Music and the Brain: Remembering Songs

On my iTunes and iPod, I have a playlist of my personal favorite songs. It currently contains 52 songs from artists such as Switchfoot, U2, Newsboys, Coldplay and Owl City. For most of these songs, I know ever single lyric. The Coldplay songs being the biggest exception. Not only this, but this favorites playlists only covers a relatively small number of the songs I could sing most of. What I am talking about here is the ability that most of us have to memorize lyrics, which is truly fascinating.

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My music library currently consists of about 1500 songs by about 170 artists. However, there are probably only about 20 that I listen to on a regular basis. I dont listen to all the songs frequently, but I certainly have in the past. There are also songs by other artists that I know well.

All told, there are hundreds, if not more, songs that I know by heart. And thousands more that I know snippets of. The same is probably true for you. That just absolutely blows my mind. And, not only do you know the words, you probably know the tune, which includes rhythm and pitch, as well. Not only this, but they are separate memories. Take a classic song like Dont Stop Believing by Journey. If you know this song, chances are you could hum or whistle the tune without actually saying the words. And, it is also quite possible that you could say the words with no tune. But notice this, its not as easy as you might think. If you are humming the tune, there is a good chance your tongue is moving around in your mouth as though you were speaking, and if you speak the words you probably would like to burst out in song.

This is a great tribute to our brains power. The fact that all this data can be store and brought back at a moments notice. If you play a song I know fairly well, chances are I can identify it (know what the name, artist, and album are) within about a second. Many people can do this, and it is not very heard.

But how exactly do our brains do this? I dont really know, but I am going to take an educated guess. Now, I am not a neurologist, so dont take my word as law, if your doctor tells you I am wrong, have him contact me.

Our brain has two basic types of memory. Short term and long term. Short term memory, also known as working memory, is basically the stuff we are thinking about right here, right now, such as a phone number you just looked up on your computer. It is believed that our short term memory can hold around 7 items at a time. After first hearing a song, chances are that it is in your short term memory. However, it can migrate to your long term memory surprisingly fast.

Take a catchy song as an example. If you hear it once, there is a good chance you can remember parts of it days later. This shows how easy it is for songs to go right to your long term memory. By the time you have listened to the song several times, you will have most of it memorized. The interesting thing about it is that you are not (in most cases) actively working on memorizing it as you would lines of a play or a bible verse. You just listen to it enough times, and eventually you know it.

This is where it gets slightly muddy. Long term memory (I will call it LTM from now on) has several different types. The two big subgroups are explicit LTM and implicit LTM. Explicit memory is memory of specific events (an episodic memory) of facts (a declarative memory). Implicit memory is something you just know without thinking about it, such as how to ride your bike or a your phone number. The question becomes, what type of memory does music fall under?

Some would say music is explicit. After all, it is simply data you are accessing right? Others would say it is implicit. You dont have to think about singing a song, you just know it.

One interesting thing is dementia patients. Dementia greatly reduces the ability to recall old memories and create new ones. Over time, it can lead to virtual no explicit memory whatsoever. However, it has been shown that these dementia patients respond very well to music. Not only can many remember songs, the music actually helps them improve their memory. Because they remember it, it seems as though the music is being stored in a place not affected by dementia. Perhaps in the implicit memory?

All in all, we are just beginning to discover the connection music has to our brains. You can know beyond a shadow of a doubt I will be writing more about it soon.