Home > Aging, Memory > The valuable skill you learned in elementary school

The valuable skill you learned in elementary school

When I was a senior in high school, a close friend of mine was asked to help another friend’s older brother with a psychology experiment. She was going to be singing tracks for him, and all I remember was feeling entirely unsurprised, because she was the best singer I knew and I always been a little jealous of her. Fast-forward four years, and I’m searching through PsycInfo, looking at articles about music and memory, when I come across an incredibly familiar last name. “That’s so weird,” I think, “how many Simmons-Stern’s could there possibly be in the world?” So I read the article, and as it turns out, it’s the very same study that was being created my senior year, published in a real journal. Not only that, but it’s an incredibly interesting read, which is why I’m going to share it with all of you.

I would be shocked if you had gone through elementary school without learning a few musical mnemonics. I know that I personally still use the “50 States” song if I’m ever asked to name states (which is, admittedly, a rare occurrence). These types of strategies are useful because they provide you with an organizing tool for the information in the form of a tune, and because the music can then be used a memory cue when you’re trying to remember the information. Recent research, however, has been looking into the value of these types of strategies in helping older adults with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) to remember facts and events. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the US, and the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that as of 2013, about 5 million American’s over the age of 65 are living with the disease (for more information on AD, click here). While it involves a general slowing of cognitive processes and many specific deficits such as a loss of the ability to inhibit responses, one of the most notable effects of AD is a loss of episodic memory, or the memory of autobiographical events. The hope of research like the article I read is that memory can be used as a tool combat this episodic memory decline

Simmons-Stern, Budson and Ally (2010) tested 13 patients with AD and 14 healthy older controls, and presented them with the lyrics to unfamiliar children’s songs (the patients were screened before the actual test to make sure the songs were new to them). They most likely chose children’s songs because of their clear, simple tunes and consistent rhyme schemes, which would presumably make them easy to remember. The lyrics – all sets of four rhyming lines – appeared on a screen for the participant to read and were accompanied by an audio track, which was the lyrics either sung or spoken. The participants were exposed to 40 lyric sets, half of which were sung and the other half of which were spoken. Afterwards, they were given a recognition test, where sets of lyrics were displayed without audio accompaniment and the participant had to make an “old or new” decision.

The researchers found that patients with AD were significantly more accurate on lyrics that had been sung to them than ones that had only been spoken, whereas healthy older adults did not show any effect of sung-versus-spoken. This is an important finding, because it suggests that music can in fact be used to help improve memory in older adults living with AD. True, it was only a recognition task, which is typically easier than, say, a recall task where the participant actually generates his or her own answer from memory, but maybe, moving forward, it can become more than that. Maybe singing the news to your grandfather will help him keep up to date on what’s happening in the world, or maybe your great-aunt needs a handy jingle about what she has to do that morning.

In any case, it’s a valuable finding – musical mnemonics aren’t just for third-graders trying to learn prepositions (or was that just my class?). They may actually be a huge step in helping AD patients lead a more successful life.


Simmons-Stern, N.R, Budson, A.E., Ally, B.A. (2010). Music as a memory enhancer in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Neuropsychologia, 48, 3164-3167. 


Categories: Aging, Memory Tags: , ,
  1. Kaitlyn O’Connell
    November 30th, 2013 at 16:28 | #1

    That is so funny that you came across this article! It’s crazy the connections we can make due to the internet. As I was reading this article, I was thinking back to my grade school days and all the musical mnemonics I learned. You are not alone, I remember them all as well. It is funny how poignant these memories are and how long they have stuck in my mind. If the point of education is to learn and remember the information we learn, why are we not learning more information in this musical mnemonic format. Clearly if these musical mnemonics are helping older adults with AD, there are sure to be benefits for younger healthy adults and children. As strange as it would be to see a newscaster reporting while singing, you raise an interesting point. If this would help people to remember it, then why not? I would be interested to see this study done on college students since the information they are expected to learn is less factual and more conceptual, I wonder if this musical mnemonic would be just as useful. We have also learned there are some pragmatic issues with aging such as loss of hearing, I wonder if the change in tone with singing makes it easier for the older person to hear rather than speaking. I also wonder if this is an issue of attention. A song and variation of tone is bound to draw more attention from the older individual, making it easier for the individual to remember.

  2. December 2nd, 2013 at 15:22 | #2

    Very funny that you came across this article again! I found this blog post to be very interesting because thinking back to when I was younger, I remember almost all the words of songs that I had learned. Actually, The other day I was trying to remember a song about US history I had learned when I was younger but couldn’t remember two lines of the song. When I looked back in my old word documents, it only took one quick glance at the two lines before I was able to quickly re-learn them. There is definitely something special about these musical mnemonics because they are something that you hardly ever forget. One possible explanation for better memory in mnemonic musicals is that having a song causes people to chunk the information and therefore be able to remember more information. This is similar to the person we talked about in class who chunked numbers based on racing times. Instead, the musical tune and song allows us to create one unitized chunk of information. For adults with AD, they should definitely be exposed to more musical mnemonics to help them have better memories, even if you have news-reporters singing the news. I think it would be interesting to look at using singing while studying and see if it helps people better remember information for a test. In addition, Kaitlyn raises a good point that it would be interesting to see if conceptual rather than factual information would lead to better memory if used in a musical mnemonic.

  3. December 2nd, 2013 at 16:44 | #3

    Very interesting. I know whenever I need to memorize something fast I set the information to a tune. This has always helped me study information for a test but then again I’ve been surrounded by music for most of my life. I’m curious if musical background makes a difference in how music helps memory. I’d also be interested to see short term vs long term affects on music’s aid in memory. If the tune was catchy or if the listener really liked the song, they’d most likely sing/hum the song or maybe just rehearse it in their head. Rehearsing the song might help them remember the information in the long term. This experiment is both very interesting and practical. Singing the news to your grandparents might seem silly but if it works, it works. I know from interactions with my older relatives that the inability to remember things as well as one used to can be incredibly frustrating and sometimes even dangerous. Coming up with a catchy tune to help people with Alzheimer’s Disease could be very useful and make an importance impact in that person’s life.

  4. December 3rd, 2013 at 17:24 | #4

    I think that this is a really cool topic. Who knew that rhyming songs learned in elementary school could actual be good for something else. I know that I have always learned things more easily when the information was presented as a song so I think that it’s interesting that people with AD remember facts better when in song form as well. I do wonder though if the level of information that is in the song has anything to do with how well they remember it. From what I remember of elementary school songs the lyrics were pretty simple and, of course, the information was nothing nothing more complicated than the names of Maine’s 16 counties, so would that impact the person’s ability to remember it?

  5. May 7th, 2014 at 08:54 | #5

    I found this blog post to be very interesting. It is funny that you stumbled upon your friend’s article! I still use the tunes that I learned in elementary school to help me remember different information. Embarrassingly enough I have to still sing the ABC’s to remember the order of letters. I found the singing to be very helpful when I was younger and today, when learning spanish. I wonder if creating tunes helps memory for novel languages or old languages better. One explanation for the musical mnemonics helping memory could be distinctiveness. Having certain information set to different tunes helps differentiate the information from each other, which in turn causes retrieval to become easier. It is interesting that people with AD also remember facts set to music. I am curious to know if these mnemonics help people with AD have faster response times, or just better accuracy. In general elders with AD and DAT have slower response times because of their type of retrieval (self terminating search vs. exhaustive search), but I wonder if the music would help them retrieve information or would change the search they unconsciously use. Clearly people on the news and in the media should be singing their facts, so adults with AD can remember the information!

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