How To Remember Better: Set The Information To Music

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Love this: Dr. Arie Perry, a professor of pathology and neurological surgery at UC-San Francisco, helps medical students and residents remember the details of health and disease by creating songs about them:   

“He first began putting lyrics to music years ago to help people recognize how the signs of brain cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases can be seen under the microscope.

It began quite by accident, during his medical residency at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas: ‘We had a weekly conference where we presented cases to our attending [doctors],’ he said. ‘One of the weeks, one of the attendings said that the residents weren’t entertaining enough.’

Perry aimed to correct this in the very next case he presented.

‘The following week, I showed the glass slides under the microscope and then at the end of the presentation, I pulled out a guitar and I sang the “Schwannoma” song,’ he recalled. ‘By the end of the song, there were about two to three times as many people because everybody walking by the hallway came in.’

He adds: ‘People who sit through hundreds of hours of lectures and just go through rote memory over and over again appreciate something different to help them learn.’

In a recent lecture about brain cancer pathology delivered to a room packed full of medical residents in the UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery, Perry concluded his hourlong lecture by summarizing the material in a song titled, ‘Meningiomas.’ The lyrics were chock-full of important information about this form of tumor:

‘From the surface of the brain and the arachnoidal membrane
Grows a dural neoplasm, meningioma is its name
As a tumor of adults, with sharp margins and slow growth,
It may require the gamma knife, or surgery alone
Though most are low-grade, with a bland histology,
There’s an aggressive subset, with significant morbidity
Atypical meningiomas, recur quite frequently
Anaplastic cases have a high mortality . . . ‘

Perry said he has had a number of former students return to say that they still remember the words to one of his songs like ‘Meningioma’ years later.” (Read more here.)

Perry is exactly right that rhymes and songs help us to remember information much better. I wrote about why this is the case in one of my columns for Time.com:

“[Contemporary songs and rhymes] share in a long tradition of oral storytelling — one that shaped itself over thousands of years to the particular proclivities of the human brain.

Oral forms like ballads and epics exist in every culture, originating long before the advent of written language. In preliterate eras, tales had to be appealing to the ear and memorable to the mind, or else they would simply disappear. After all, most messages we hear are forgotten, or if they’re passed on, they’re changed beyond recognition — as psychologists’ investigations of how rumors evolve have shown.

In his classic book Memory in Oral Traditions, cognitive scientist David Rubin notes, ‘Oral traditions depend on human memory for their preservation. If a tradition is to survive, it must be stored in one person’s memory and be passed on to another person who is also capable of storing and retelling it. All this must occur over many generations . . . Oral traditions must, therefore, have developed forms of organization and strategies to decrease the changes that human memory imposes on the more casual transmission of verbal material.’

What are these strategies? Tales that last for many generations tend to describe concrete actions rather than abstract concepts. They use powerful visual images. They are sung or chanted. And they employ patterns of sound: alliteration, assonance, repetition and, most of all, rhyme.

One of Rubin’s own experiments showed that when two words in a ballad are linked by rhyme, contemporary college students remember them better than nonrhyming words. Such universal characteristics of oral narratives are, in effect, mnemonics—memory aids that people developed over time ‘to make use of the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of human memory,’ as Rubin puts it.”

How about you? Have you ever made a rhyme or a song out of material you had to memorize—and did it help?

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4 Responses to “How To Remember Better: Set The Information To Music”

  1. anniempaul says:

    From Cathy Lantrip Blount (carried over from Facebook): I learned a song that had all 50 states in alphabetical order in elementary school that I still sing this day. It is a powerful tool. Love that this professor put it to work in such a unique and entertaining way.

  2. Fran says:

    Walter Smith of Haverford College uses songs with his physics students to help them remember important things in physics. His website is http://www.haverford.edu/astronomy/songs/ and one of his songs has been recorded: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7j1qSAswdk (not the recorded version, but the same band that recorded it)
    I confess I am not very musical, myself, so this is not how I usually remember things. I usually use repetition. It worked well enough for me as a kid that I have not needed to change to a better method.

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  4. Kathleen says:

    Elementary school teachers have employed this method for decades. (Do you remember how you memorized the alphabet?) Using songs, poems, and chants across the curriculum allows students to make powerful connections through rhythm and rhyme. Unfortunately, I have seen quite a decline in the use of music, as teachers are required to strictly follow materials that are considered essential for success on standardized tests. Some teachers actually feel afraid to be “caught” using music or the arts in their classrooms nowadays. Hopefully, school and district administrators will become educated on the use of music to aid learning in other content areas. Bring back “Grammar Rock’ and “Multiplication Rock” to get things rolling!

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