Inconsistency of Memory

Posted by in Musings

Have you ever wondered why you could easily recall the lyrics of a song you don’t even like and haven’t heard in years, yet can barely recall anything from yesterday’s test?  Why is that?!? The lyrics of a song aren’t necessarily of any functional value in our lives, yet the academic material we learn, like what I’m learning in medical school, is crucial for my future life.  I recognize the importance of the material I need to learn, but  I can’t seem to remember the cardiac drugs as well as I can remember last year Taylor Swift’s song.

I’ll spoil the ending and say I don’t know.  My first searches came up empty, with only mildly related psych studies such as the Memory and Metamemory of Songs*.  There was tons of literature as to what things we do remember the best, suggesting things and events we remember a proportional to how much we like information, the emotional strength of the event, and the amount of times we have repeated the information ourselves.   Well DUH, we all know that intuitively.  I’m asking specifically about lyrics vs. normal academic knowledge; where is the disconnect?  Below I posited a couple personal theories.

Emotional Value

First consideration is the emotional attachment to the song.  I believe it’s a safe bet to assume that the majority of every person top 10 favorite songs are songs they have a deep connection with.  And even for me, some of the songs that I think of are some of the best songs ever made, such as many of Michael Jackson’s songs, aren’t in the top 10.  So quality of the song isn’t sufficient to make the top 10 list.

Anyways, I digress.  Many psychological and fMRI studies have shown strong emotional events/situations/images/etc. increases activity of the hippocampus, or the center of the brain involved with memories.  Everyone would agree too, it’s easier to recall more emotional driven events, such as a death in the family or a birthday party.  Same thing applies to songs.  I remember the song I was listening to when I first fell in love (Latif – I don’t wanna hurt you, which seems rather ironic given the song is about breaking up)  I still remember the song I listened to on my last night before leaving my friends for college and I was a sobbing mess (Yellowcard – So Long Sweet Summer).

So could it just be that we have more emotional attachments to our songs than our academic learning?  I think absolutely, but the jury is still out to  extent to which this is true.

Listening on Repeat

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  It’s rare that you will listen to song that you like just once.  Hell, it’s rare you’ll only listen to it ten times in a DAY!  It’s easy to grasp that with each listen, you’ll pick up on new aspects of the songs, such as the lyrics and melody.  It’s only natural that it will become ingrained in the context of our mind so that in the future we’ll only need small snippets of the songs melody or lyrics to instantly recall everything with ease.

Repetition is key to truly learning something, so the simple act of hearing songs many times confers an advantage just because you’ll probably only learn about certain academic things a couple times.


Last theory I’ll propose is the idea of contextual learning.  Our brains are not wired linearly so we don’t learn linearly.  We typically take in lots of information in simultaneously and then make relationships to be grasp the information.  It’s rare we are listening to music without doing something else.  Therefore with two “things” occurring simultaneously, often times we contextulize the information and forever link the two.  For example, I’ved permanently linked Rubio’s restaurant and studying for the MCAT in my mind.  I studied there three days a week for 4 months because I would have lunch in-between chemistry and my MCAT classes.  So now, if i enter a rubio’s, I instantly think of the MCAT.  Same is true for the opposite, if I see the acronym MCAT, I think of rubio’s and all the street tacos I consumed their during that 4 month period.

Context helps us formulate connections, even if the link doesn’t necessarily strengthen our understanding of the information.  The vast majority of the time we listen to music, we are doing something else, so it’s natural to make those conceptual connections.  Although slightly different, the emotional attachment goes hand in hand with conceptual memory.

True Comprehension?

It’s important to consider the idea that traditional learning necessitates a level of comprehension, while musical retention does not.  This is best realized at the local karaoke bar, where people will eagerly hop on stage to sing their favorite song, realizing they know a LOT less of the song than they previously believed.  The melody is different, and there are no lyrical clues, making the overall context of memory hazier, resulting in the mumbling of the song until the chorus.

So yes, we know thousands of songs, but how many songs can you start singing on the spot? How many songs could you start right in the middle, at a point other than the chorus?  Musical recall almost requires a linear and contextual framework for it to work properly.


Like I already said, I really can’t give a solid answer.  What’s worse is I can’t even conger up an experiment that could determine the answer to the question.  So who knows if we’ll ever truly know.  I have some solid theories, but there are only hypotheticals based only on tuition and sparse science.  What do you think?


(How to Remember Things is a simple but intriguing op-ed talking about memory strategies which might be interesting.)

*Peynircioglu, Z., Rabinovitz, B., & Thompson, J. (2007). Memory and metamemory for songs: the relative effectiveness of titles, lyrics, and melodies as cues for each otherPsychology of Music, 36 (1), 47-61 DOI: 10.1177/0305735607079722