The Benefit of Music for Memory

Research Extract:
Memory for Music – effect of melody on recall of text

The melody of a song can indeed make a text more memorable as compared with hearing the text out of the context of the melody, at least as long as the melody is simple and easy to learn. The experiments presented in this article demonstrate that at initial learning and at subsequent delayed recall, the melody can facilitate recall of the text when the melody repeats across verses but not when a single verse is heard (Experiment 3) or when the melody does not repeat across verses (Experiment 4: three-melody condition). Thus, a repeating, simple melody can provide a recall aid above and beyond what is provided in the text alone or in the poetic properties of the text such as rhyme.

So why does the melody not facilitate learning and recall when it does not repeat in its entirety? The most obvious benefit offered by melodic repetition across verses arises from increased familiarity with and learning of the melody, so that when the melody is sufficiently or easily learned, it does not provide a distraction but rather facilitates recall. That is, the chances of learning enough about the melodic structures to provide the necessary cues and connections to the text increase as the melody repeats, as do the chances of acquiring any knowledge when the information repeats. As shown in Experiment 3, when the melody does not repeat, there are practically no differences in the amount of structural information, such as the number of syllables and lines, acquired in spoken and sung conditions.

Thus, the overall conclusions from this article about memory processes and structures are that the presences of structural characteristics within the to be remembered material, the ease of observing and acquiring those characteristics, and the contributions of those characteristics in terms of organizing, constraining, or cuing recall will all affect the memorability of material. Music accomplishes all three of these conditions and therefore can facilitate learning and recall of a text.

Additionally, when verses are sung to different melodies but with the same rhythm, recall is not as good as when verses are sung to the exact same melody (Experiment 4). Thus, abstraction of the rhythm across verses does not facilitate recall as much as hearing the exact melody repeat across verses.

Author: Wanda T Wallace
Source: Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition 1994