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Why we are so good at playing name that tune

If you are driving in the car and your favorite song from middle school comes on, you are most likely able to instantly start singing every word of it. Have you ever stopped and wondered how you could remember all of the words from so long ago? Well, that is due to processes in your memory where lyrics to a song can be easier to encode into your memory. Before I get into that, I will first describe some basic aspects of memory. The steps in memory processes include encoding, which inputs environmental information into our memory; storage, which is the process of storing that information in memory; and retrieval, which is the output of information from our memory. The modal model of memory, created by Atkinson and Shiffrin, begins with an input of environmental stimuli that gets stored in sensory memory for a short period of time in order to recognize any patterns. We then focus our attention on the information we want to store in our memory, sending that information to short term memory. This information can also be placed into long term memory. Information can then be retrieved from our long term memory, such as the lyrics to that favorite song from middle school (McBride & Cutting, 2019). This information on memory provides some background of what I will now discuss, which is why we are able to remember the lyrics to so many songs.

Music has been found to act as a mnemonic effect. A mnemonic is a type of memory strategy that helps to organize the new information you are trying to learn into easier ways to encode or retrieve that information. In this sense, the way we can use mnemonics is with the process of chunking, which, just as the name suggests, groups relevant pieces of information together so that it is easier to remember. With music, we chunk with rhythms, melodies, and pacing. While chunking with music is one way to help remember songs, a major key in music memory is the combination of lyrics with melodies. This allows for better recall of the lyrics of songs that you may have listened to years ago. A few studies have been done that show some of the benefits to learning with music, such as one done by Chazin and Neushatz that showed higher recall scores in participants who learned information through a song compared to those who learned through a lecture (Chazin & Neushatz, 1990, as cited in Lummis et al., 2017). Rainey and Larsen also completed a study that showed a faster relearning rate when information was connected to a song (Rainey & Larsen, 2002, as cited in Lummis et al., 2017). Finally, Ginsborg has shown that when we recall either lyrics or a melody, we recall the other as well, showing the strong link between lyrics and melody when encoding music in our memory (Ginsborg, 2007, as cited in Lummis et al., 2017). These studies provide strong evidence that lyrics are encoded strongly in our memory when paired with melodies, showing how we are able to remember so many words to so many songs!


Our memory is full of song lyrics


A study completed by Lummis et al. supports the idea that music is encoded with the linkage of lyrics and melodies. In this study, one condition had lyrics and music matched, while the other condition had the lyrics spoken. Participants in each of these conditions listened to their respective lyrics two times, with a recall task after each. This task asked the participants to write down as much of the lyrics that they remembered. After the second task, the participants completed a distractor task for five minutes that was unrelated to the song and recall task. They then listened to their lyrics again and performed another recall task. This concluded the first session. A week later, the participants returned for another session, where they completed the same process with new lyrics, but were also tested on their recall of the lyrics from the previous session. The final results of this study concluded that overall lyric recall scores for the participants in the matched lyric and music condition were higher than the participants who heard the lyrics spoken (Lummis et al., 2017). From these results, we can see that connecting words with melodies allows us to remember them for longer periods of time, which helps explain why we can remember so many of the lyrics to different songs. The lyrics of these songs, since they are paired with music, are encoded into our long term memory more strongly, allowing for easier retrieval of the words when an old song comes on the radio.


The vast amount of song lyrics we are able to remember

Another interesting aspect of remembering the words to a song can be seen in a study about priming and lyric recall. Priming is the process where something is presented to you first that can help activate something else or bring up relating information. In this study, participants were either guessing the target song after a prime from the same song, or the target song after a prime from a similar, but different, song. Participants also either heard spoken lyrics or were sung the syllable “la”. The researchers found that a prime from the same song as the target song provided immediate recognition of the target song. Here, we can also see how strongly connected lyrics and melodies are, as the immediate recognition of the target was automatically activated with abstract information from the prime. With priming, we are also able to see how the songs we remember are organized in our memories. In one of the experiments in this study, backwards priming was used, where the prime was the notes that follow the target lyrics in the song. In this case, participants were still able to recognize the target song, showing that how we organize songs in our head is not necessarily in a temporal order. This allows quick and automatic recognition of lyrics when we hear the melody, or vice versa. This also shows that if the prime has some relation to the target song, we are able to recognize it. While the organization of songs is not exactly in temporal order, it has been found that it is easier to recognize a song based on the beginning notes (Peretz, Radeau, & Arguin, 2004). The next time you hear the first couple of notes of a song and immediately recognize it and are ready to sing all the lyrics, know that you are exhibiting the front anchoring effect of memory!


