Why we remember music and forget everything else

For many people, music feels like part of our subconscious. It’s constantly playing in the background whether we’re in a coffee shop, in the elevator, working from home, or even just walking down the street. Every year Spotify tells us how many minutes we have been listening to music. I spent 53,402 minutes in 2021 – 17 hours a week – which is way more time than I spent on most other things. In 2017, Nielsen estimated that Americans listen to music for more than 32 hours a week on average. It’s no surprise that we have such a strong memory for music and that we can easily recall lyrics and melodies even if we haven’t heard them in years.

In March, a new Wordle spin-off called Heardle was launched. It tests musical memory by asking people to identify a song after hearing it for just one second, and for each wrong guess, the song is lengthened by one second. I was excited to have a place to use my musical knowledge, and I’m not alone. Millions of players have used Heardle to identify popular and nostalgic songs across generations, from the Fugees to Spice Girls to Adele.

Heardle’s popularity taps into an interesting part of human psychology: how deeply we store music in our memory and how easily we can remember it. “There is an approach called the gating paradigm [which is] is very similar to the Heardle app,” says Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, assistant professor of music psychology at Durham University in the UK. “You present one note [and then two, and then three to] see how long it takes people to identify a piece of music so I think it’s kinda funny that they tapped on that [with Heardle]†

Many of us can hear music in our mind, this is called having musical or auditory images. “This can happen voluntarily or on purpose, so if I [ask you to] think of the song ‘Happy Birthday’, you can probably hear it playing in your head right now, but it can also happen involuntarily. That’s what we call an earwig, when we get a song that comes to mind without really trying to conjure up music,” says Jakubowski. It’s very common to have a song stuck in your head – “about 90% of people say they have an earwig at least once a week and about ⅓ of people say they have an earwig at least once a day she notes. As you might imagine, people who listen to or engage in music more often have more earwigs. The more we listen to music, the more it comes to us spontaneously.

Apps like Heardle are satisfying to play because “when we perceive or imagine music that means a lot to us, we are activated in what we call the reward centers of our brains,” says Jakubowski. Listening to music releases dopamine in the brain, increasing our dopamine levels by up to 9% when listening to music we like. That’s one of the reasons music has become so intertwined with how we express and comfort ourselves.

“Music is inherently linked to personal identity, and so [when people can] identify pieces of music without much information, it is often music from their childhood [which can trigger] what we call the reminiscence bump in autobiographical memory,” says Jakubowski. “Older adults have a really good memory for certain songs from their childhood because they’ve listened to that same record over and over… It can bring back memories of that time when you had these self-defining experiences.”

Listening to nostalgic pop music on Heardle can also have an emotional impact, as music evokes emotional responses. “Even if you identify a piece of music only by its first second, you have this musical image experience [that] probably triggers the memory of that whole piece of music, and then you get the emotions that go with it,” says Jakubowski. “Musical images can evoke the same emotional responses as actually listening to a piece of music.”

When we listen to a song, we not only remember the music and the lyrics, but we also understand the emotions that are conveyed. “Orienting yourself to the emotional message helps you remember the actual music better,” says Dr. Andrea Halpern, professor of psychology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

In a 2010 study published in Music Perception, Halpern and colleagues had musicians listen to the first minute of well-known classical pieces and record their judgments about the emotions they heard in the music through their valence and excitement. Then the participants did the experiment again while imagining the first minute of these songs in their heads. “The overlap in their profiles was amazing, meaning they did this intricate piece in real time and pulled out the same emotions,” Halpern says. The musicians were able to map the emotions expressed in the music, even as it played in their heads, and to imagine the music so vividly that their scores were almost identical.

This shows that we can mimic some aspects of music quite accurately in our minds. “Imagining music is actually an experience very similar to perceiving music,” says Jakubowski. “There [are] very strong parallels in terms of the brain activation you see when you imagine music versus when you perceive music.”

Our memory for music may not be perfect, but it’s still quite impressive. In a 2015 study published in Memory and Cognition, Jakubowski, Halpern and colleagues monitored the accuracy of our involuntary musical images to see how closely our mental representations were compared to the actual music. Participants wore wristwatch accelerometers and, every time they had a song in their head, they tapped along to record the rhythm of the song. “We found that these participants, the vast majority of whom were non-musicians, were able to recall the musical tempo quite accurately within involuntary musical images,” says Jakubowski. †[59%] of earwigs were within 10% of the originally recorded rate [which suggests that] even when people who have not had much formal music education spontaneously think of music in their daily lives… it comes to my mind quite accurately, at least tempo wise.”

Even if you’re not a musician, you can still get an intuitive understanding of music by how often you experience it. “We don’t necessarily read our favorite book or watch our favorite movie as often as we listen to our favorite music,” says Jakubowski. “Even non-musicians have a very precise musical memory. It’s not that they’re intentionally trying to memorize the piece of music, they’re just exposed in such a way that they become musical experts in a different way just because of this occasional exposure to music. [that’s] really prominent in our world today.”

People often wonder why we remember songs and lyrics easier than our own memories, where we kept our keys, and what we learned in school. It seems to be because of how often we experience music, in the world or in our minds, and the joy and emotional connection it brings to us. Music represents who we are and how we feel, so of course it’s what we remember.

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was original published at “https://time.com/6167197/psychology-behind-remembering-music/”