Are musicians our external brains?

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I'm willing to bet that half the people reading this, though they may be brilliant as all io9 readers are, still have to hum "The Alphabet Song" when they're alphabetizing. Why do we remember songs so well when other memories fade? It's partly because musicians do a lot of the thinking for us.

Last week, in a moment that I can only hope was not caught by the studio cameras, I entertained Bonnie Burton, who was filming the io9 DIY Sci-Fi show by singing and pantomiming the theme song to Reading Rainbow. I've never watched that show. I heard people singing a few snatches of the song over the years, and now know it more perfectly than I do a lot of stuff I tried to drill into my head. Plenty of people reading this will remember state capitals and the nations of the world via old Animaniacs songs. Why is music powerful enough that we can remember it without trying?


Voluntary repetition has to help. Music makes people want to listen, and anything we voluntarily listen to five times is bound to sink in deeper than something we have to force ourselves to pay attention to even once. But even when we do listen to a lesson five, ten, or twenty times, how many lessons from childhood do we remember as vividly as we do a simple song?

Or perhaps the important thing is it lives in many parts of the brain. Researchers watching MRIs of people listening to pop songs noticed that a lot of activity occurred whenever people listened to music. Their front area of the brain was activated. This area contains both the parts of the brain that analyze structure as well as the hippocampus, which helps determine whether something makes it into long term memory. The reward centers of the brain also lit up, letting people get rewarded for listening actively to the tune.


The brain even activated the regions involved in physical activity. Even reserved people will nod along to a song. Music is the kind of multimedia experience that teachers try to simulate in class by having students perform many activities relating to the lesson. Melody becomes easily retrievable because it spread wide roots in the brain, becoming associated with many different areas and so easier to pick up.

But, unlike other immersive experiences, music also has a highly structured side. A tune — with lyrics that rhyme, make sense, and fit a certain remembered rhythm and structure — does what the brain usually has to do for itself. That is, make patterns. When we have a pattern, we can follow it without thinking consciously about what comes next. When we learn a language, we do this ourselves. "I run, but he runs." "I hunt, but he hunts." "I shoot, but he shoots." (I've been reading The Hunger Games, which should explain the tone of the examples.)


We learn language by noticing a pattern (in this case that one set of verbs end with an "S" and the other doesn't) and substitute in that pattern unconsciously because it sounds right. The brain is trained to look for and learn from patterns. Music gives us patterns that allow us to remember the contents even more easily. Each line gives us a clue — through its rhyme, rhythm, and structure — about the line to come. It's a pattern that fills itself in as we sing it. In fact, it's generally the best pattern that fills itself in. If the music wasn't meant to be catchy and memorable, it would have been discarded in the first place.

It's this that's the most interesting about music. Musicians aren't just artists. They, in some ways, are our external brains. While writers and painters create art that does make an impression, musicians make things that we are meant to learn by heart. They create patterns that are tailor made to be easily picked up and remembered by our brains.


The possibly most-hummed song in the world, "The Alphabet Song," has an engaging set of repeating notes composed by Mozart. Its content was provided, with an eye for education, by Charles Bradlee and Louis Le Maire, and it's become an organizing principle in most Western brains since then. It helps us organize our books, look up words in the dictionary, and generally provides a framework for reality, and one that is easily accessed by everyone. And it does this because it's a song that we can all remember, composed to suit our brains better than almost anything we could create on our own.

Musicians do some of the hardest parts of our thinking for us, making it easy for us to pick up what they have pre-processed for us. So don't feel bad the next time you remember a jingle for years, or spend days absentmindedly singing two lines of music. That's exactly what the songwriter was trying for — to make the song the ideal thing for a brain to pick up. Just feel bad for the people around you.


Top Image: Moralist. Via NY Times and Corante.