We can relate certain songs to specific memories

In less technical terms, we also tend to remember a lot of songs due to their emotional connection, as well as “attractiveness”. By attractiveness, I mean that songs we like are more appealing to us, causing us to pay more attention to them, leading us to encode them stronger into our memories compared to what we ate for breakfast on Monday morning. With memory, we can decide and categorize which things are more important than others, so we are motivated to remember them better. Songs can also be connected to an emotional memory, which activates our prefrontal cortex in the brain. This specific area of the brain is involved in recalling a personal relationship or a feel-good memory, so we may encode that particular song into our memory better if it is more meaningful to us (Holmes, 2016).



We are able to remember things we like more or find more important, such as music

When we encode a song, there are certain areas of the brain that are activated to help bind the lyrics and melody in our memory. In conditions where melody and lyrics are connected, the areas of the brain that are activated are the left inferior frontal gyrus, the bilateral middle temporal gyrus, and the left motor cortex. In short, these areas of the brain are involved with linguistic processing and perceptual integration of songs into memory. In conditions where the melody is only sung with the syllable “la”, the right hippocampus, left caudate, left cerebellum, and right inferior frontal gyrus are activated. This type of encoding takes a little more work, but in general, these areas of the brain are involved in the binding of lyrics and melodies in memory, as well as correct auditory timing and networks. Overall, it has been found that the right hippocampus specifically plays a major role in binding lyrics and melodies when we encode a song into our music memory (Alonso et al., 2016).

A fascinating aspect of music memory involves the preservation of music ability in patients with Alzheimer’s dementia. You might not think that music can be remembered in someone with a memory disease, but in fact it can be! The main question in this study was: can a nonmusician with Alzheimer’s dementia learn a new song? The participants were taught an unfamiliar song, and then completed a delayed song recall task. The results from this task showed that the music cognition of the participants was mostly preserved, including things such as pitch and rhythm perception, recognition of familiar music, and completion of lyrics (Baird, Umbach, & Thompson, 2017).

So, the next time you hear an old song from middle school, remember that the processes in your memory allow you to sing every single lyric to the song!



Alonso, I., Davachi, L., Valabrègue, R., Lambrecq, V., Dupont, S., & Samson, S. (2016). Neural correlates of binding lyrics and melodies for the encoding of new songs. NeuroImage127, 333–345. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.12.018

Baird, A., Umbach, H., & Thompson, W. F. (2017). A nonmusician with severe Alzheimer’s dementia learns a new song. Neurocase23(1), 36–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/13554794.2017.1287278

Holmes, L. (2016, July 11). Why you can remember every word to ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ years later. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-we-remember-song-lyrics_n_574db541e4b03ede44156a6c

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Lummis, S. N., McCabe, J. A., Sickles, A. L., Byler, R. A., Hochberg, S. A., Eckart, S. E., & Kahler, C. E. (2017). Lyrical memory: Mnemonic effects of music for musicians and nonmusicians. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research22(2), 141–150. https://doi.org/10.24839/2325-7342.JN22.2.141

McBride, D. and Cutting, J. (2019).Cognitive Psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. SAGE Publications.

Meme. Song Lyric Memes [Photo]. Me.me.com. https://me.me/t/song-lyrics

Peretz, I., Radeau, M., & Arguin, M. (2004). Two-way interactions between music and language: Evidence from priming recognition of tune and lyrics in familiar songs. Memory & Cognition32(1), 142–152. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03195827

Pinterest. Music Quotes [Photo]. Pinterest.com. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/47147127328008859/

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