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Health, Sports & Psychology

Evocative Songs

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005

Why do some songs stay with us, while others fade away as soon as they've faded out?

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Julie Peasgood Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Julie Peasgood reveals why songs hook her...

"I’ve heard a song on Capital Gold or some of the golden oldies or whatever and it is extraordinary the level of recall that I have. You think ’wow’, I haven’t sung that for 20 years and now I’m remembering the words ... not all of them, but the chorus, the ’hook’.

It’s difficult to say what my favourite song is because I have so many but it is Gershwin’s Summertime. I used to sing it to my daughter Kate when she was a baby and that remains a favourite. The weirdest thing is, wherever I go - restaurants, bars or wherever - someone is playing this song on some kind of instrument or I’ll get in the car and turn the radio on and Summertime comes on ... weird!

The interesting thing is that babies can hear and later respond to music as early as 16 weeks in the uterus. That’s before their brains are fully formed. I found that quite amazing and revelatory really. Babies are so aware at such an early stage that it impacts on everything really. You think that if they’re that formed with that degree of sensitivity at that early age it just makes you rethink everything really, including abortion."

Songs and memory

What is it about some songs that makes us remember them so well and how do we manage, years later, to still recall most of the words?

What really sticks in our mind is just tiny bit of a song, as Musical Arranger Nick Ingman explains, "The most important part of a popular song is what’s known in the industry as the ’hook’, and it may well just be two or three notes embedded in normally the chorus of the song, but it’s something that makes us remember the song."

But when a song is linked to important events in our lives then the connection makes these songs much more memorable. The music of our lives, like ‘Desert Island Discs’, is personal and individual.

"A lot of research has implicated an area of the brain called the reticular activating system in people’s musical likes and dislikes" says Adrian North, University of Leicester. "We know that music that causes a moderate amount of activity in this bit of the brain is the type of music that also gives rise to the most pleasure."

It seems that our memory for music is present even at the very early stages of our lives. Steve Evan has conducted experiments where music is played to unborn babies and then plays it again after they have been born. "Typically the babies in the experiments that I’ve conducted their eyes widen and their limbs tend to drop, so leg and arm movements stop." But to be sure that this isn’t simply a reaction to music, regardless of whether it has been heard before or not, Steve plays the same music to a baby for whom the piece of music is new. "A baby that hasn’t heard this piece of music will carry on fretting or crying, so what we are able to show is that memory, exists within the womb and that a baby can hear sounds that come from outside the mother’s body."

Memory triggers are important, as Jane Ginsborg, Psychologist at Sheffield University, explains "We remember the words of songs because of the way that they’re attached to the music. There was a study done where people were asked to say what the lyrics of the song were but just from the title, and they weren’t very good at it. Whereas if you say what are the words that go with this tune it just comes tripping off their tongue."

Whereas our short term memory for names, faces or even shopping lists might fail us as we get older, our memory for music stays with us. In fact "even in cases of stroke victims there are times when memory for song is preserved," explains Jane Ginsborg, "so people who’ve lost the power of using language in any functional sort of way can still remember not just the melodies but also sometimes the lyrics of songs they once knew very well indeed."

Weblinks features a number of articles which relate to memory. Try these two for starters:
Human Nervous System

Viewer's responses

I use commercial songs to teach language and I firmly believe that music is the perfect teaching medium. In fact, I have written an article about this: In contrast, your readers may wish to know that I have also written about the negative, brainwashing effect of music when teamed with violent computer games:
Bibi Boarder
TESL Materials Specialist Musical English Lessons International

As a lover of music (listening to and playing) i have often wondered why when you hear a piece of music especially the instrumental piece you often find a couple of notes that really effects your emotions, take for instance Parisian walkways live version by Gary Moore when he sustains a particular note for a very long time, i find that I hold my breath its almost like the note is the emotion itself. I find that the guitarist Mark Knopfler finds these notes that tug at your emotions which can take you from laughing to crying all in the same song. probably this is why I love playing and listening to his music. I tend to think that its almost like your in tune with his emotions.
Peter Fletcher

Could you please advise details of the background music to the Nichola Kirsch item on today’s programme. I have travelled far in my musical tastes from rock and roll to my newest interest, opera. This progression has been via soul, rythm & blues, Blues, jazz and classical music. All these areas of music I still enjoy depending on my mood at the time. My interest in Classical music came from my children who learned to play various instruments and has been the stepping stone to opera. I enjoyed the programme, keep them coming.
Tony Churchill

Why do we remember songs from our late teens/early twenties better than any other songs during the rest of our lives?
A middle aged mum

I found your from "rags to riches" story really inspiring, my name is Estelle, hence the email address, and I sing in my local church. People are always telling me to have singing lessons to use the talent that I have been given by nature but like yourself I to suffer from nerves. I recently sang at a friends wedding and again I was told that maybe I should change my career and go into singing. Can you give me any advise, how to find out whether or not my voice is as good as everyone says, etc. By the way your voice is beautiful.
Many thanks
Estelle Kunneke

I am only 12 years old but I thought it was fascinating to hear about if you play music to babies when they are inside the womb they react to it when it is played to them when they are born. I thought it was so cute the way when you played that music to the baby he/she stopped crying and opened his/her eyes! Also when you played the music to the baby when it was in the womb it started dancing! I want to be a singer when I’m older but I always get so nervous. I thought it was great that Nicola Kirsch could get the better of her nerves. I can’t believe she was a cleaner all that time with a voice like that. She is a very, very lucky lady. I wish I could get up and sing in front of all those thousands of people without feeling sick with nerves!

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