Want To Remember Something Better? Put It In A Song

My friend Emily can’t speak Russian to save her life; yet the other day she perfectly recited a Russian lullaby I spent 5 minutes teaching her about 10 months ago. I have a whole library of Russian kids’ songs and nursery rhymes stored in my brain that my grandma has shared with me over many years. I’m great at memorising all the Russian lyrics to these tunes, even though I’m still very much a beginner at the language. Sometimes though, my grandma rambles on about her life back in Russia and it tends to go in one ear and out the other. I always wondered why that was the case, that songs and rhymes can be so much easier to remember than the spoken word. We’ve all heard a catchy song on the radio and been able to sing along to the lyrics after listening to it a handful of times. It had me wondering if there was perhaps a scientific basis to this link between music and memory. It turns out, there is.

(Image by Jesse Kruger from Flickr)

Music helps us remember things better because of a process called “chunking”. Chunking is when we take individual pieces of information and group them together into larger units (i.e. “chunks”). Our short term memory can only hold about 7 units of information at a time. So if we cram more material into each unit by putting them into big chunks, then we can store more content overall.

Music allows us to chunk lyrics together by linking words and phrases in a tune. The melody and rhythm act as a great framework that we can attach the text to, making it easier to recall later. In this way, the musical structures enhance our ability to learn and retrieve the text of the song.

The alphabet song is a great example of chunking in music. Without the song, young children might learn the 26 letters of the alphabet as 26 separate units of information, which is a lot to remember all in one go. But in the song, the letters are grouped together into melodic and rhythmic phrases. For instance, “L, M, N, O, P” might feel more like one large chunk of information, instead of five. This hopefully makes it easier for the alphabet to stick in a kid’s brain.

The thing is though, music is mainly useful as a memory aid when the song’s melody and rhythm are already familiar to you. If you’re trying to learn new words with a brand new song at the same time, the technique can actually backfire and make it harder to learn the new material. This is because it can overtax your brain with needing to process both the novel text and the unfamiliar melody & rhythm all in one go.

So perhaps the next time you’re listening to your favourite song, take a moment to appreciate how great music is at helping us remember so much better than the spoken word alone.

4 Responses to “Want To Remember Something Better? Put It In A Song”

  1. Kai Yee, Chan says:

    Fantastic! It is really useful for me.

  2. chatzis says:

    This is so true! It’s the reason why many of us still remember the pizza hut and lube mobile phone numbers from when we were kids.

  3. Jamie Liew says:

    Melissa, this is so true! I studied for a biochemistry subject once by learning a glycolysis rap by heart. It was way more effective than just memorising the slides. Now I know why it worked!

  4. Richard Proudlove says:

    Hi Melissa. I really liked this article. It made me think that I would have done better in my Undergraduate degree if INXS had written more songs about thermodynamics. They did have one entitled “Burn for You” but it was not theoretical enough. Oh well!!!