Our Memory and Sound

Have you ever listened to a familiar movie and found yourself compelled to spit out the next lines? Have you ever walked around with a song stuck in your head that you couldn’t seem to shake loose?  Perhaps you’ve spent the weekend with a friend with an accent and suddenly, you seem to be speaking with a bit of a British accent or a southern accent.  I can sing the opening theme song to my favorite childhood TV show word for word and I haven’t heard the song for at least 30 years.  I know people who memorized information for an upcoming exam by making a rap out of the test material.  Our brains are very receptive to sounds.  What makes sound so memorable?

Researchers are still studying the answer to this question, but here are some things to note: When we get a song stuck in our head, it is typically a simple repeating refrain.   Songs like “It’s a Small World” literally repeat on a loop as you glide along that well-traveled river at Disney World.  When the song comes to the end, it starts right back at the beginning again.

Something else worth noting is the exact repetition of songs. How many things in our lives can boast repetition the way music can?  Aside from the visually repetitive video games like Tetris or Bejeweled that continue to play in my visual memory long after I’ve put them down, there aren’t many things that repeat so precisely like songs.  If you’re like me, it will bother you when you see your favorite singers perform their songs live but fail to add all the exact nuances that are on the recorded version.  We come to expect those embellishments, like when Sporty Spice belts out “Yes I Swear!” in the Spice Girl’s popular song, “Say You’ll Be There.”

The ability to remember things, especially over long periods of time, is strongly affected by repetition. Each time we expose ourselves to something, we strengthen those connections in our brain and make those grooves deeper, whether we are simplifying fractions, listening to a movie, or learning the French word for dog (which is “chien” by the way).  We use our short-term memory when we go around humming those catchy tunes.  Our brains are specialized in holding all kinds of information in our short-term memories.  Repetition is the key to making them long-term memories.

Knowing that repetition is critical to retaining information, one can seek out useful tools for learning. For example, if you were trying to build your Spanish vocabulary, continually exposing yourself to the same vocabulary words spoken by the same voice and showing the same image will have a lasting “stickiness” in your brain.  Dragonfly Language Video Flashcards goes a step further in helping you learn new foreign-language vocabulary by having a male voice speak the masculine words and a female voice speak the feminine words.  If you repeat their short lessons and listen to those native voices frequently, you will practically find it impossible NOT to learn the words.  Aren’t infants learning their native language the same way, by hearing their mothers’ voices repeat those first words?

With the advent of sophisticated research tools, advances are being made in the study of the human brain. It will be interesting to see where that research leads, but in the meantime, we can certainly use what we know about repetition and memory of sound to our advantage.