There’s a jukebox in your brain, and it’s filled to the brim with songs and melodies.
“To me, the really crazy thing is, they never go away, they seem to outlast every other piece of knowledge I have acquired in my life,” said Jenn Wasner of the Baltimore band Wye Oak.
Think for a moment about all of the melodies and songs that you can remember. How many do you think are there? Hundreds? Thousands? How come we can remember all of that, even terrible songs we hate, but we can’t recall our co-worker’s name?
Scientists are digging deep into the mechanics of the jukebox in our brains – to find out how it works, and what we could learn from it, in terms of improving our memory.
Who hits play?
Here’s something that happens all the time – maybe so much so that you don’t even notice it anymore.
You’re walking around, going about your life, and suddenly, a song pops into your head.For me, that song has been “Your home is where you’re happy.”
I’m not talking about an earworm I can’t shake. It’s just a song that seems to trigger on my internal playlist very often.
This song I’m singing so frequently these days is a Lemonheads song, a band I liked as a teenager. I have a mixed tape from 1990 in my basement that has that song on it. When a friend gave me this tape, I was a teenager, failing miserably in school, and spending most of my time at a shabby cafe.
I didn’t think about the song for years, until I started singing it. Often.
Why this song? Why does it pop into my head so frequently?
I decided to start an investigation at the source, so to speak. I called up John Strohm, he was the drummer for The Lemonheads, and is now an attorney In Nashville, TN.
“Do you know it was written by Charles Manson?” Strohm asked me. Yes, I had read that fact on YouTube when I went to play the song. It didn’t make me very happy. “Evan Dando, the singer for The Lemonheads was obsessed with Charles Manson,” said Strohm. “He learned all of Manson’s songs, it’s the sort of thing you do when you’re 20 I guess.”
Strohm and I talked about music and memory, and he told me he often has a Billy Joel song pop into his head. I asked him which one, and he was reluctant to name it.
“Oh no if I say it, it’s going to happen again – ‘Anthony works in the grocery store,’ that one,” he said. “I respect him as a writer and I don’t dislike his songs, I just don’t want them in my head,” he added.
But we don’t get to pick what gets stored in that vast library.
So many tunes
Raj Halder is a rapper who performs as Lushlife. He thinks he has hundreds of thousands of tunes stored in his brain. “There are melodies I can recall out of thin air, but then there is a whole other world of songs and melodies that I have stored for recognition,” he said.
Research confirms that musicians and music enthusiasts have hundreds of thousands of tunes in their memory, says music psychologist Vicky Williamson. She runs the music and wellbeing unit at the University of Sheffield in the UK.
“Your brain is very good at remembering a lot of things of course, but music tends to stick up there along with smell as two types of stimuli that are very provocative, that can stimulate long-term memories very easily and quickly for people,” she explained.
Williamson says it’s because of the way the brain is structured.
“The parts of the brain that are interested in a lot of the emotion in music are hotly wired to parts of the area of the brain that are generally interested in memory function.”
This is an over-simplification, but broadly speaking we’re talking about connections between the Hippocampus (for memory) – and the superior temporal gyrus (for music) and the amygdala (important in memory and emotions).
The brain also gets a bit of an assist because many pieces of music have a lot in common – like their basic structure. “It’s not like every piece of music is a brand-new experience that you have no guide to,” said Richard Ashley, who researches music and cognition at Northwestern University.
“Your knowledge of music that you are familiar with, your native language in music gives you this huge stock of patterns that lets you absorb and recall and reconstitute pieces of memory, can last a lifetime.”
Why this song?
So, out of this vast library of melodies, your brain picks on that and pops into your head – seemingly at random.
“There’s this NAS lyric, ‘I’m a addict for sneakers’ – even sometimes when I step up to a mic it comes up, it’s so ingrained,” said Raj Halder.
Vicky Williamson says the reason this happens is because our brain is processing all input by constantly scanning all of our existing memory files for information, like a spider’s web, out to all the concepts and ideas that are connected somehow.
So let’s say you see a dog. Your brain instantly looks for all of the relevant information. This allows you to first identify this furry creature as a dog. It reminds you that you like or dislike dogs.
This is an automatic process, it’s not something we have any control over, and it’s this process that allows us to learn, to make sense of the world around us… and sometimes, this same function hits play on some terrible song.
“What’s happening when you think ‘why on Earth is this song in my head?’ – is probably one of those little spider web tendrils has been activated, but subconsciously, so you are not aware of what you have seen or heard from the environment, because you were not focusing on it at the time,” said Williamson.
And if you do a bit of detective work, you’ll probably figure out a connection to something that happened during your day, says Richard Ashley.
“There was something in the lyrics of that song that was triggered by that earlier event.”
With music that has no lyrics, it tends to come to mind because it is reminiscent of a specific mood. “That’s a good soundtrack to the plot in the scene that is playing itself out,” he added.
So with my song – I figured out that it tends to pop into my head when I’m walking to the gym because at that moment, I would most definitely rather BE home.
And, it’s from a specific time in my life – and that plays a role says Vicky Williamson.
“There is a memory theory called reminiscence bumps, which states that memories that you laid down at certain points in your life are more likely to be easily accessed, evocative, and easy for us to process. And reminiscence bumps occur for example in late teenage years, and that might be because of the number of hormones that are going around, or the number of novel unique experiences you are coming across for the first time.”
For musicians – the vast internal music library can create serious havoc.
John Strohm – the drummer turned lawyer – recently wrote a great song – and then realized it was his client’s tune.
“And I’m a copyright lawyer, I’m the guy who is sending the letter when somebody puts a song out there, it would be very embarrassing for me if I put music out that was infringing,” he said.
Given this incredibly sticky quality of music, researchers like Vicky Williamson are studying which tools and techniques they could adapt to help all of us improve our memories.
For example, music might help us remember passwords and pin numbers.
“If my research is true, then setting them to song form, imagining them sung in your mind, will help you to retain them for longer,” said Williamson.
She said that understanding the connection between music and memory could also help improve the lives of those with dementia, or Alzheimer’s.