Home > Memory > It must be something in the way she sings!

It must be something in the way she sings!

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 12.28.20 PMSo it’s a Sunday afternoon and you are walking to lunch, the library, or the gym, and all of a sudden you start to sing the words to a song and it seems to come out of nowhere! Has this ever happened to you? I can testify to this and say that numerous times I find myself singing a song and I have no idea why. In fact, why do we still remember childhood songs such as “the wheels on the bus go round and round” or start singing a song we once loved in the 8th grade? The idea that song melodies seem to stick in our memory for long periods of time is an interesting concept.

Weiss et al., 2012, investigated the impact that melodies have on our memory. In their study, a group of participants listened to melodies, either vocal or instrumental, and were later asked to recall what they had heard. The participants listened to melodies from four categories: voice, piano, banjo, or marimba. In addition, the participants had to rate whether they felt happy, sad, or neutral while listening to the melody. They completed a recognition task in which they heard the same 16 melodies and then a set of 16 new melodies. They were asked to rate which ones were old or new. The results of their study concluded that the melodies that had been presented vocally to the participants were better remembered than those that were presented instrumentally, even if the participant liked an instrument more than a vocal melody. There was no difference of recognition or liking among the instrumental timbres.

When thinking about the results of Weiss et al., 2012, why then are people able to remember vocal melodies better than instrumental melodies? Well, it all has to do with memory! Memory is a complex process that involves multiple components working together. The Multi-store Model of Memory by Atkinson and Shiffrin, created in 1968, shows a great example of this process.
Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 12.31.30 PMThe diagram shows how the different parts of memory work together including sensory memory, short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM). Within these three stages, there are also processes that include how we initially take in the information, called encoding, how we keep that information in memory, called storage, and finally, how we are able to use that information after it is stored in STM, called retrieval. Through these components of memory I will explain why vocal melodies are remembered best.

When we first hear a melody, certain stimuli of that melody such as pitch, volume, tone, and the verbal language make its way to our brain. The quick exposures to these stimuli that we have are immediately captured in our sensory memory. Our sensory memory takes in the stimuli in its raw form from our environment to process. For auditory sounds, our echoic memory store captures the words and sounds of the song. There are also memory stores for visual stimuli and a haptic store for touch and sensory information. The echoic memory store is specifically for auditory stimuli. The duration of this sensory memory store is about 3-4s so we must transfer the information in order to keep it around! How might we keep the information around and relevant?

There are some benefits to remembering a vocal melody; we organize the words presented to us so we can understand what the song is about, therefore we pay attention to what we are hearing and assign value to the melody. By assigning value and paying attention to the melody, this enables us to transfer it to our STM. The pattern that the melody creates is presented to us as noise or frequency and our STM preserves an exact copy. We process the melody at a deeper level and therefore it is stored in STM. Also, songs are relatable to our lives so we tend to make more associations with a song when we listen to it. For example, if I was going through a break-up I might expect what Taylor Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 10.00.23 PM Swift’s new song might be and this would enable me to have prior knowledge about the song and again I will assign meaning to it. Another benefit of a vocal melody is the repetition and how we may continuously try to repeat the lyrics to ourselves over and over again. I can also testify that I have recently done that to Adele’s newest song “Hello.” The repetition helps to solidify the meaning of the melody; by repeating it and rehearsing it, we are retrieving it from our LTM, and this allows us to remember the melody much better. The idea that melodies are catchy and prompt us to repeat and re-sing them all the time is actually beneficial to us! We are able to retrieve the song from our LTM and make it available for us to sing and remember. That might be why sometimes you start to sing your favorite pop song from 8th grade. Additionally, motor neurons are associated with how we learn a melody. When we practice by repetition and rehearsing, this triggers neurons to fire together. After that they have a habit of firing together again and again. Stronger connections are made between neurons helping us to create a pattern when we are learning the specific melody.

There is other evidence that shows we remember vocal melodies better. A study by Levitin & Cook in 1996 found that adults are able to remember tempos and the pitch level of their favorite songs. This demonstrates that since a melody has a certain tune to it, people are more likely to remember other aspects of the melody besides the lyrics. The previous research and the way our memory stores information provides sufficient evidence to Weiss’s study of why we remember a vocal melody better than an instrumental melody. However, Weiss et al. also had other ideas of why we might be better able to recognize vocal melodies. On a biological level, vocal melody could evoke increased arousal within us which in turn could result in a greater depth of processing, enhancing our memory for details of the melody.  This could also be a plausible explanation because as humans we have the innate ability to react to things that are verbally presented to us. This is also a unique way of looking at why we would remember vocal melodies in a neurological way.

To conclude, instrumental melodies would not be as effective in helping us remember melodies because they do not encompass language. Language and words are important when we go through the process of remembering a song.  So the next time you find yourself beginning to sing when you’re out grocery shopping, just know that your memory makes it possible for that song melody to pop up randomly and this can sometimes be an embarrassing situation! Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.

To read the abstract of Weiss et al., 2012 study click here

For the Levitin & Cook 1996 study click here



Levitin, D. J., & Cook, P. R. (1996). Memory for musical tempo: Additional evidence that auditory memory is absolute. Percep- tion & Psychophysics, 58, 927–935.

