I recently read a letter from a 92-year-old American who was surprised to discover he knew 203 pop songs in detail, and partially knew another 58. He said he had a poor academic record and in other respects his memory was not exceptional. He was not a singer, but had done some acting. He had also published a book of poems, many of which he could no longer remember!
I discovered to my surprise that I also recognized many of the songs he listed, and could even remember most of the words. Recognition is easy, though. If asked to simply list all of the song I know, I could probably manage only about 20. Even so they lurk in the mind, even though they are of no use any more.
To give you the flavour, here is a list of every 10th song from the total list of 203. Let’s see how you score:
Always; Birth of the Blues; Day by Day; Five Minutes More; I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night; I Love You; I’m Beginning to See the Light; It’s Magic; Jingle Jangle Jingle; Long Ago and Far Away; Mighty Lak’ A Rose; Nothing Could be Finer; Pennies from Heaven; Santa Clause is Coming to Town; Sleepy Time Gal; Summertime; There I Go Again; We Can Make Believe; Why Don’t You Do Right; Zip-A-Dee Doo Dah
My guess is that people over about 70 will score quite well, with diminishing returns below that. Younger people probably have their own list, albeit an overlapping one. I score 10. This is probably not bad given that my awareness of pop music ceased with the Beatles. So what is it about songs that makes them memorable, so much so that they sometimes intrude as “earworms”—unwelcome invaders into otherwise tranquil moments? How often have you had a tune running in your mind that you can’t get rid of?
In part, I suppose, it’s simply a question of repetition. Even old songs are replayed on radio or still banged out in pubs or cross-generational gatherings. They are played in public places and infiltrate below the level of awareness. But I think there’s more to it.
We have all been taught rhymes to remember otherwise unmemorable lists—the alphabet, the colours of the rainbow, the number of days in each month, the first 20 digits of pi, the periodic table. I remember only too well the Latin prepositions that take the ablative, but the rhyme containing them now appears as an earworm rather than an aid to translation. Poetry itself may have originated as a preliterate rhyming device for the preservation and broadcasting of stories, although in modern times it has morphed into something else.
Rhyme adds a predictability, reducing the number of options at each choice point. Suppose I give you the beginning of a limerick: “There was an old man from Calcutta, who had an ….” My guess is that the next few words will be fairly predictable. (Actually, there are two that float off my tongue, and they’re entirely spontaneous). Rhythm is a kind of running dance, with its repetition adding to predictability.
Then there’s tune itself. With just a few parameters there seems no limit to the number of melodies that can be formed, a property exploited by songbirds to attract mates. And popstars, perhaps. Religions too use song through hymns and chants, usually with easy tunes and rhymes designed to embed themselves in the brain, sometimes as earworms, and preserve the unity of the flock.
So perhaps songs simply insert themselves all over the brain, in verbal, emotional, and movement centres, forming interlocking systems that are hard to break. Left and right brains, too, although that is a distinction born more of culture than of neurology. The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker once wrote that music is merely “auditory cheesecake”, but I think it’s probably more like a rich, brandied Christmas pudding, complete with coins that used to be inserted before that practice was deemed unhygienic. Pennies from heaven indeed.
Featured image: Wikimedia / Wuhuiru55.