Singing For Memory

Song is a wonderful way to remember information, although some songs are better than others. Songs that help you remember need to have simple tunes, with a lot of repetition -- although a more complex tune can be used if it is very familiar. Most importantly, the words should be closely tied to the tune, so that it provides information about the text, such as line and syllable length. You can read more about this in my article on Music as a mnemonic aid, but here I simply want to mention a few specific songs designed for teaching facts.

I was always impressed by Flanders & Swann’s song describing the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, and Tom Lehrer’s song of the Periodic Table.

The Thermodynamics song, I think, is much easier to remember than the Periodic Table, but the latter is an interesting demonstration of how much you can improve memorability simply by setting the information to music.

You can find some more “science songs” at (this is actually designed for instruction: you can hear some of the songs, there are associated lesson plans, etc).

Drug Discovery Today also has an article recounting the lyrics for various songs, by scientists, celebrating various science subjects, which you can read at (it's in pdf format).

Songs are in fact such a popular means of learning science facts that in the U.S. there is a Science Songwriters' Association!

Songs are also a great way to learn poems or prose texts. Many well-known texts have been put to music (for example, The Lied and Art Song Texts site has 87 listed for Shakespeare), or you can of course (bearing in mind the need to find a melody that "fits" the text) match texts to music yourself.

Part of this article originally appeared in the August 2004 newsletter.

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Music and language

  • Some of the attributes of music are particularly memorable, and can be used to assist learning.
  • Music and language are both important in helping humans form large social groups, and one can argue that they co-evolved on the back of this function*.
  • There is growing evidence that the same brain structures are involved in music and language processing.
  • A rare disorder suggests a genetic link between social skills, language skills, and musical skills.
  • These connections between music and language processing support recent evidence that music training can improve children's language skills.

The role of melody in helping recall

The most obvious connection between language and music is that music can be used to help us remember words. It has been convincingly shown that words are better recalled when they are learned as a song rather than speech - in particular conditions.

Melody is what is important. Rhythm is obviously part of that. We are all aware of the power of rhythm in helping make something memorable. But melody, it seems, has quite a lot of attributes, apart from rhythm, that we can use as cues to help our recall. And what seems to be crucial is the simplicity and predictability of the melody.

But the connection between language and music is much more profound than this.

The evolution of language

One of my favorite books is Robin Dunbar's Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language . In it he moves on from the fact that monkeys and apes are intensely social and that grooming each other is a major social bonding mechanism, to the theory that in humans language (particularly the sort of social language we call gossip) has taken the place of grooming. The size of human social groups, he argues cogently, was able to increase (to our species' benefit) because of the advantages language has over grooming. For example, it's hard to groom more than one at a time, but you can talk to several at once.

Language, music, and emotion

I mention this now because he also suggests that both music and language helped humans knit together in social groups, and maybe music was first. We are all familiar with the extraordinary power of music to not only evoke emotion, but also to bind us into a group. Think of your feelings at times of group singing - the singing of the national anthem, singing 'Auld Lang Syne' at New Year's Eve, singing in church, campfire singing, carol singing ... fill in your own experience.

Dunbar also observes that, while skilled oratory has its place of course, language is fairly inadequate at the emotional level - something we all have occasion to notice when we wish to offer comfort and support to those in emotional pain. At times like these, we tend to fall back on the tried and true methods of our forebears - touch.

So, while language is unrivalled in its ability to convey "the facts", there is a point at which it fails. At this point, other facilities need to step in. At an individual level, we have touch, and "body language". At the social level, we have music.

Language and music then, may well have developed together, not entirely independently.More evidence for this comes from recent neurological studies.

The neural substrates of language and music

Language is a very important and complex function in humans, and unsurprisingly it involves a number of brain regions. The most famous is Broca's area. Recent research into neurological aspects of music have held some surprises. Imaging studies have revealed that, while the same area (the planum temporale) was active in all subjects listening to music, in non-musicians it was the right planum temporale that was most active, while in musicians the left side dominated. The left planum temporale is thought to control language processing. It has been suggested that musicians process music as a language. This left-brain activity was most pronounced in people who had started musical training at an early age.

Moreover, several studies have now demonstrated that there are significant differences in the distribution of gray matter in the brain between professional musicians trained at an early age and non-musicians. In particular, musicians have an increased volume of gray matter in Broca's area. The extent of this increase appears to depend on the number of years devoted to musical training. There also appears to be a very significant increase in the amount of gray matter in the part of the auditory cortex called the Heschl's gyrus (also involved in the categorical perception of speech sounds).

