Unveiling the Mnemonic Magic: Experimenting with Music, Lyrics, and Memory Enhancement

Music has long been known to have a profound impact on our emotions and can evoke vivid memories. If you are of a certain vintage and hail from certain parts of Canada, simply hearing the opening bars of Cadillac Ranch, Macarena, or the Chicken Dance will have you lining up and slapping leather, almost without conscious thought.

So, I began to wonder:

If music can make us remember something insignificant that happened 30 years ago–even entire sequences of moves some people would arguably call a dance–could music also be used as a cue for task and sequence completion?

In other words, could you play someone the same song every time they got dressed? Then, as their cognitive abilities decline or situations become stressful, could that song then act as a cue to help them remember what step comes next if they become confused?

This question led me to Andrew Santana’s 2015 master’s thesis entitled Music and Memory: an ERP Examination of Music as a Mnemonic Device. This study conducted by Santana (2015) explored the effects of music and lyrics on memory performance, with a specific focus on young adults, healthy older adults, and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Admittedly, the researcher didn’t find what he was expecting and could not find evidence for his hypothesis. However, his work does include a wealth of information on performing these types of experiments that should be helpful going forward.

Does Singing Make Words More Recognizable?

Santana (2015) formulated three hypotheses to guide the research:

  1. Music would have similar benefits for young adults, healthy older adults, and AD participants.
  2. Lyrics sung during the encoding phase would improve word recognition more than spoken lyrics.
  3. The improved recognition would enhance electrophysiological components, specifically the FN400 and LPC, which are associated with recognition memory.

Santana designed a within-subject experiment, creating three sets of lyrics matched in various aspects such as the number of words, recording length, content word length, frequency of the content word, beats per minute, and the song’s key. The three lyric sets appeared equally across groups in sung and spoken formats. Additionally, 50 filler words were added to test for old/new recognition. The experiment consisted of two phases, both accompanied by EEG recordings.

Participants also completed the Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index (Golds-MSI), a questionnaire measuring their engagement with music.

During the encoding phase, Santana presented a participant with lyrics on a screen for 4 seconds. Subsequently, he played a participant a recording with either spoken or sung lyrics. The participant then indicated their preference for the lyrics. Each of the 15 participants listened to a total of 50 spoken and 50 sung lyrics.

After a 5-minute break, the testing phase commenced. Participants were presented with 100 words associated with the previously encountered lyrics, 50 words associated with other stimuli, and 50 dummy words. They were asked to indicate if the word was old or new, with a pause and fixation cross between each word.

The findings at the end of the study? No statistically significant effect overall. The experiment hadn’t shown any real advantage to sung lyrics over spoken lyrics.

The Valuable Lessons for Experimenting with Music as a Mnemonic Device

Numerous studies have explored the use of music as a mnemonic device, demonstrating its potential to enhance memory performance. Wallace (1994) conducted one of the earliest investigations, revealing that participants could better recall ballad lyrics when sung than spoken. However, the study also found that the melody needed to be repeated for the mnemonic effect to occur while isolating components like rhythm did not yield the same results.

Repetition emerged as a key factor in the effectiveness of music as a mnemonic tool, as highlighted by Calvert and Tart (1993). Their research showed that repeated exposure to lyrics improved recall, with participants demonstrating better retention in the sung condition compared to the spoken condition. Singing a lyric once did not benefit significantly, emphasizing the importance of repeated exposure for mnemonic enhancement.

In the realm of education, Chazin and Neuschatz (1990) observed that children and young adults immediately recalled more information from sung lecture material. However, after a week’s delay, no significant difference in recall was observed between the sung and spoken conditions. This suggests that while music initially aids in memory retention, its impact diminishes over time.

Interestingly, Rainey and Larsen (2002) found that musical mnemonics did not immediately impact memory. However, after a week, participants in the singing condition were able to relearn the material faster, indicating a potential saving from previous learning. This study highlights the long-term benefits of music as a mnemonic device, showcasing its ability to facilitate the reacquisition of knowledge over time.

While music appears to be beneficial, it is worth noting that having participants sing to themselves may impair recall. This intriguing finding suggests that the act of singing may have different cognitive implications than passively listening to sung lyrics, which hints at the complex nature of music and memory processing.

Regarding Alzheimer’s disease, Simmons-Stern et al. (2010) found that both healthy individuals and Alzheimer’s patients were equally likely to remember a lyric if it was sung or spoken. However, AD participants benefited more from sung lyrics during the encoding phase. It was suggested that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease might rely more heavily on the mechanisms involved in music mnemonic processing due to memory impairments. Subsequent studies by Simmons-Stern (2012, 2014) utilized lyrics related to daily activities and found that sung lyrics were more effective than spoken lyrics for both healthy adults and AD patients. Interestingly, the improvement was primarily observed in the recognition of general content information rather than specific details.

More closely related to my original question of using music as a mnemonic device for physical task completion, Moussard et al. (2014) investigated the ability of Alzheimer’s patients to remember physical gestures connected to music or a metronome. The study revealed that both conditions improved immediate recall, although delayed recall did not show the same benefits. Palisson et al. (2015) suggested that the rhythm, a core component of music, might improve memory for gestures in AD patients, similar to how it enhances memory for lyrics.

These studies collectively demonstrate the intricate relationship between music and memory. Of course, not all previous research found music to be beneficial. Across this literature, music seems to have mixed results as a mnemonic device. The wild inconsistency suggests to me that multiple or different mechanisms are at play here than we suspect. Or there are flaws in the methods we use to study this effect that went unnoticed. Santana (2015) seemed to agree.

Measuring music and memory requires extremely precise methods and tools. Image is of a clock like tool covered in various copper wheels, gears, and extensions.

