Do you and your partner have a ‘couple song’? If it plays on the radio, do you look at each other and remember special moments or events in the past? A recent survey by Macquarie Univesrity researchers has shed light on how music may play a role in developing a joint identity, which in turn could support memory as people age.
In harmony: Music helps to define your identity as a couple, according to Harris' newly published research.
Dr Celia Harris researches how couples share memories and how this supports their identities, cognitive function and wellbeing.
She conducted an online survey of 200 people in the US who were in a current romantic relationship, to find out how many had a shared “couple song”. Participants were in relationships ranging from one month to 40 years, and were aged between 20 and 73.
“We all know many couples who have a song they think is ‘theirs’ but this topic has never been researched before, so we wanted to see how common it really was,” says Dr Harris, who is a lecturer in Macquarie’s Department of Cognitive Science.
“Overall, about two-thirds of the people had a song they identified as their ‘couple song’; it didn’t matter what gender or age they were.
That process of acquiring a song might be related to developing your joint identity as a couple.
"More broadly, I'm interested in the link between music, memory and relationships, and how that might support our memories as we age, and how shared musical cues might provide one way in which couples, or people with dementia for example, can help each other access the past.
"We designed this study to find out more about this interesting phenonomen and to inform further research on the links between music, relationships and memory."
The survey results, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships this month, show that most couples found their song early on, within the first months of their relationship.
Songs choices covered a surprising range, from the classic (Johnny Cash - You Are My Sunshine), to the romantic (Jason Mraz - I'm Yours), and from the obvious (Elton John - Your Song) to the unexpected (MC Hammer - Can't Touch This).
“I thought that was quite interesting because it tells us that couples acquire their song just in the formative stages of a relationship and that process of acquiring a song might be related to developing your joint identity as a couple,” Dr Harris says.
About half the people surveyed said their choice of song just happened organically. “They said; ‘we never talked about it but we both just know that this is our song.’ Others said they had openly and deliberately discussed ‘their song’ and agreed what it was.”
When two become one: We're more likely to have a shared song with our partner than a friend or sibling, Harris' research discovered.
Dr Harris asked the couples why they chose that particular song and she got diverse responses. The most common answer was that the song linked meaningfully to their identity as a couple. There was something about the lyrics that resonated with them and what their relationship had been like. Songs were also commonly linked to an important relationship-defining event, such as a first kiss. Sometimes it was less about meaning; “Some people just said they liked the song,” she says.
Participants also were asked when they listened to the song. “The vast majority said they didn't deliberately go out of their way to play the song regularly in their day-to-day life, but they were happy when it came on and they’d say ‘hey that’s our song’. Others played it on their anniversary or when they were trying to get romantic!”
Dr Harris also discovered that having a couple song was much more common than having a special song with a friend or relative. Fewer than 1 in 5 people said they had a shared song with someone they were not romantically involved with, such as a friend or sibling.
Music and memory
Dr Harris hopes to conduct follow up research with couples in Australia, especially those who are older. “I'd like to dig into the memory aspects of the songs and potentially get people to come in to the lab, listen to their songs, and report the memories that come to mind,” she says.
“We know that music is a powerful memory cue, even in the context of ageing and cognitive decline, and that might be even more the case when we target people’s couple songs.”
She’s also interested in seeing what happens when a person hears a “couple song” if the relationship is over or one partner has died. “Once your relationship status changes, how does the meaning and emotion associated with the song change?” she says.
Dr Celia Harris is a lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University.