Science Questions

Why are song lyrics so easy to memorise?

Mon, 20th May 2013

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Beck Hanson asked:

Beck Hanson got in touch to ask ‘why can she recall lyrics from a song that she hasn’t heard for years and even poetry but she can’t remember words from books?



Professor Ian Cross, Director of the Centre for Science and Music tackled this question! Ian thinks it’s due to the structure of poetry and music.

Ian -   That 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.  So, it kind of narrows down the problem space, narrows down the search space.  Lyrics to a piece of music is probably even more so because there's not only the rhythmic structure, but there's also melodic structure – the tune, the ups and downs, and the pitch that the words accompany.  Put all these together, and that gives you a very powerful set of cues that help you remember, much more perfectly than just remembering random stretches of takes for speech.

Hannah -   And Carly Pease has been in touch asking, how does perfect pitch work and how come some people have it and others don’t?  Is it something that you can learn?

Ian -   Well, we tend to prefer to see absolute pitch rather than perfect pitch because it’s not perfect.  It is absolute.  That is when you hear a note, you know it’s, “Oh, that’s an E, that’s a B, whatever.”  Absolute pitch is something you probably do learn or perhaps better unlearn.  It’s quite likely that in early infancy, we’re attuned to absolute pitch as a useful way of distinguishing events in the world.  But as we develop, as we grow, it becomes less and less useful and the frequency relationship in variance – in musical intervals if you like become more significant as ways of differentiating between events in the world than the absolute pitches at which those frequency intervals occur.  However, some people do retain and develop their capacity to identify absolute pitches absolutely. 

Typically, if they start learning piano age 4 or 5, there was an interesting study done a few years ago where the incidence of absolute pitch in the Japanese conservatoire and in Greek conservatoire was compared.  The incidence of absolute pitch in the Greek conservatoire was about 3%.  3% of the student had absolute pitch, in the Japanese conservatory, 57%.  Why the difference?  Well, the research will look quite closely at a number of things and suggested – actually, it was a question of the age at which people started learning instruments, the likelihood that they were learning piano first, and the amount of practice that they put in, the amount of hours.  The Greeks apparently seem to be much more laid back, “Whatever!”  Whereas the Japanese were, “Hmm, must do this, must do my 8 hours a day.” 

There was a researcher called Paul Brady who tried to learn absolute pitch, gave himself absolute pitch.  In his mid-40s I think and he eventually did learn to be able to identify pitches absolutely, but it was always effortful for him, and it was much, much slower than someone who has developed absolute pitch “naturally”.

Hannah -   Thank you, Professor Ian Cross from Cambridge University and he’ll be back again later in the show to tackle some more of your questions. 


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