By Michael Corballis 14/03/2017

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.

0 Responses to “Pennies from heaven – music and memory”

  • I have since heard from a self-taught musician whose memory for songs goes well beyond that of the man mentioned above. He has compiled a list of 752 songs that he knows, and he thinks the number will continue to rise. He also remembers and can hum many tunes without words, such as orchestral or jazz pieces. Let’s hear if there are more out there!

    • My own memory for songs is pretty lackluster but I recall hearing on RNZ that Sam Hunt’s memory of poems is astounding. I couldn’t find a direct reference for this but it was noted in this Listener interview:

      A psychologist, Hunt tells me, has done a study of his memory patterns. “This woman reckons I know about 2000 poems by heart, my own and stuff by other people … People say, ‘How do you know all those poems by Yeats or Baxter or Pablo Neruda?’ I say, ‘Well, I can’t f—ing forget them, that’s the problem.'”

    • As the self-taught musician cited by Michael above, our dialogue came about because I have always found that fragments of conversation have a tendency to trigger lines from songs in my memorised repertoire. It recently occurred to me that many of these I have neither performed or arranged in the past.

      I was privileged to examine the 261 title song-list provided by the 92-year-old American (with whom I am now corresponding). I discovered that I knew 193 of these songs well and significant parts of a further 20. The list included 102 extra song titles that were not on my original list – now extended to 752. I spent an enjoyable evening singing through each of the songs that I knew, but hadn’t already listed, and was very surprised at how easily the lyrics came readily to mind. I’m convinced now that there will be hundreds more songs from 60s through to recent hits to further complement my list.

      Where did my knowledge of all these songs come from?

      Born in 1940, as a child I sang along with popular songs on the radio all the time. I had no opportunity to attend University and went into advertising after leaving school at 15. I eventually wrote a large quantity of jingles.

      As a teenager I played and sang with dance bands and as a jazz trumpet player and member of a big band I taught myself how to arrange. At age 20 I commenced contributing arrangements for the local ‘Radio Band’ broadcasts, went on to become a musical director for TVNZ at age 30, eventually heading to Australia at age 42 and (sans degree) was offered a lectureship in Jazz Studies in Perth Western Australia 2 years later. After 10 years, and having gained experience arranging popular program material for the WA Symphony Orchestra, I returned to NZ to further my career as an arranger, conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (41 concerts) and several other TV commitments before returning to Auckland in 2000 to establish a degree program in Jazz Studies at the University of Auckland. I have since gained a Masters degree and have been lecturing for Wintec Hamilton’s commercial music course for the past 13 years. Throughout my career I have written a few thousand arrangements of popular songs from early 1900s to 1990s.

    • I feel compelled to comment that memorising songs is a walk in the park compared to memorising complex instrumental music.
      As a musician I’m far more impressed by a colleague who has, for example, memorised a substantial number of Bach’s fuges or inventions. Or just about any of Bach’s compositions.

      • Yes, that is indeed impressive, and beyond my comprehension. I am sure, though, that memory for popular songs is much more common, almost to the point of universality–and is probably more impressive than most of us realise. I am always surprised when I hear a song from long ago that I actually know the words. It seems there is quite a vast reservoir in my head that I’m normally unaware of.

  • I know every word of every song on Dark Side of the Moon. Beyond that, I’m hopeless…

  • I scored only 9 of the songs, but being born in 1934 had to learn a lot by rote in Scotland (including geography). For English at least one stanza of each poet had to be learned by heart. Without looking up notes, I will try to give a bit of Vergil? on the fall of Troy:
    O miseri, quai tanta insania cives? Creditis avectos hostes, aut ulla putatis donna carere dolis danaum. Sic notes Ulyxes? Aut haec in lignum … ocultanta achivi. Aut hoc in nostros fabricata est machina muros, inspectura domos, venturaque desuper urbi. Aut aliquis latet error, equo ne credite tucri. Quid quid id est, timeo danaos, et donna ferentis.
    The spelling is probably all wrong, as I remember it by sound. Last time I recited it was in the Roman theatre in Ephesus in 1977 to test the amazing acoustics. I wonder what they will recite in Auckland in 2000 years time?

  • There is a great documentary titled “Alive Inside: A story of music and memory” that follows Dan Cohen (founder and executive director of Music & Memory) promoting the use of digital music players with individualized playlists to improve the quality of life for elders, regardless of their cognitive or physical status (Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia).

    This documentary shows the incredible power of music and memory and illustrates how the part of the brain that processes music is one of the last parts to deteriorate over time – probably a factor in why we remember lyrics and melodies so well; a reflection of how vigorous that part of the brain is. Excellent doco if you want to look it up – their website ( shares the research behind the incentive as well.