Music and Memory

What makes music stick in our brains?

Picture this: you finally climb into bed after a long day, ready to drift off into blessed unconsciousness. But right as you close your eyes… 

Cotton-Eyed Joe suddenly starts playing on a never-ending loop in your head – and you just can’t Make. It. Stop. 

That’s the beauty (or in this case perhaps the curse) of music and memory. Sure, it can be maddening to walk around with a song stuck in your noggin’. On the other hand, when a song you haven’t heard in years comes on and you remember every word… pure nostalgic bliss. 

But what is it that makes music and memory go together like PB&J? We’re tackling that question in this next article in our music psychology series with a walk down memory lane (literally). 

Why Do Songs Get Stuck in Our Heads?

We all know what it’s like to have a tune stuck in our head (usually at the most inopportune moments). But the real question is why does it happen – and better yet, is there a way to make it stop? 

The real name for this phenomenon is Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI). It’s also commonly known as an “earworm” (a gross mental image if you ask me, but there it is). Earworms can be triggered by listening to a song repeatedly, listening to it during a stressful period, or by songs associated with past events or memories. 

However, not every song is likely to get stuck in your head. Studies have shown that the song must have a fairly simple melodic pattern, yet also have a unique feature such as more frequent, or bigger leaps in pitch, to really stick. 

We don’t know for certain why earworms happen, but a 2005 study published in the journal Nature found that the auditory cortex (the part of the temporal lobe that processes sound) was involuntarily activated when participants listened to familiar songs in which a section was muted. Essentially, earworms may be the result of your brain attempting to “fill in the blank” in the missing music. 

Because earworms are involuntary, it can be tricky to get rid of them on purpose. But if you’re at your wits’ end and need to get a song unstuck you can try: chewing gum, distracting your brain with engaging activities like puzzles, or even listening to the song all the way through. 

What is the Link Between Music and Memory? 

Music has been a significant part of the human experience for thousands of years. Long before the written word, people used songs as a way to pass their knowledge along for future generations

We might not be belting out ballads by the campfire much anymore, but we’re still using music as a strategic tool to retain information. From the ABC’s, to counting, to memorizing countries and capitals, and more. However, when we don’t rely on music to learn, retaining information is infinitely more difficult. 

So why can we recall every lyric on our favorite album, but hardly anything we learned in high school? There are four likely explanations: 

  • Repetition. One of the most probable reasons why we remember music lyrics so well is simply because we repeat them… a lot. And it turns out that doing something over and over tends to make it stick – go figure. 

  • Connections. Our brains have an incredible capacity to absorb, retain and store information, but retrieving that data more tricky. The more associations a particular piece of information has, the easier it is for our brain to locate. When you think of lyrics to a song, you don’t just remember the words. You’re also recalling the voice that’s singing, the instruments, and the sound – these details help your brain retrieve that information. 

  • Patterns. The human brain actively seeks out patterns, in fact it’s one of the main reasons we love music. The use of rhyme and pattern in music allows us to predict what comes next, making it easier to learn and recall.  

  • Emotional Response. For most people, music isn’t just entertainment, it’s a way to experience and process emotions during significant life events. That’s why listening to certain songs can transport us back in time and trigger powerful memories, an experience termed by neuroscientists as a reminiscence bump. The more we relate to a song’s emotional message on an intrinsic level, the more likely we are to remember it over time.  

How Music Therapy is Making a Difference 

We don’t fully understand the connection between music and memory, but what we do know is that music has an undeniably positive impact on those suffering from cognitive decline. This video, which shows an elderly woman with dementia flawlessly playing the third movement of Moonlight Sonata (though she insists she doesn’t know it), is just one of many powerful examples of just how significant music is in our lives. 

One study has revealed that our brains have a specific “musical memory area”(MMA) which enables us to store and remember our favorite songs. The MMA is separate from the hippocampus and the temporal lobe (the parts of the brain responsible for long-term memory), which is one explanation why patients suffering cognitive decline are able to recognize music from their past. 

Music therapy has also proven to drastically help people recovering from stroke or brain injury impacting the left-brain region which handles speech. Because our ability to sing comes from the right side of the brain, the patients can relearn to speak first through singing, then later dropping the melody. 

Want to Improve Your Memory with Music? 

Listening to music has proven benefits that you can (and absolutely should) be taking advantage of to improve your physical and cognitive health – now and in the future.  

If you don’t already, make a point to listen to music you love on a daily basis. It will keep your mind nimble, and you happy (or at least sane). 

As for the future, you should start by making a playlist of songs that remind you of positive memories. Try to aim for music you listened to around ages 15-25 years old. Remember that reminiscence bump I mentioned before? That’s what you’re aiming for – and memories from these ages are the most powerful. 

Happy listening!

At NEWM, we believe it’s time for a music industry that puts control back where it belongs – in the hands of artists. Find out more about us and how you can join in the NEWMusic Movement here.

About the Author

Macyn Hunn

Macyn Hunn is the designated copy and content writer for NEWM, with nearly a decade of experience writing sales and marketing copy for companies ranging from startups to multi-million dollar enterprises. A born writer and Texas-native, she made the decision to move to the Middle East (at the befuddlement of her family) in 2016 in pursuit of culture, adventure, and of course, a good story – and she found it. She currently lives in Jordan with her husband.


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