Weiss, M. W., Trehub, S. E., & Schellenberg, G. E. (2012). Something in the Way She Sings: Enhanced Memory for Vocal Melodies. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1074-1078. doi: 10.1177/0956797612442552

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  1. December 7th, 2015 at 21:27 | #1

    I really enjoyed this blog post because I love music, it is relevant to our daily lives, and it has great implications for future medicine. This post reminds me of my PS215 project. My group studied the impact of music on emotions; particularly whether people experience different levels of emotion depending on if we are listening music with lyrics, versus music without lyrics or only reading music lyrics. We found that people who listened to music with lyrics had significantly greater emotional responses to the music than did people who listened to the instrumental version or only read the music lyrics. Our findings were similar to the findings of this post’s study — music with lyrics seem to be powerful for emotions and memory.
    This post also highlights further evidence that music, especially music with lyrics, can and should be used to aid individuals with dementia and other memory-impairment/ loss diseases. Currently, it seems that most music therapy institutes only use instrumental music, but since people seem to have a strong memory response to music with lyrics, why not implement this knowledge to medical institutions?
    Lastly, I’m just brainstorming a future study that can be performed to further explore this topic of music and memory… I wonder if memory for instrumental music would change if subjects were told to assign meaning to the instrumental music (since the post explains how people remember music with lyrics more since the lyrics allow them to assign meaning to the songs). So if these subjects were told to mentally visualize images while listening to the instrumental music, or to relate the instrumental music to emotions, etc., would the individuals remember the instrumental songs just as well as the individuals who listened to songs with lyrics?

  2. December 9th, 2015 at 13:29 | #2

    Great post Liv! I really enjoyed reading this, and actually found it funny because I am experiencing that phenomenon several times a day — most recently with songs like “Hello” (like you), “Sorry”, and “22” (Taylor Swift songs seem to be especially catchy). I thought your post was extremely well organized, by progressing from speaking about the results of the study and then moving into analysis of the brain’s memory structure to explain why those results must be true.

    All of your thoughts on the different levels of memory, and how a song and lyrics move through it make complete sense to me. I liked your point about how the lyrics can be personally relevant to you, and typically when you personally relate something to yourself, the memory trace is stronger. I also found your point about the repetitive nature of songs (repeated storage and retrieval) helps make songs and lyrics easier to remember.

    Obviously since we just learned this this isn’t something that you could have included in your post, but I wonder if there are intricacies with language and how language is used in songs that makes them more memorable. One thing I notice right away is chunking: we can remember a whole song, or significant lengths of songs, which is much more than 7+/-2 items. That is probably because we chunk segments of songs, verses/lines/chorus, into memorable parts, which makes it easier to remember larger amounts. Another component of songs and its connection to language that I wonder about is the rhyming and patterns in songs. Our ability to recognize patterns in language (in this case it may be line structures or rhyming patterns) may have an impact on how the song is stored in memory, and its ease of retrieval. It would be a cool study to look into different types of songs (maybe songs that rhyme more vs. don’t) and see how that impacts our memory of those songs. Overall, awesome post Liv! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Emily Moslener
    December 9th, 2015 at 22:05 | #3

    This post was really interesting to read because it seems as if I constantly have songs stuck in my head. It makes sense that songs with catchy tunes and lyrics get stuck in people’s heads much more easily than songs that are not as catchy. As I am writing this right now, a song just came on that I sang in a middle school chorus concert, and I can remember almost every word because I practiced it so much and it is catchy and easy to sing to.This is probably why in school, I remember teachers having us write/memorize songs in order to learn material.
    I had never thought about the idea that people remember songs more when they are able to relate to the lyrics. This makes complete sense in that when they can relate to the lyrics, they are more likely to make associations to their life. These associations will help later on when the person is trying to draw the lyrics from their long term memory. This can also probably go the other way in that when a certain song comes on, it brings you back to a particular time or memory that you associate with that song.
    This also reminds me of when we learned about chunking in class. Instead of trying to memorize a list of numbers, for example, we will often chunk them together, which helps our memory. This is why phone numbers are grouped into a set of three numbers, then three more numbers, then a set of four numbers. Our short term memory only has a capacity of 5-9 items, but when we chunk, we are often able to remember more items. As seen in another post, one man can remember 67890 digits of pi!
    Great post overall!!!

  4. December 10th, 2015 at 15:57 | #4

    I find this post really interesting and relevant. Everyone has those songs that they associate with certain memories or times in their lives, which I think is further evidence that memory is extremely subjective. People are more apt. to remember a song that they like, or that is relevant to their life. If a person is a fan of country music, they would have a way harder time memorizing a rap song than they would a country song. The opposite could be true for a person who prefers rap music. I also find it interesting that people are better able to memorize things that are verbal rather than nonverbal, which is why people are better at memorizing vocal songs than instrumentals. This is applicable to the fact that peoples’ memories are extremely subjective when they receive information shortly thereafter learning something. For example, in a study on flashbulb memories done by Hirst et al., it was concluded that talking with others about an event after the fact actually increased the retrieval of the memory. This is like how when you listen to/sing a song a lot, you increase the retrieval, and therefore remember it better. Not only did talking about the event increase retrieval, but also hearing about the event from others actually acted to change a person’s recollection of the event. This makes me wonder if, like flashbulb memories, are memories of songs also subjective to decay? I don’t mean memorization of the actual lyrics, but I mean associated contextual memories. Do we associate certain memories with songs that actually never happened or that aren’t related to that particular song? I find this post really interesting, and it makes me wonder about all the songs I have memorized, or the songs I find myself singing aloud randomly.

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