Medical Mysteries of Music

Why Can We Remember Song Lyrics Better Than Almost Anything Else?

I have a terrible memory for names. If you’re ever introduced to me, you can bet that I will forget your name within 10 seconds. I’ve tried all the tricks–mnemonics, repeating your name as soon as I hear it–but even as I do that, I can feel the memory of your name evaporating from my brain. I can’t explain it–and I hate the embarrassment it causes.

On the other hand, I’m a bit of savant when it comes to other things. Dates. Music trivia. My driver’s license number. And song lyrics.

Actually, most of us are pretty good at remembering the words to songs. If I mention the name of a song–say, “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers–and I’ll be a bunch of words from the song instantly manifest themselves in your head. But it goes beyond that.

A song that you haven’t heard on the radio for five, ten, twenty years suddenly starts playing. How long does it take for you to start singing along in your head? A couple of seconds, tops. Why is that? What is it about our brains that allow us to recall song lyrics so quickly and efficiently? The BBC takes a look.

There are at least three reasons why we remember musical lyrics well, says music psychologist Vicky Williamson.

The first reason is mere exposure. Music is everywhere; in shops, bars, cars, gyms and restaurants. Most people have no idea how often they have listened to their favourite songs, but it can add up to hundreds even thousands of times.

Repeated exposure to any stimulus increases the likelihood of retention, especially when the information is identical each time, as it will be with a recording. Hence, the first reason that lyrics might come easily to mind is because we bombard our memory with them.

Emotional triggers

The second reason lyrics often stick is because they can be related to strong emotions. Music can trigger these in of itself and we can link it to emotional events, becoming representative of our big highs and lows.

In general, emotional memories are easily recalled without repeated exposure. However, people often listen to emotional songs frequently because of the psychological reward they experience, be it a high or a low.

Motor memory

Finally, lyrics can come effortlessly to mind because they are part motor memory. A common reaction to music, lyrical or not, is to learn to sing along, even if we only do this out loud in the privacy of the shower.

Memories that are motoric in nature become habit and can be recalled subconsciously with little effort. Examples include your memory of how to walk, drive, or swim. For this reason, it is fair to say that recalling lyrics can be as easy as riding a bike.

There’s more. Much more. Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38334 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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