMI and VMI tempo measurements for the same tune were strongly correlated. Tempo recall for tunes that have definitive, recorded versions was relatively accurate, and tunes that were retrieved deliberately (VMI) were not recalled more accurately in terms of tempo than spontaneous and involuntary instances of imagined music (INMI). Some evidence that INMI elicited stronger emotional responses than VMI was also revealed. These results demonstrate several parallels to previous literature on involuntary memories and add new insights on the phenomenology of INMI.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMemory and Cognition
Pages (from-to)741-756
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018


  • Earworms
  • Involuntary memory
  • Musical imagery
  • Tempo


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