Wednesday, March 03, 2010

How songs are stored in your brain

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared as The singing memory in February 2007.

In How to deal with song lyrics 2 a few weeks back, I said that I believe that song lyrics are stored in a different part of the brain from, say, poetry, phone numbers or lines from a play.


So how does the singing memory work? Where are songs stored in your brain?

time and memory

After only a short break from regular choir sessions, it’s as if people forget much of what they’ve learnt. Unlike riding a bicycle, just a short break from regular singing and it’s as if that part of the brain ‘forgets’ everything that it’s known. Even if we’ve been going over a song every week for the previous few weeks, just a short time off and the singing mind goes blank.

However, this only seems to affect short-term memory for songs.

Sometimes we really struggle with a song without ever quite getting it right. Then perhaps a year later – without re-visiting it at all in the meantime – we decide to sing it again and it comes out perfectly! There has been no extra practice or rehearsal or repetition. It’s lain dormant in the brain, and yet the subconscious seems to have been at work in that time.

having a break might help you remember

This phenomenon points to something about how the brain stores melodies and lyrics. A short break of just a week may have devastating effects, but a whole summer off and the choir often comes back sharp as nails.

Understanding this better might help us find more effective ways of teaching and learning songs.

After learning a new song for a few weeks, I get the choir to sing it through for a few more weeks. Then I leave it for a few weeks before we try it again in the belief that the subconscious has been squirreling it away more effectively in the memory.

how the brain remembers songs

There is definitely a different part of the brain involved in learning songs than that used to learn melodies for instruments or when learning ‘lines’ off by heart (e.g. poetry, plays, etc.).

Many times I can be asked what the lyrics to a song are and can only recall them by singing them. I can’t speak them or I’ll forget what’s coming next. The brain has stored the sounds and the words together, inextricably linked.

Similarly, when someone is struggling with a tune, often reminding them of the first few words is enough for the whole thing to kick in.

When singing a song we’ve not done for a while, I’m often convinced I don’t know the words (or the harmony). But I trust the process and just open my mouth and – as if by magic – the whole thing comes out almost despite me. There is even a conscious part of my brain that observes this process taking place and marvels at where the words and tune are coming from.

trust your own memory

Recently somebody asked for clarification of their harmony part so I sang it to them, believing that I knew it perfectly. Afterwards they said that they weren’t sure that’s exactly what I’d taught them originally. This sowed a doubt in my mind so I went to get the written score.

The second time I sang it, I realised that I had been absolutely spot on the first time! It was my subconscious brain that had remembered it. I just opened my mouth and trusted what came out. But as soon as someone asked me a question, my rational brain kicked in and I began to doubt myself.

I often see people singing hesitantly because their conscious mind is telling them that it’s not sure that they know what they’re doing. However, nine times out of 10 they’ve got it right, if only they’d trust themselves and the learning process.

At times like that I tell people to behave as if they know what they're doing and invariably it will come out right.

what can we learn from this?

Of course, everything I’ve written about here is anecdotal. I have no idea if there is any scientific evidence backing it up. But what I’ve learnt is this:

  • leaving a song alone for quite a while allows the brain to consolidate its learning in peace. You might want to build in gaps like this when teaching or learning new songs.
  • it’s no good drilling extra verses at home like you would when learning lines. You need to link the music with the lyrics. Better is to sing along with a recording whilst looking at the lyrics, then gradually hide them as you repeat the process.
  • you know songs better than you think. If you’ve not sung a song for a while, don’t panic and get the music or lyrics out, just trust the process and you will be amazed at what your subconscious mind has remembered.
  • don’t panic when you’re in the early stages of learning a song. If you learn a song quickly, you will forget it quickly. If you have a break from singing too soon in the process, you will forget the song quite easily. But it WILL come back. Just be patient.

do you have any handy hints?

Do you have any personal experiences you want to share about learning songs and lyrics? Do you have any handy hints that might make the lyric-learning process easier? Do drop by and leave a comment!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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