About Music and Memory – Why We're Hard-Wired for Lyrics

How much time, effort and hard grind does it take you to learn a bunch of facts for an exam? Or a poem off by heart? Probably a lot. So how come most of us automatically know the lyrics of tens, hundreds, maybe a thousand chart tunes? What’s going on with music and memory?
You turn on the radio. It’s playing a song from one, two or three decades ago, perhaps even longer.  You haven’t heard it for years, but you recognise it instantly and before you know it, you’re singing along. You didn’t learn them off by heart, at least not consciously, but the lyrics are ready and waiting, there for you, completely out of the blue.
There must be something incredibly special about words allied to music, something that makes remembering song lyrics instant, accurate and instinctive. Some experts say it’s all about the way the brain processes and stores audible information, and one theory says the brain dedicates a special location for storing lyrics, separate from the place it stashes the music itself.

Repeated exposure to identical information boosts the likelihood of remembering it. So is exposure alone enough to do the trick? Potentially. Music is everywhere, after all, and we’re constantly surrounded by it. Who knows, you might have heard a song played a hundred, two hundred times or more over a lifetime. No wonder it’s so familiar.
Music drives strong emotions, too. If you’ve ever split up with someone then spent the next few heartbroken weeks making mix tapes for your ex and crying along, you’ll know the score! And if the hairs on your arms have ever risen in delight to a tune, you know exactly what I mean. Music triggers emotions all on its own, but add emotional context and you get something quite astonishingly powerful. Better still, you don’t need to have repeated exposure to them to form very strong memories of emotional experiences. Lastly lyrics are part of our motor memory, which means it’s natural to sing along and easy to recall them unconsciously without much effort, in the same way we don’t usually forget how to ride a bike or walk.
None of the above reasons make it any less amazing that I can automatically sing the words to a zillion tunes, whether I like them, recall them, have heard them frequently before or not. It looks like there’s still a lot to learn about the magic behind music and memory.

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