Associate Professor Kelly Jakubowski from our Department of Music explores the link between memory and song lyrics.
Why is it that many people can’t remember where they put their car keys most mornings, but can sing along to every lyric of a song they haven’t heard in years when it comes on the radio? Do song lyrics live in some sort of privileged place in our memories?
Music has a long history of being used as a mnemonic device, that is, to aid the memory of words and information. Before the advent of written language, music was used to orally transmit stories and information. We see many such examples even today, in how we teach children the alphabet, numbers, or – in my own case – the names of the 50 states of the US. Indeed, I’d challenge even any adult reader to try and recall the letters of the alphabet without hearing the familiar tune or its rhythm in your mind.
There are several reasons why music and words seem to become intricately linked in memory. Firstly, the features of music often serve as a predictable “scaffold” for helping us to remember associated lyrics.
For instance, the rhythm and beat of the music give clues as to how long the next word in a sequence will be. This helps to limit the possible word choices to be recalled, for instance, by signalling that a three-syllable word fits with a particular rhythm within the song.
A song’s melody can also help to segment a text into meaningful chunks. This allows us to essentially remember longer segments of information than if we had to memorise every single word individually. Songs also often make use of literary devices like rhyme and alliteration, which further facilitate memorisation.
When we have sung or heard a song many times before, this song may become accessible via our implicit (non-conscious) memory. Singing the lyrics to a very well-known song is a form of procedural memory. That is, it is a highly automatised process like riding a bike: it’s something we are able to do without thinking much about it.
One of the reasons music is so deeply ingrained in memory in this way is because we tend to hear the same songs many, many times throughout our lifetimes (more so, than say, reading a favourite book or watching a favourite film).
Music is also fundamentally emotional. Indeed, research has shown that one of the main reasons people engage with music is because of the diversity of emotions it conveys and evokes.
A wide range of research has found that emotional stimuli are remembered better than non-emotional ones. The task of trying to remember the ABCs or a the colours of the rainbow? is inherently more motivating when set to a catchy tune – and we can remember this material better later on when we make an emotional connection.
It should be noted that not all previous research has found that music facilitates memory for associated lyrics. For instance, upon the first encounter with a new song, memorising both the melody and associated lyrics is harder than memorising just the lyrics. This makes sense, given the multiple tasks involved.
However, after getting over this initial hurdle and being exposed to a song several times, more beneficial effects seem to kick in. Once a melody is familiar, the associated lyrics are generally easier to remember than if you tried to memorise these lyrics without a tune behind them.
Research in this area is also being applied to assist people with various neurodegenerative disorders. For instance, music seems to help those with Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis to remember verbal information.
So, the next time you put your car keys in a new spot, try creating a catchy song to remind you of their location the next day – and, in theory, you shouldn’t forget where you’ve put them so easily.
Associate Professor Kelly Jakubowski is in our Department of Music.
Ranked 6th in the Complete University Guide by Subject 2024, the Music Department has been central to the Durham University’s three-year project to become the largest All-Steinway school in the UK.
Research-led teaching supports our students to achieve their full potential as thinking, creative musicians, and scholars. What’s more Durham enjoys a rich musical life beyond the Department with numerous choirs, orchestras, opera, jazz, and early-music ensembles, in addition to our own annual concert series attracting soloists from around the World.
Feeling inspired? Visit our Music webpages for more information on our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.
Durham University is a top 100 world university. In the QS World University Rankings 2024, we were ranked 78th globally.