An imaging study1 investigating the neural correlates of music processing found that " unexpected musical events" activated the areas of Broca and Wernicke, the superior temporal sulcus, Heschl's gyrus, both planum polare and planum temporale, as well as the anterior superior insular cortices. The important thing about this is that, while some of those regions were already known to be involved in music processing, the cortical network comprising all these structures has up to now been thought to be domain-specific for language processing.

People are sensitive to acoustic cues used to distinguish both different musicians and different speakers

Another study2 has found that people remember music in the same way that they remember speech. Both musicians and non-musicians were found to be equally accurate in distinguishing changes in musical sequences, when those changes were in the length and loudness of certain tones. This discrimination appeared to also be within the capabilities of ten-month-old babies, arguing that the facility is built into us, and does not require training.

These acoustic characteristics are what make two musicians sound different when they are playing the same music, and make two speakers sound different when they are saying the same sentence.

So, if this facility is innate, what do our genes tell us?

Williams syndrome

Williams syndrome is a rare genetic disorder. Those with this syndrome have characteristic facial and physical features, certain cardiovascular problems and mild to moderate mental retardation.

They are also markedly social, and have greater language capabilities than you would expect from their general cognitive ability. They score significantly higher on tests measuring behavior in social situations, including their ability to remember names and faces, eagerness to please others, empathy with others' emotions and tendency to approach strangers.

This connection, between sociability, language skills, and memory for names and faces, is what makes Williams syndrome interesting in this context. And of course, the final characteristic: an extraordinary connection with music
(see )

Mozart effect

A Canadian study is now underway to look at whether musical training gives children an edge over non-musical counterparts in verbal and writing skills (as well as perhaps giving the elderly an edge in preserving cognitive function for as long as possible). In view of the factors discussed here, the idea that music training benefits verbal skills is certainly plausible. I discuss this in more detail in my discussion of the much-hyped Mozart effect.


* I'm sorry, I know this is expressed somewhat clumsily. More colloquially, many people would say they co-evolved for this purpose. But functions don't evolve purposively - the eye didn't evolve because one day an organism thought it would be a really good idea to be able to see. We know this, but it is ... oh so much easier ... to talk about evolution as if it was purposeful. Unfortunately, what starts simply because as a sloppy shorthand way of saying something, becomes how people think of it. I don't want to perpetuate this myself, so, I'm sorry, we have to go with the clumsy.


  1. Dunbar, R. 1996. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  2. Wallace, W.T. 1994. Memory for music: effect of melody on recall of text. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 20, 1471-85.
  3. 1. Koelsch, S., Gunter, T.C., von Cramon, D.Y., Zysset, S., Lohmann, G. & Friederici, A.D. 2002. Bach Speaks: A Cortical "Language-Network" Serves the Processing of Music, NeuroImage, 17(2), 956-966.
  4. 2. Palmer, C.,Jungers, M.K. & Jusczyk, P.W. 2001. Episodic Memory for Musical Prosody. Journal of Memory and Language, 45, 526-545.

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Rhyme & rhythm

As we all know, rhyme and rhythm help make information more memorable. Here's a few ideas that may help you use them more effectively.

Rhythm and rhyme are of course quite separate things, and are processed in different regions of the brain. However, they do share some commonalities in why and how they benefit memory. Rhyme and rhythm impose pattern. For that reason, rhyme and rhythm are particularly valuable when information is not inherently meaningful.

Remember that organization is the key to memory. If information cannot be meaningfully organized, it must be organized by other means.

Imposing a pattern, by using, for example, rhyme and/or rhythm, is one of those means.

Patterns are remembered because they are orderly. An important aspect of order is that it is predictable. When we can anticipate the next part of a sequence or pattern, we encode that information better, probably because our attention has been focused on structurally important points.

There is another aspect to patterns, and to rhyme and rhythm in particular. They help recall by limiting the possible solutions. In the same way that being told the name you want to remember starts with “B” helps your search your memory, so knowing that the next word rhymes with “time” will help your search. Of course, knowing the sound ending of a word helps far more than simply knowing the initial letter, and when this is in the context of a verse, you are usually also constrained by meaning, reducing the possibilities immensely.

Rhythm isn’t quite so helpful, yet it too helps constrain the possibilities by specifying the number of syllables you are searching for.

