Sunday, September 04, 2011

Name that tune! – earworms, musical memory and other strange phenomena

Sometimes I only have to hear two notes of a song and I know what it is.

Open mouthed

Photo by bishib70

Often I join in with someone singing a song only to realise that I’m singing a completely different one. What’s going on here?

Musical memory works in strange ways. I’ve written before about how songs are stored in your brain, but nobody really knows the mechanism that stores lyrics and tunes together.

However it works, it does give rise to some strange phenomena. See if you can relate to these:

  • when a song pops unbidden into your head, it’s usually a really, really awful cheesy song that you don’t like and once in your brain you can’t get rid of it (it’s an earworm)
  • I sometimes can’t start off the next song in a concert programme without knowing what the first word is so I have to ask a choir member. Even if the word is ‘the’ it’s enough to get me started.
  • I find myself humming a song for ages before I realise what I’m doing. I try to figure out where it’s come from and realise that I probably overheard it subconsciously from a passing car or distant radio.
  • a choir can often struggle with a difficult song, and then leave it for a whole year without any extra practice then the next time its sung it comes out perfectly.
  • you half-hear someone else singing and you join in only to realise that it’s a different song.
  • you’re happily singing a perfect harmony to something then suddenly freak out because you think you’re singing the tune.
  • sometimes I only have to hear the first two notes or opening chord of a well-known song before I know what it is. Other times I have to hear almost the whole thing before I realise, even though it’s one of my favourite songs.
  • if I haven’t sung a song for a long time I think I’ve forgotten it only to have part of my brain watch as the tune and lyrics mysteriously come out of my mouth of their own accord.  

Do you have any examples of the strange workings of musical memory? Do leave a comment and let us know.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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