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Does the sound of music really help with memory?

Sound of Music

In the classic film The Sound of Music, Maria teaches the Von Trapp children primarily through song. If you don’t recall the words from the song that starts “Doe a deer a female deer…” you might be sorely missing an important part of your movie education. The song is pretty catchy after all. Once someone starts singing it, I can’t seem to get it out of my head. It turns out music can be helpful beyond just having something to dance to. It can really help us remember things. In fact, some studies may suggest that learning through song can actually enhance one’s memory. The most basic example I can think of is learning the alphabet.  The alphabet song is pretty catchy and helps kids to better remember it. An interesting question then is: how far this musical benefit extend? Can music potentially help older adults or even adults with Alzheimer’s remember more? In Simmons-Stern et al.’s “Music-based memory enhancement in Alzheimer’s Disease: Promise and Limitation” one of the central questions is: To what extent can music enhance memory function in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (AD)?

In a previous study, the researchers had found that individuals with Alzheimer’s could more successfully remember lyrics that were in song rather than spoken at the time of encoding. Previously, Margaret Sargent wrote a blog post on it. Check it out here for some relevant background information . In this study in order to further examine the potentially beneficial effects of music on memory, the content of the short songs were relevant to the daily life of an older adult. For example one of the songs is called “Take your Keys”. It’s a little mnemonic that reminds you to take your keys with you whenever you leave. The researchers were interested in two groups of individuals, those with AD and healthy older adults as a control. The study hypothesized that the lyrics in song would be more often recalled than those that were only spoken.

Participants were given the lyrics to study in addition to listening to a recording—which was either spoken or sung. Following that they received two kinds of memory tests. One tested for general content, while the other for specific details of the studied jingle. For example in Figure 1, a general content question might ask if the participant heard the jingle about a certain topic, whereas as specific content question might ask what the instructions were in a specific part of the song. Following the two tests described above, the participants were asked after some time whether or not the presented lyrics were new or old.

The researchers found that on the general memory test, sung lyrics were better remembered than the spoken lyrics. Meanwhile, in the more specific test, they found that performance between spoken and sung were comparable. Improvement between spoken and sung lyrics on general content is seen in both healthy older adults and AD individuals.

Figure 1. This flow chart taken from the study describes the procedure. It gives a specific example of the type of mnemonic played as well as the follow up questions.

Simmons-Stern et al. expected there to be more of an interaction between group and the mode of presentation, that the benefit for older adults would be greater than for AD individuals. However there was no significant difference, the benefit was the same. And interestingly enough the study also demonstrated that DAT individuals had a lower false alarm rate—they were more conservative in their responses.

In the classic DRM task, which looks at semantically related words, AD individuals are more likely to have a false memory (recall a word that was not in the list). However, in this study Simmons-Stern et al. found the opposite for specific content. AD individuals were more conservative in their answer choices. The researchers contributed this conservatism to participant expectation. In a post-test following the study, they found that most participants expected to recollect the sung lyrics better than the spoken.  The thought behind this is: if the AD individual was asked whether the song was new or old, they were more like to say new (that they did not recollect the lyrics). This reflects their expectation that they should be able to remember the song. If they were unable to remember, they assumed they did not hear it. This speaks to the idea of familiarity versus recollection. If one is familiar with something they will recall general details—as in the general content test. Recollection is being able to recall specific information, ie. particular song lyrics.

Ultimately the study suggests that music only acts to improve the familiarity component of memory, but does not help with specific recollection. Even though this is a very preliminary study its findings can be useful for AD individuals today. Some of the mnemonic jingles could easily benefit the daily lives of AD individuals. For example the us of musical devices designed to give AD patients basic information they may need in their daily life. The jingle might be a short ditty that reminds them of medicine they have to take or places they need to be. Even something small like this could help make AD individual’s lives easier and healthier. Plus, don’t they say that music is good for the soul? Beyond AD, these mnemonics might even be a helpful tool in the classroom, from grade school children to even college students.

The original article can be accessed: here.


  • Simmons-Stern, N.R., Deason, R.G., Brandler, B.J., Frustace, B.S., O’Connor, M.K., et al. (2012). Music-based memory enhancement in Alzheimer’s disease: Promise and limitations. Neuropsychologia, 50, pg. 3295 – 3303.
  • Brosterhous, Chris. “The Sound of Music still sweet on its 46th: Anniversary of Success-With pictures from Department 56 Alpine Village Series.” http://christmasvillagefun.blogspot.com/2012/04/sound-of-music-still-sweet-on-its-46th.html.



Categories: Aging, Memory Tags: , ,
  1. October 18th, 2015 at 17:04 | #1

    This is a great post because the Simmons-Stern et al. study has positive implications for the future of individuals who suffer with Alzheimer’s.
    The study analyzed an interesting topic on music and memory however it seems to lack validity. Since the participants took the study with the expectation that they would remember the content of the song more when the lyrics are sung, wouldn’t the bias skew the results? The results would reflect an inflated improvement of memory for music and lyric recognition… perhaps making the results less significant. Also, it seems too presumptuous to conclude that music only improves the familiarity component of memory, not specific recollection, based on this one cross-sectional study. I found a study that supports the idea that music is in fact associated with episodic memory beyond merely general content.
    Hans Baumgartner (1992) performed an experiment called “Remembrance of things past: music, autobiographical memory, and emotion,” studying the phenomenon of recalling an autobiographical episode upon hearing a particular song. The results of his study suggest that the participants had created associations between a piece of music and a life event, and listening to the piece of music evoked memories of the event (participants reported recalling the event from a week ago to up to 14 years ago). Not only did the music evoke the original emotions of the past event, but the participants also reported the feeling of reliving the original episode, which includes remembering specific imagery of the salient event.
    It would be interesting to look into longitudinal studies of music and memory, specifically the effects of training and music and memory. Similar to the idea that we learned in class – that controlled processes can become automatic with practice – I’d like to know, for instance, how listening to classical music repeatedly while studying for an exam would affect memory.

    Citation: http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7363

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