It is clear from this that for rhyme in particular, it is most effective if the rhyming words are significant words. For example, “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” is pretty good (not brilliant), because “two” is a significant word, and “blue” is sufficiently strongly associated with the ocean (another significant word, since it suggests why we remember him). On the other hand, this verse for remembering England’s kings and queens is not particularly good:

“Willie, Willie, Harry, Steve,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three,
Edward One, Two, Three, Dick Two,
Henry Four, Five, Six, then who?
Edward Four, Five, Dick the Bad,
Harrys twain and Ned, the lad.
Mary, Lizzie, James the Vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again.
William and Mary, Anne o'Gloria,
Four Georges, William and Victoria.
Edward Seven, Georgie Five,
Edward, George and Liz (alive)”

The fact that it is in verse, providing rhyme and rhythm as mnemonic aids, is obviously helpful, but its effectiveness is lessened by the fact that the rhyming words are forced, with little significance to them.

Rhythm has another function, one it doesn’t share with rhyme. Rhythm groups information.

Grouping is of course another fundamental means of making something easy to remember. We can only hold a very limited number of bits of information in our mind at one time, so grouping is necessary for this alone. But in addition, grouping information into a meaningful cluster, or at least one where all bits are closely related, is what organization (the key to memory — can I say it too often?) is all about.

Studies indicate that groups of three are most effective. The gap between such groups can be quite tiny, provided it is discernible by the listener. The way we customarily group phone numbers is a reflection of that.

If you can’t group the information entirely in threes, twos are apparently better than fours (i.e., a 7 figure number would be broken into 3-2-2: 982 34 67). Having said that, I would add that I would imagine that meaningfulness might override this preference; if a four-digit number had meaning in itself, say a famous date, I would group it that way rather than breaking it into smaller chunks and losing the meaning.

But let us never forget the importance of individual difference. Baddeley[1] cites the case of a Scottish professor who had amazing memory abilities. One of his feats was to recall the value of pi to the first thousand decimal places — a feat he would not have bothered to perform if it had not been “so easy”! Apparently, he found that simply arranging the digits in rows of 50, with each row grouped in lots of 5 digits, and reciting them in a particular rhythm, made them very easy (for him) to memorize: “rather like learning a Bach fugue”. The psychologist who observed him doing this feat (Ian Hunter, known for his book, “Memory”) said he did the whole thing in 150 seconds, pausing only (for breath) after the first 500. The rhythm and tempo was basically 5 digits per second, with half a second between each group.

There’s also some evidence to suggest those with musical abilities may benefit more from rhythm, and even rhyme (musically trained people tend to have better verbal skills, and, intriguingly, a 1993 study[2] found a positive correlation between pitch discrimination and an understanding of rhyme and alliteration in children).

The “3 Rs” — rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. It’s not a fair analogy, because these differ considerably in their importance, but I couldn’t resist it.

I want to repeat something I’ve said before — because it is absolutely fundamental. Repetition is essential to memory.

There is sometimes a feeling among novice learners that mnemonic strategies “do away” with the need for repetition. They do not. Nothing does. What memory strategies of all kinds do is reduce the need for repetition. Nothing eliminates the need for repetition.

Even experiences that seem to be examples of “one-trial” learning (i.e., the single experience is enough to remember it forever) are probably re-experienced mentally a number of times. Can you think of any single experience you had, or fact you learned, that you experienced/heard/saw only once, and NEVER thought about again for a long time, until something recalled it to mind?

It’s a difficult thing to prove or disprove, of course.

However, for practical purposes, it is enough to note that, yes, if we want to remember something, we must repeat it. If we’re using a mnemonic strategy to help us remember, we must include the mnemonic cue in our remembering. Thus, if you’re trying to remember that the man with a nose like a beak was called Bill Taylor, don’t omit any of your associative links in your remembering until they’re firmly cemented. I say that because if the “answer” (nose like a beak à Bill Taylor) pops up readily, it’s easy to not bother with remembering the linking information (beak = bill; pay the tailor’s bill). However, if you want the information to stick, you want to make sure those associations are all firmly embedded.

Rhyme and rhythm are mnemonic cues of a different sort, but however effectively you might use them (and if you use them wisely they can be very effective), you still can’t avoid the need for repetition.

