Why We Remember Music and Forget Everything Else

FFor many, music is part of their subconscious. It’s constantly playing in the background, whether we’re at a coffee shop, in the elevator, working from home, or even just walking down the street. Every year, Spotify tells us how many minutes we’ve spent listening to music. I spent 53,402 minutes in 2021—17 hours a week—which is far more time than I’ve spent doing most other things. Nielsen estimates that Americans listen to music on average 32 hours per week. It’s no surprise that we have such a strong memory for music and can easily recall lyrics and melodies, even if we haven’t heard them in years.

Heardle was a Wordle spinoff that launched in March. The app tests your musical memory, asking you to name a song in one second. For every incorrect guess, it extends the track by one second. I was excited to have a place to use my musical knowledge, and I’m not the only one. Heardle is used daily by thousands of people to locate nostalgic or popular songs, from the Fugees through to Spice Girls and Adele.

Heardle’s popularity taps into an intriguing part of psychology. It is about how deep we keep music in our memories and how easy it can be remembered. “There is an approach called the gating paradigm [which is] very similar to the Heardle app,” says Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, assistant professor of music psychology at Durham University in the U.K. “You present one note [and then two, and then three to] see how long it takes people to identify a piece of music, so I think that it’s quite funny that they’ve kind of tapped on that [with Heardle].”

A lot of us are able to hear music within our heads, which is also known as having auditory imagery or musical perception. “This can happen voluntarily or deliberately, so if I [ask you to] think of the song ‘Happy Birthday,’ you can probably hear it playing in your mind right now, but it can also happen involuntarily. That’s what we call an earworm, when we get a song that pops into mind without you actually trying to recall any music,” Jakubowski says. It’s quite common to have a song stuck in your head—“around 90% of people say they have an earworm at least once a week and around ⅓ of people say they have an earworm at least once a day,” she notes. You might expect that earworms tend to be more prevalent in those who are exposed to music or listen to it more often. It seems that music spontaneously pops up more often the more we listen.

Apps like Heardle are satisfying to play because “when we perceive or imagine music that’s quite meaningful to us, we get activation in what we call the reward centers of our brain,” Jakubowski says. The brain releases dopamine when we listen to music. Dopamine levels can rise up to 9 percent when we are listening to good music. That’s one reason why music has become so intertwined with how we express and comfort ourselves.

“Music is inherently bound up with personal identity, and so [when people can] identify pieces of music without a lot of information, it’s often music from their youth [which can trigger] what we call the reminiscence bump in autobiographical memory,” Jakubowski says. “Older adults have a really good memory for certain songs from their youth because they listened to that same record over and over … It can bring back your memories from that time period when you were having these self-defining experiences.”

Heardle’s nostalgic pop music can have an impact on your emotions. Music triggers emotion responses. “Even if you’re just identifying a piece of music based on the first second of it, you have this musical imagery experience [that] probably triggers the memory of that whole piece of music, and then you have the emotions coming back associated with it,” Jakubowski says. “Musical imagery can elicit the same emotional responses as actually listening to a piece of music.”

When we listen to a song, we don’t just remember the music and lyrics—we also understand the emotions that are being conveyed. “Orienting yourself towards the emotional message actually helps you remember the actual music better,” says Dr. Andrea Halpern, professor of psychology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

An in-depth study from 2010 was published by Music perceptionHalpern, along with colleagues, had musicians listen for the first minute familiar pieces of classical music and then record their evaluations of emotions through valence or arousal. After that, they had the musicians listen to the same music again and record their reactions. “The overlap in their profiles was astonishing, which means that they were doing this complicated piece in real time and extracting the same emotions,” Halpern says. They were able map out the emotion expressed by the music in real time and visualize the music vividly, so that they almost had identical scores.

These results show that some elements of music can be recreated in the mind. “Imagining music is actually a very similar experience to perceiving music,” Jakubowski says. “There [are] very strong parallels in terms of the brain activation you see when you imagine music versus when you perceive music.”

Our memory for music may not be perfect, but it’s still quite impressive. A 2015 study was published in Memory and CognitionJakubowski and Halpern along with colleagues measured the accuracy of involuntary music imagery. This was to compare our mental representations to actual music. The wristwatch accelerometers were worn by participants who, when a song was stuck to their heads, tap along with the music. “We found that these participants, the vast majority of which were non-musicians, had quite accurate recall of musical tempo within involuntary musical imagery,” Jakubowski says. “[59%]The original tempo was only 10% slower than the earworms. [which suggests that] even when people who don’t have a lot of formal training in music are spontaneously thinking of music in their everyday lives … it comes to mind quite accurately, at least in terms of tempo.”

Even if you aren’t a musician, you can still have an intuitive understanding of music from how often you experience it. “We don’t necessarily read our favorite book or watch our favorite film as many times as we listen to our favorite music,” Jakubowski says. “Even non-musicians have really accurate musical memory. It’s not that they are deliberately trying to memorize the piece of music, they’re just getting exposed so much that they become musical experts in a different sort of way just because of this incidental exposure to music [that’s] really prominent in our world today.”

It is often a mystery to many why people remember lyrics and songs better than they do their memories of where and when we had them, or what school we were taught. The joy it gives us and the emotional connection we have with music seems to explain this phenomenon. Music represents who we are and how we feel, so of course it’s what we remember.

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