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Can a catchy tune help you learn?

Woman with headphones lying on grass laughing

Why is it that you can still remember the lyrics to pop songs years later, even when more important information seems to melt out of our brains? And is there a way we can harness catchy tunes to aid learning? Acteon consultant Elspeth Darriba thumbs through her record collection to find out more... 

It’s always struck me as odd that, while I can’t tell you my landline number, I rely on my phone to remind me of friends’ birthdays, and I frequently forget why I’ve walked into a room, I can recall the lyrics to almost every chart song from my teenage years.

It doesn’t seem intuitive. Why do useful things I want to remember get lost, while seemingly insignificant ones have been lodged firmly in my brain since 1995 (every single line of Disco 2000 by Pulp, the rap from Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise)?

Perhaps my sprightly, youthful brain was more sponge-like? More able to absorb new information than my knackered adult brain? Even worse, maybe I’ve reached ‘load capacity’? Will new facts only stick if I start forgetting less important things, to make room?

Or is there just something about music that our brains find irresistible?

As they say in that shampoo ad, here comes the science bit.

Your brain’s a sucker for a catchy tune

Listening to music that we enjoy releases the happy hormone, dopamine - which means our brains literally associate music with pleasure. (Dopamine is also released when we eat things we really crave and when we engage in a certain activity with another consenting adult.)

According to Dr Robert J. Zatorre, professor of cognitive neuroscience at McGill University, “music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system, the part of the brain that tells us if things are important or relevant to survival.”

This ‘perceived importance’ is what our brain uses to decide whether to file a new piece of information away for future use – in other words, to remember it.

It seems the more pleasurable we find an experience, the more likely we are to remember it. And we even know a little about why that is.

“Oh Deborah, do you recall?”

The process of creating a memory begins with a moment that grabs our attention. If it’s pleasurable or emotional, it causes the neurons in our brain to fire more frequently, making the experience much more intense and increasing the likelihood that it gets encoded as a memory.

Acting as a sort of internal personal secretary, the hippocampus then analyses these short-term memory inputs by linking them with previously recorded experiences and decides if they should be added to long-term memory. The various threads of information are then combined and stored away in the brain for future reference.

So it seems the emotional response that some songs generate literally embeds them in our brain.

This process is part of something known as ‘acoustic encoding’ - the processing and encoding of sound, words and other auditory input for storage and later retrieval. (There are other types of encoding too.)

But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Not only does music we enjoy encourage our brains to pay attention and remember, it also helps us recall that information quicker and more effectively.

Total recall

There’s a whole heap of scientific research on how, when and why our brains recall long-term memories. But, in brief, it seems human memory is associative. It tries to help you make sense of a current situation by linking it with something you already know.

So, whenever we encounter something new, our helpful brain goes to look in its internal filing cabinet for something relevant, and presents you with the file it thinks might be most useful.

This is one of the many reasons why music has such power over our subconscious. As soon as your brain recognises a familiar tune or lyric, it heads off to find the associated information – even before you’ve consciously registered hearing anything.

That’s why overhearing a snatch of a tune or a fragment of a lyric is sometimes enough to have you humming the whole song within seconds, even if you don’t remember what the initial trigger was.

Music has been used as a learning aid for hundreds (probably thousands) of years, albeit mainly for children. I’m sure most of us can remember learning our ABCs with the help of the ‘Alphabet Song’. (Thanks to an annoying ditty from my own school days, I still know how to ask a French person when their birthday is… providing I sing it at them.)

Educational shows like Sesame Street have been tapping into the power of music to help kids remember things for decades. So why don’t we use this tactic on adults?

Perhaps it’s perceived as childish. Perhaps we assume the way we learn ought to be different somehow, now we’re adults. But are these assumptions wrong?

Can music help adults learn?

The short answer is yes. While children’s brains are more receptive, our adult brains also benefit from learning new things through music. And our ability to recall that information can also be significantly enhanced with the help of a snappy tune and a rhythmic beat.

Why? Because music strengthens the associations our brain makes between pieces of information, which encourages long-term memory encoding. It’s an organisation strategy known as ‘elaboration’.

(Mnemonics are a type of elaboration we’re probably all more familiar with. Maybe you learnt the points of the compass using the mnemonic, Never Eat Shredded Wheat or the colours of the Rainbow using Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.)

Songs appear to work in much the same way - the similarity and repetition of music etches deep grooves in our brain - even more so if it’s music we like, because our pleasure receptors tell us to sit up and take note.

As American author Chris Brewer puts it in his book, Music and Learning: Seven Ways to Use Music in the Classroom, “When information is put to rhythm and rhyme, these musical elements provide a hook for recall”.

By using music as a learning tool, we can train our brains to pay attention, absorb the new information and, in theory, commit that information to long-term memory. (Surely every L&D professional’s dream outcome!)

Professor Ian Cross, Director of the Centre for Science and Music in Cambridge puts it much more eloquently than I can:

“Music gives us a hook to hang the words on. We know that if the words don't match with that temporal structure, they can't be the right words. And vice versa. It narrows down the problem space, narrows down the search space. Lyrics to a piece of music are probably even more powerful because there's not only the rhythmic structure, there's also melodic structure - the tune, the ups and downs, and the pitch that the words accompany. Put all these together, and it gives you a very powerful set of cues that help you remember much more perfectly.”

Right, I’m off to re-write the lyrics to Pulp’s Common People to incorporate all the birth dates of my extended family plus an extra verse about green bin day and the cat’s annual vaccinations.

You can find out more about the work we’ve done incorporating music into successful learning for clients like Channel 4 and Co-op, here