Always remember the essential rules of repetition:

  • space it out
  • space it at increasing intervals

(see my article on practice for more on this)

Interesting resource:

The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form:: A wonderful idea for remembering those difficult or rare words, if you’re learning English as a second-language or simply want to expand your vocabulary.

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for June 2005


  1. Baddeley, A. 1994. Your memory: A user’s guide. Penguin
  2. Lamb, S. & Gregory, A. 1993. The relationship between music and reading in beginning readers. Educational Psychology, 13, 19-28.

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The Mozart Effect

The more hyped and less plausible passive Mozart Effect

The so-called "Mozart effect" refers to two quite different phenomena. The one that has received the most media play concerns the almost magical (and mythical) effect of Mozart's music on intelligence. It is the result of a misrepresentation of the research results. Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky's 1993 study found that 10 minutes of exposure to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 temporarily enhanced performance on three spatial reasoning tasks.

The source of the misunderstanding lay in the fact that spatial reasoning is a component of IQ tests, and the researchers reported an increase of some 8 or 9 points in students' IQ scores after listening to the music. The effect lasted some ten to fifteen minutes.

Even in this limited sense, the effect has not been consistently replicated - indeed, it would be fair to say it has more usually failed to be replicated. Moreover, a meta-analysis of studies that have investigated this effect has found that any cognitive improvement "is small and does not reflect any change in IQ or reasoning ability in general, but instead derives entirely from performance on one specific type of cognitive task and has a simple neuropsychological explanation"1.

There does seem to be a case that particular types of music can have an effect on brainwaves - there has been some interesting work done on its possible therapeutic role in reducing epileptic seizures - but the main effect of music seems to be through its effect on arousal.

Most of the research done into the Mozart Effect has continued the example of the original researchers by comparing the effect of listening to Mozart's music with listening to silence or to a relaxation tape. Obviously enough, these various situations would be expected to differentially affect mood and level of arousal (which are known to have a, small and unreliable, effect on cognition). There is evidence that when this effect is controlled for, the Mozart effect (which we may note is also small and unreliable) disappears.

The more plausible active Mozart effect

There is however another Mozart effect that promises to be more useful. This is the possibility that formal training in music yields nonmusical benefits. Once again, the media are keen to hypothesize that this effect is on IQ (what is the media's obsession with IQ?). There does however seem to be growing evidence that musical training benefits other faculties - specifically, verbal memory.

More articles on the Mozart Effect,12102,871350,00.html

BBC radio programme:

about the effect of music training from one of the original "Mozart effect" researchers:


  • Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L, & Ky, K.N. 1993. Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
  • Schellenberg, E.G. 2001. Music and nonmusical abilities. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 930, 355-71.

Studies that have failed to confirm this finding

  • Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • McCutcheon,L.E. 2000. Another failure to generalize the Mozart effect. Psychological Reports, 87, 325-30.
  • Newman,J., Rosenbach,J.H., Burns,K.L., Latimer,B.C., Matocha,H.R. & Vogt,E.R. 1995. An experimental test of "the mozart effect": does listening to his music improve spatial ability? Perceptual & Motor Skills, 81, 1379-87.
  • Steele, K.M., Bella, S.D., Peretz, I., Dunlop, T., Dawe, L.A., Humphrey, G.K., Shannon, R.A., Kirby Jr., J.L. & Olmstead, C.G. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • Steele, K.M., Brown,J.D., Stoecker,J.A. 1999. Failure to confirm the Rauscher and Shaw description of recovery of the Mozart effect. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 88, 843-8.

Failure to extend finding:

  • Bridgett,D.J. & Cuevas,J. 2000. Effects of listening to Mozart and Bach on the performance of a mathematical test. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 90, 1171-5.
  • Steele,K.M., Ball,T.N. & Runk,R. 1997. Listening to Mozart does not enhance backwards digit span performance. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 84, 1179-84.

Success in replicating effect:

  • Rideout,B.E., Dougherty,S. & Wernert,L. 1998. Effect of music on spatial performance: a test of generality. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 86, 512-4.
  • Rideout,B.E. & Taylor,J. 1997. Enhanced spatial performance following 10 minutes exposure to music: a replication. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 85, 112-4.

Effect accounted by arousal:

  • Steele,K.M. 2000. Arousal and mood factors in the "Mozart effect". Perceptual & Motor Skills, 91, 188-90.
  • Thompson,W.F., Schellenberg,E.G. & Husain,G. 2001. Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12, 248-51.

1. Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.

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