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How Do Our Brains Remember Songs?

| Phoenix, Arizona


Have you ever gotten that one song stuck in your head that you couldn't shake? Or sang a childhood song perfectly during karaoke night despite not hearing it for ten years? If you have, then maybe you thought, "Why can I not remember my test contents as easily as I remember songs?". Well, there's a simple answer: it has to do with brain connections, rhythm, repetition, and a part of your brain called the Auditory Cortex. 


Once we are born, one of the first things our brain learns is how to make connections. Connections are, after all, vital to human welfare. One of these types of connections is emotional connections. Emotional connections are between emotions and a person, action, or trigger. In this case, a song plays the part of the trigger, triggering an emotion whenever you hear it. Your brain recognizes, makes a connection between, and remembers this correlation between the song and the emotion. For example, a happier song like "Dancing Queen" by ABBA activates dopamine and the reward cortex, making you happy and signaling your brain to make a connection and remember it. Many people get it wrong here; your brain does not just remember the song but also the emotion correlating to it. 


Another part of how we remember songs is by the rhythms and rhymes. These rhythms and rhymes produce a cadence that our brains find easy to remember and recall. People have recognized the connection between rhythms and rhymes and started applying them to conscious learning. For example, many elementary teachers teach their students to count by fours to the rhythm of the birthday song. The same principle applies to our brain when storing songs that are familiar to us. These rhythms and rhymes are a tried and true method for memory improvement, and it only makes sense that we would be very good at remembering songs. 


Another important reason why we remember songs without meaning is repetition. Every time you listen to a song, whether you're consciously paying attention or not, your brain is paying attention and absorbing it. Every time you hear a familiar tune your brain recognizes it. As you listen to it more and more, your brain starts to memorize it, helped by the emotional connections you make to it. This remembrance is reinforced by the behavior of singing along to music. By singing you activate your motor memory, which is the capability to remember previously executed movements such as tying your shoes or riding a bike. Every time you sing a song your brain stores that information to help you next time, contributing to the actual memorization of the song.


But where exactly does your brain store all this information? Your Auditory Cortex has the role of storing all auditory and musical memories. It is also responsible for handling all the information your brain receives from your ears. You also have the Auditory Cortex to thank for getting a song stuck in your head. Once triggered by an emotion, it repeatedly plays in your Auditory Cortex because of the connection between that particular song and the emotion that triggered it. 


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Diagram of the Auditory Cortex

A group of Dartmouth researchers put the Auditory Cortexes' playing abilities to the test in 2005. They put a group of volunteers in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to measure the activity of the Auditory Cortex as they played familiar and unfamiliar songs to the subjects. The key here was that they cut short (5 seconds - 7 seconds) sections out from the songs and filled in the gaps with silence. They found that, during the familiar songs, activity in the Auditory Cortex continued as it reconstructed the missing parts in auditory association areas using semantic knowledge (in simple terms, lyrics). The subjects confirmed that they continued hearing the lyrics during familiar songs, showing that they remembered songs they had previously unconsciously learned using the techniques mentioned above. This experiment proves that of the many tasks our brain is capable of doing, remembering songs unconsciously is one of them. 


By making connections between emotions and songs as well as recognizing rhythm and repetition, the Auditory Cortex plays necessary roles in remembering songs. Working to ensure you can sing along to music without the lyrics, impress your friends at karaoke night, and more!

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