Experimenting with Music as a Mnemonic Device Requires Careful Attention to the Details

Santana acknowledged and noted several errors and caveats in this body of research:

  1. Delivery speed of the information – Researchers must carefully regulate the rate at which information is presented to participants when testing music or singing as a mnemonic device. Research has shown that lyrics are naturally delivered at slower speeds, which can bias results by allowing participants to process the material more thoroughly. When researchers slowed spoken phrases to the same tempo as sung phrases, the effect of singing on memory often disappeared. So, when testing music as a mnemonic device, researchers must be highly cognizant of the delivery speed of their stimuli regardless of the condition.
  2. Failing to differentiate between recognition, recall, and familiarity – Historical studies on music as a mnemonic device often conflated these distinct cognitive processes. Recognition involves retrieving details with cues and foils, recall entails actively recalling details without retrieval cues, and familiarity refers to recognizing an event without recalling specific details or context. In some instances, researchers tested for recall and concluded that participants failed to recognize previously presented stimuli or didn’t believe stimuli they’d been exposed to as familiar. If you only test for recall, you cannot, in fact, say with certainty that there was no recognition or familiarity.
  3. Ignoring the role of familiarity and repetition – Familiarity plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of music as a mnemonic device. Verbal information delivered in an unfamiliar melody may be initially less memorable, but repeated exposure to unfamiliar melodies and sung lyrics has been found to have significant advantages over spoken and familiar sung lyrics. Over time, the association between melody and lyrics strengthens, leading to superior memory performance. General research on memory recall and cues support these findings. Research on recall cues tells us that cues for a memory must be unique and closely tied (or overlap with) its respective memory for the recall cue to be effective.
  4. Controlling for visual and auditory cues – When studying the mnemonic effects of music, it is important to account for both visual and auditory cues. Research has shown that the presence of visual cues, such as a silent film paired with sung or spoken lyrics, can significantly impact memory recall. Participants may recall sung lyrics better than spoken lyrics in isolation, but the presence of a silent film can shift the results. Additionally, visual and auditory stimuli duration should be carefully considered to ensure sufficient processing time without introducing potential confounding factors.
  5. Experimental design limitations – Studies, including Santana (2015), may face limitations such as low power and small sample sizes, which can impact the ability to detect improvements in recognition and accuracy. Moreover, the complexity and difficulty of the melodies used in experiments can influence the findings. Simplifying melodies and utilizing recordings with fewer layers of melodic lines may lead to more significant effects. Additionally, it is important to recognize that older participants may process and remember music differently due to potentially relying on alternative mechanisms as age-related cognitive changes begin to set in.
  6. Ignoring emotion – Participant preferences and emotional responses to sung and spoken lyrics seem to play a significant role in mnemonic outcomes. Santana (2015) noted that participants generally disliked both sung and spoken lyrics. However, when participants liked the lyrics, their responses were more accurate. Negative emotion and affect also appeared to be connected with minimal activity in the LPC and FN400 components of EEG readings (lower recognition and familiarity).

A Soundtrack for Moving Forward

The study conducted by Santana (2015) sheds some light on the potential benefits of music in enhancing memory and recognition and the complex interplay between these processes. More importantly, however, this study provides valuable insights into the many confounding factors and intricacies to pay attention to when researching in this area. However, I believe this area of research is still highly valuable. Understanding the mechanisms behind these effects can potentially open doors to innovative interventions and therapeutic approaches, as well as harness the power of music to improve memory and overall cognitive functioning for us all.

References & Cited Works

Calvert, S. L., & Tart, M. (1993). Song versus verbal forms for very-long-term, longterm, and short-term verbatim recall. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 14(2), 245-260. doi:10.1016/0193-3973(93)90035-T

Chazin, S., & Neuschatz, J. S. (1990). Using a mnemonic to aid in the recall of unfamiliar information. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 71(3, Pt 2), 1067-1071. doi:10.2466/PMS.71.8.1067-1071

Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index (Gold-MSI). (n.d.). Goldsmiths, University of London. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from https://www.gold.ac.uk/music-mind-brain/gold-msi/

Moussard, A., Bigand, E., Belleville, S., & Peretz, I. (2012). Music as An Aid to Learn New Verbal Information In Alzheimer’s. Music Perception, 29(5), 521-531.

Moussard, A., Bigand, E., Belleville, S., & Peretz, I. (2014). Music as a Mnemonic to Learn Gesture Sequences in Normal Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. Frontiers In Human Neuroscience, 8, 294. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00294

Palisson, J., Roussel-Baclet, C., Maillet, D., Belin, C., Ankri, J., & Narme, P. (2015). Music enhances verbal episodic memory in Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 1-15.

Rainey, D. W., & Larsen, J. D. (2002). The Effect of Familiar Melodies on Initial Learning and Long-term Memory for Unconnected Text. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, (2). 173. doi:10.1525/mp.2002.20.2.173

Santana, A. (2016). Music and Memory: An ERP Examination of Music as a Mnemonic Device [Master’s Thesis, Texas State University]. https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/6352

Simmons-Stern, N. R., Budson, A. E., & Ally, B. A. (2010). Music as a memory enhancer in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Neuropsychologia, 48(10), 3164-3167. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.04.033

Simmons-Stern, N., Deason, R., Brandler, B., Frustace, B., O’Connor, M., Ally, B., & Budson, A. (2012). Music-based memory enhancement in Alzheimer’s disease: promise and limitations. Neuropsychologia, 50(14), 3295-3303. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.09.019

Wallace, W. T. (1994). Memory for music: Effect of melody on recall of text. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(6), 1471-1485. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.20.6.1471

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