How do we remember songs? By one measure, words matter more than music

ResearchBlogging.orgIf, like me, you grew up in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, you probably remember the game show Name That Tune, where contestants heard brief snippets from popular songs and had to name them as quickly as possible. Even though I didn't know most of the music, which was primarily American Standards from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, I still found the show fascinating. My favorite part of the game was when the two contestants engaged in a bidding war, where a clue was given and the contestants bet on how few notes it would take them to recall the title of the song. Sometimes a contestant could actually name a song after hearing just one note! (Of course, this probably meant they could guess the song based only on the clue, but you couldn't beat the drama of a contestant boasting "I can name that tune in one note.")

The show demonstrated how powerful a melody can be as a memory device. The songs were all played by an orchestra or pianist, without the lyrics, and contestants (and viewers at home) could often guess the name of the song within only one or two seconds. But is a melody really the best way for us to remember a song? Maybe we could do it even better, if only there was a TV show called Name Those Lyrics.

While we've discussed a study demonstrating that both music and lyrics were about equal, that study was concerned primarily with reaction time. In Name That Tune, once a contestant made their bid on a melody, they had plenty of time to think about what the title of the song was.

A team led by Zehra PeyrnircioÄlu had 180 psychology students listen to partial melodies or read lyrics or titles of moderately popular songs, and then asked them to use that information to recall something else about song. So if you heard the melody, you might be asked to hum back more of the melody, recall the lyrics, or the title. If you read the lyrics, you might be asked to hum the melody, recall more lyrics, or the title. If you saw the title, you could only be asked for lyrics or melody. To make the task difficult, lyrics and melodies came from the verse of the song, not the more familiar chorus. Here are the results:


When listeners heard melody snippets or read the title, they remembered the other elements of the song in the 10-15 percent range. But when they read lyrics, they could hum back the melody or recall the title of the song significantly better. They also made significantly fewer errors. Name Those Lyrics would be a much easier game show than Name That Tune, even though the researchers were careful to only present lyrics that did not include words from the song's title.

Oddly, reading lyrics didn't improve respondents' accuracy in generating additional lyrics -- and even hearing music and lyrics together didn't help respondents predict the next part of the melody or lyrics better than music and lyrics alone.

Interestingly, respondents didn't believe the lyrics helped them more than the other elements of songs. When respondents couldn't give an answer, the researchers asked them to rate how well they thought they knew the answer -- if they were given a clue, how likely would they be to produce the correct response? Then later they were given a multiple choice test instead of being asked to produce an answer with no help. Respondents systematically underestimated their ability to produce an answer when prompted by lyrics.

We seem to believe the melody and title of a song will help us recall it better than the lyrics, when in fact the opposite is true.

Peynircioglu, Z., Rabinovitz, B., & Thompson, J. (2007). Memory and metamemory for songs: the relative effectiveness of titles, lyrics, and melodies as cues for each other Psychology of Music, 36 (1), 47-61 DOI: 10.1177/0305735607079722

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Interesting! I've always wondered about stuff like this. Personally, I've always believed that there are lyrics people and that there are melody people. I am one of the latter. I actually have a certain level of trouble hearing lyrics to songs, and there are songs I have listened to literally hundreds of times and still don't know the words to... yet I memorized the melody on the first try.

There are a lot more words than there are notes of music. Hearing a few words would narrow down the choices a lot more than hearing a few notes. So wouldn't it make sense that when hearing the lyrics someone could locate the melody in their memory easier than the other way around?

there is a music quiz show in Australia called 'Spicks and Specks'
One of the segments they do is called 'Substitute', where a contestant has to sing the tune of a song, but using words from some (usually very obscure) book. Sometimes the melody is really easy to pick, but others are really hard, especially when the words get in the way of trying to pick the tune.

By mrcreosote (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

Well, I see it in that way:
The result indicate that it's easier to learn music than lyrics. Listening to the radio you can simply catch up the melody unconsciously (especially if you hear it in shop, home or in car, again and again...). Listening to lyrics requires more concentration, and is less natural (just think of learning other language - what is easier: to separate individual words or follow its melody?).
So if you know the lyric you are most likely to know the title and melody, as you probably know the song in general (mostly but not always). But knowing the melody doesn't mean knowing title and and lyrics all the more. Especially that some songs (as a melody only) are used as background of commercial. You can recognise the melody not knowing the song at all!

I'm with Blaise. I have several "favorite" songs that I've no clue as to what the lyrics are; for me, it's all in how everything comes together as one - voice is but another instrument in the mix. May also explain why I'm so fond of Sigur Rós...

The British pop quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks has a regular round in which lyrics are read out and contestants have to say what comes next. It's always very difficult, for them as well as for me, because a presenter reading the lyrics in a flat voice deprives us of all of the cues which recall the original setting of the same lyrics: music, rhythm, voice etc.

Anyway, the players in NMTB invariably perform less well than the contestants on Name That Tune routinely did, and not only because Buzzcocks is a not-quite serious comedy quiz.

Here's an example where they do reasonably well:

I was responding more to your comment; there is/was a show called Don't Forget The Lyrics (click the link). In the show, contestants were required to finish the lyrics to a song after singing a portion of it karaoke style. The amount of cash won increased with the number of words participants remembered. Given the karaoke-style format of the show (allowing for title, melody, and lyrical cues to be provided simultaneously), I wonder if this study accounts for participants varying ability to remember words in a song. I suspect it has a lot to do with the intensity to which one listens to music in both depth and breadth, and so if the study controlled for experience, the impact of words might not be as great.

There's another interesting oddity present in the data--it does not support the encoding specificity principle, which holds that we recall things better when they are presented in the context of the original learning situation. So, we should expect to recall a melody better when the cue is a melody; and a lyric better when the cue is a lyric. However, that's not what the data is showing.

It's possible there's a task-switching cost phenomenon at work, such that it is easier to switch from words to music than it is to switch from music to words. I've seen something similar with the Stroop effect (whereby it's easier to switch from word to color than color to word).

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

In my family, I am the 'dispute settler' when it comes to lyrics. Got a bet to settle about a song? I'm your gal. I have, for reasons I cannot explain, always had a super memory for song lyrics. I can't tell you how many times my sister Val will call from a restaurant and say, "give me the lyrics to..." and I tell her. It's a great way to impress people, and a lot of fun. Though I imagine a scientist would be more interested in the mechanism of why I'm able to still retain these lyrics after several decades. Don't have a clue. But it sure has won me a kind of oddball notoriety, like that guy who who smashes beer cans on his forehead?

I also have the affliction of memory for lyrics. (I call it an affliction because among the lyrics I can recall very well are those for advertising jingles from the 1960s and 1970s.)

I think melodies are the first thing we pick up on. Songs are just words over a musical melody. It kind of makes you wonder who came up with the idea to combine the two. Maybe a lonely caveman. Anyway, my opinion is that people like music for the melody. People aren't going to buy recordings of eminem ranting about his life if it doesn't have a catchy beat along with it. I know Mozart often debated which was more important, melody or lyrics, with his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Mozart took the side of melody, while Da Ponte took the side of lyrics. I forget what their reasons were. Anyway, interesting topic.

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Funny, I was just wondering about this...

Sometimes I will not be able to recall lyrics until I hear the melody or a musical cue...

Although naming a song in "one note" seems like it must be guessing (based on information content of the note pitch alone), there is additional information coded into the timbre and harmonic content of the "one note" that is fairly unique.