Musical Memory

What is it about music that makes it easier to memorize than words alone? This something I have wondered about ever since I started playing the violin as a kid.  I was required to memorize all the pieces I played growing up, but that was the easy part! As long as I knew the notes and rhythms, memorization came as an inevitable result of daily practice. People routinely asked how I could play a 10-minute piece without looking at the sheet music, but I never had an answer; I just did, and by no means am I the only one with this ability. Most musicians are required to memorize full concertos packed with technical and rhythmic difficulties, and can do this with seeming ease. Take world renowned violinist Hillary Hahn for example: [youtube][/youtube]

Not only is music easier for most people to memorize, the memories seem to be long lasting as well. To this day I remember how to play pieces of music I learned years ago. And I am sure all of us remember songs from childhood that aided learning, such as the ABCs, Nursery Rhymes, Old McDonald, Schoolhouse Rock, songs to help learn foreign language vocabulary, and even tunes for remembering math formulas.

So, what do we know about memory and how does music fit in to the picture? An article from the Wall Street Journal provides a basis for understanding. In the article, scientist Dr. Roediger says that music can act as cue to unlock information that is stored in the brain because it provides rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. The structure of songs also includes repetition, which promotes memorization. Roediger explains how neuroscientists believe that humans developed music and dance to aid in the retrieval of information, and the brain function that responds to music evolved long before those related to language!

Structure is one reason music is memorable. Prehistoric laws, stories and customs needed to be passed down orally before humans invented written language. Therefore, the words were presented as poems, chants or songs in order for them to be easier to memorize and recall. For example, the epic works of Homer such as the Iliad and the Odyssey were organized into poetic structures in order to be passed down verbally. Chants were widely used to aid the memorization of large information sets as well.

Repetition is another factor that makes music easier to learn. Every time a piece is rehearsed, the pathway of neurons deepens, making a metaphorical groove in the neural network. When rehearsed many times, this pathway becomes so strongly glued that your brain can’t help but follow through the sequence, making memorization effortless.

Another factor that comes into play is associations. Since the brain uses networks to store and retrieve information, the info with many associations is easiest to find. When we remember music, we remember a number of things about the music that are associated with it like tune, a certain voice, and specific instruments. All of this (including the structure of rhythms and rhymes seen above) provide context that makes the memory easier to retrieve even after a long period of time.

One study provides experimental evidence that singing can facilitate foreign language learning. Participants in this study were randomly assigned to three conditions where they were told to “listen and repeat” words and phrases in Hungarian. The three conditions were: speaking normally, rhythmic speaking or singing. The results of the experiment showed that the singing condition performed better on Hungarian language tests after a 15-minute learning period compared to the other two groups. This difference was statistically significant so the results suggest that singing can facilitate memory for spoken foreign languages.

My overall thoughts about this topic are that much more research should be done on the effects of music on the brain and its cognitive processes. It was difficult to find many scholarly articles on the subject. The Wall Street Journal article I used did not go into enough depth in my opinion. However, the scientific study of how singing effects foreign language learning was interesting and informative, but the results were definitely not surprising. Further research should be done to find better ways of teaching and learning information with the help of music since our brains evolved to pass down information through song and poetry. I believe music is an essential part of the human experience and it would help us greatly to gain more insight on the role of music in our lives.

4 thoughts on “Musical Memory

  1. Alyssa

    I do agree that this is a subject that should be studied on more. Music certainly has facilitated my learning of particular subjects. I was in chorus and as you had found playing your instrument, learning songs and rehearsing them was a much easier task than to sit down and take a test. When I read that repetition takes a part in memorizing music, I was not surprised. Most of what I have been able to remember from tests to songs from my childhood, have been because I made an effort to practice and repeat until it had been permanently ingrained into my brain. I found it very interesting how association creates a large amount of context and because of that it makes remembering musical scores or songs much easier. Though association was a surprise for me, I have to admit, the study dictating that learning songs, for the most part, improves foreign language performance was pretty shocking. After further thought, it must be common sense that they interrelate, but it wasn’t until now that I actually connected the dots. This article was well researched and very well done!

  2. cheyc

    This is a very interesting concept and I am surprised there wasn’t more research into how music is more easily learned, and helps in learning other things. I’ve always wondered whether it was the repetition or the musical tune that helped in learning concepts such as the ABCs and such, and from your post it seems that it’s a little bit of both. Now I wonder whether one has more of an impact than the other.

  3. elisepoffenberger

    This is very interesting. I agree with you, and the previous comments, that this should be studied more. Although I do not have a large musical background, from what I do know, I certainly do agree that structure, repetition, and association all significantly affect music memory. I can certainly see how repetition is another factor that makes music easier to learn. Hearing, playing, or seeing something over and over again certainly helps our memory.

  4. kharner Post author

    Thank you all for your comments. It is interesting to come back to this topic after learning more about memory in class. It got me wondering if playing music can be considered “deep processing”. For me, I play classical violin and there are no words to think about semantically. However, we also learned in class that “the key to creating connections in the to-be-remembered material is organization.” I am in a music literature class right now, and am learning how compositions are organized. Composers definitely put a lot of thought into the structure of pieces, and popular music also adheres to a certain structure containing verses, the main chorus, and maybe an intro, refrain or bridge. However, since we “memorize well when we find order in the material”, perhaps it doesn’t matter if there aren’t words in the pieces to make meaning of since classical compositions are structured in a way that makes sense to trained musicians.

    *quotations are from Dr. Rettinger’s powerpoint lecture slides.

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