Perhaps it has often happened that you hear a song from many years ago that you liked and, almost instantly, hum its lyrics as if you had memorized them yesterday. Sure, you can boast of a good memory, but that’s not the only reason people can do this with the lyrics of songs that struck a chord with them a year ago or even 30 years ago.
Why we remember the lyrics of a song for a long time
Music, the lyrics of a beloved song seem to have a privileged place in people’s memory. Even before the advent of writing, music was used to transmit stories and information orally. We still see many examples of this today, in the way children learn the alphabet and numbers.
Probably, if you are asked out of the blue, you will not be able to say the names of all 41 counties of Romania or the capitals of European countries, for example. But you’re almost certainly more likely to spontaneously recall the lyrics to a song you haven’t listened to in years, but which was your favorite at the time.
This is why music and words seem to be closely connected, in a special way, with memory.
“First, the characteristics of music often serve as predictable ‘scaffolding’ to help us remember the lyrics associated with that song. For example, the rhythm of a song gives us clues about how long the word in the following musical sequence is.
This helps narrow down the range of words we should remember, signaling that a three-syllable word fits the specific rhythm of a song,” writes Kelly Jakubowski, Associate Professor of Music Psychology, Durham University, in article published in The Conversation.
What scientists have discovered, the surprising detail related to memory
The melody of a song can also help break a text into meaningful chunks. This allows us to remember longer segments of information than if we tried to remember each word individually.
If we have sung or heard a song many times, it becomes more accessible to recall through what is called unconscious memory.
Humming the lyrics to a well-known song is a form of procedural memory, which is an automated, mechanical process that “gets into your blood” much like riding a bicycle. It’s something we can do without thinking too much about how we do it, because we simply already know, we automatically remember how.
One of the reasons why music is deeply rooted in memory is because we tend to listen to the same song over and over again at some point in our lives, even more than reading a favorite book or watching a movie.
Music is also fundamentally emotional. Researchers have shown that one of the main reasons people listen to music is the variety of emotions it creates and the memories it evokes.
A large number of studies have shown that emotional stimuli are remembered better and longer than non-emotional ones. In other words, the old saying “people don’t remember what you said to them, but how you made them feel”, seems totally justified in the case of music.
“It must be said, however, that not all previous studies have indicated that music favors the memorization of associated lyrics. For example, when we listen to a song for the first time, it is much more difficult to memorize both the melody and the lyrics at the same time than if we memorize only the lyrics. And this makes sense, given the multiple tasks that the first option requires,” Professor Kelly Jakubowski wrote.
However, after we get past the first hurdles and listen to that song more times, more and more benefits emerge. Once it becomes familiar, recalling the lyrics is easier than if you were trying to remember them “on land” without the associated music.
Research in this field can be applied to help people suffering from various neurodegenerative disorders. For example, music appears to be of real benefit to those with Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis, helping them recall verbal information.
Plus, if you associate a song by humming its lyrics when you leave your car keys around the house, at least in theory you’ll be more likely to find them the next day.