This has been bugging me for a while. I use the term liberally when I talk about music, and more often than not I draw blank stares.

It's a simple concept. You hear a tune and associate it with something that's happening in your life at the same time, mostly pleasant. Years later the same tune plays on the radio, and you recognize it, and it brings back all those good memories. Without realizing that it's the memory and not necessarily the tune itself that fills your heart with joy, you come to believe that the tune is great music regardless of its actual artistic value. That's the important point: the tune may be boring and stupid, yet you're still inclined to believe it's great.

This phenomenon is known as "tonal recognition." Is there a better term for it, or at least a term everyone's familiar with?

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    Association, Pavlovian response?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 22:11
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    There was a questions a while ago english.stackexchange.com/questions/360751/… (not a duplicate) in which one of the answers was "memory trigger"--a term that would encompass "tonal recognition." You might find the answers there interesting.
    – Xanne
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 22:14
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    "This phenomenon is known as "tonal recognition."" I can find no support for this claim. Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 22:15
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    Total recognition seems like a really bad name for this phenomenon anyhow. Reading the title I thought of absolute pitch. A "tone" is not the same as a "tune", so reading further I thought, "Ah yes, C sharp reminds me of cookies my grandma would bake..." which sounds almost like synesthesia. But actually it sounds like you are asking about something completely different.
    – Phil Frost
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 14:18

1 Answer 1


Consider Music-evoked Autobiographical Memory (MEAM). It appears to be an established term in the literature to refer to associative memory that is triggered by music. Here are some examples:


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