Music Can Help You Remember

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The best way to remember facts might be to set them to music. Medical students, for example, have long used rhymes and songs to help them master vast quantities of information, and we’ve just gotten fresh evidence of how effective this strategy can be. A young British doctor, Tapas Mukherjee of Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, was distressed by a survey showing that 55 percent of nurses and doctors at Glenfield were not following hospital guidelines on the management of asthma; 38 percent were not even aware that the guidelines existed.

Using his cell phone, Mukherjee recorded a video of himself singing immortal lines like “Aim for 94 percent to 98 percent sats now” (that’s a reference to the asthma patient’s blood oxygen level). He posted the video to YouTube and it went viral among hospital staff. Two months after he released the video, Glenside conducted another survey, finding that 100 percent of doctors and nurses were now aware of the asthma treatment guidelines, and that compliance with the guidelines had increased markedly. Mukherjee reported the results at meeting of the European Respiratory Society last week.

Although Mukherjee’s methods are modern, his approach shares 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 non-rhyming 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.

Songs and rhymes can be used to remember all kinds of information. A study just published in the journal Memory and Cognition finds that adults learned a new language more effectively when they sang the words instead of spoke them. Even great literature is susceptible to this treatment. Book Tunes, a collaboration between educational entrepreneur Jonathan Sauer and hip-hop artist Andy Bernstein (he performs under the name Abdominal), turns long, wordy books into compact, catchy raps, spoken over an insistent beat.

The duo’s latest offering: a rap version of The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (“Hester’s story is set in the Puritan settlement/that was 17th century Boston where she’s being led/ from the town prison holding her baby daughter Pearl with an A on her chest/ for the world to see which we quickly learn stands for adulterer ‘cause turns out/ H is married . . . “). Book Tunes’s take on the tale of Hester Prynne is being offered jointly with SparkNotes, the study aid provider owned by Barnes & Noble, which is said to be interested in raps of other classics, such as the plays of William Shakespeare.

Purists aghast at the notion may need to be reminded that many of the world’s greatest works of literature, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, began as oral chants. Humans have been remembering through rhyme and song for ages: how can you update the tradition?

Readers, have you ever used songs or rhymes to remember? Share your ditties below!

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21 Responses to “Music Can Help You Remember”

  1. “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue”

  2. Molly Prince says:

    I have taught math from 5th grade through Calculus and use songs all of the time – students will come visit my classroom five years after we had class together and still know the songs, and concepts! While I’ve created a few ditties of my own, I find the ones penned by my students are always more impressive and entertaining.

    For remembering to flip an inequality sign when multiplying or dividing by a negative (to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”):
    Flip, flip, flip the sign,
    when you multiply
    we divide by a negative.
    Please don’t ask us why.

  3. Zachary says:

    The “Quadratic Formula song” is still one of my favorite math songs. So simple, but so memorable. The best part about this is that it combines a tune we already know with a formula that we hope to learn.


  4. janice says:

    30 days has September, April, June and November All the rest have 31, except February is 28 and 29 on leap year

    i before e except after c and when pronounced as I weigh or neighbor

  5. Yes, to this, a thousand times! Have seen this technique work major miracles in the lives of struggling readers, including a 3rd grader who had attended 3 different schools in 5 months and was still learning the alphabet. His teacher introduced him to a book that rhymed and taught the whole book in song, and in less than three months the child not only was reading, but notching top scores on reading assessments. Most of all, though, he received through song the power of reading and the chance to lead a fuller, more productive, and enjoyable life. Singing is a brilliant way to teach and learn. Thanks, Annie, for spreading the word.

  6. I used “Three Little Fishes” to learn the Prelude to The Canterbury Tales in Old English.
    “Down by the river in an itty bitty pool” becomes “Wan that Aprille with the shores soothe”
    Forgive the OE misspelling. :-)

  7. Don says:

    My all time favorite rhymes to read to my kids were all the Dr. Seuss rhymes. I think of them every time I hear Eggs and Ham used together or One Fish. :)

  8. Lovely piece. This is one of many reasons to teach babes nursery rhymes.

  9. Margaret says:

    My children used an innovative math curriculum called Math-U-See, which employes the use of manipulatives and songs–putting the multiplication tables to either Christmas chorals or familiar (to kids) ditties, meant to appeal to an audience that doesn’t celebrate Christmas. The approach proved very successful, as the entire class became proficient.

  10. CrowbarJoe says:

    There’s a visually oriented version of what you’re talking about: the “memory palace.” Didn’t some of the Roman senators memorize their speeches by picturing the Senate chamber and hooking an idea (in their minds) to each of the statues or paintings they saw as they worked their way across the chamber? “In the first place,…” I’ve actually used that approach myself for presentations in which I was unable to use visuals or notes.

  11. Tracy K says:

    Hi Annie, thanks for this – more science backing up what I advocate through intuition and experience. I always love catching up with you (as if I could…)

    Gush over – we used a tune our children knew to teach them their full phone number and address from the time they were tiny toddlers. I made a point of singing it to them every night in the bath, knowing that it would go in and be ready to come out when they could speak. And it did.

    I also knew that their young minds are soaking up whatever language they hear, even the mannerisms I use, so I would absently recite back some of my rhythmic study patterns, such as the definitive articles in German, like while I did the dishes and they were colouring. I actually heard my nine year old repeat back (without realising) der, die, dad, die, etc to 12 places!

    I’ve also started using memory palaces with my 5 year old and in five minutes she was repeating back a list of a dozen items – forwards and backwards. I’ve just checked with het and after a month she’s done it again, without prompting. These are definitely tools ee should encourage in learning.

  12. Raylene says:

    On January twenty-first in eighteen eighty seven
    In a cottage in the state of Maine, they welcomed Holmes eleven
    Walter, Luther, William, Charles, Fenwick, Guy, Jerome…
    The youngest boy of Anna’s nine was Ernest Shurtleff Holmes

    (This rhyme helped me memorize some basic information about Ernest Holmes. If you were counting the brothers you’ll notice one is missing. You just have to remember there was a brother Harry who died. Not much is written about him.)

  13. To the tune of Doe a Deer

    A nouns’s a word, a naming word,
    A verb is doing or to be,
    An adjective describes a noun,
    A pronoun’s he or she or me,
    An adverb tell us how or when,
    A preposition tells us where,
    Conjunctions join them up again,
    Parts of speech we use with care.

    • Jean says:

      Ah I love this one!

      I don’t have a song but a rhyme:

      Nellie was a chemist
      A chemist now no more
      What Nellie thought was H2O
      Was H2SO4

  14. Julie Wilson says:

    Coming from a musical background, LOVED this article! I find my children always humming a tune and it’s even better when they are studying important material while doing so! My daughter was a part of a Math Sing along group in 7th grade – they traveled to elementary schools in our area and taught Math concepts thru catchy songs!

  15. Jerry Myroup says:

    Wonderful article and so very true. Beyond memory, music is good for you, period, and that is one of the main reasons we are attempting to build small co-housing villages called the RockTilYouDrop throughout the US. A place for 55+ amateur and pro musicians and artist and folks who are in love with music and the arts. I apologize for the ‘advertising’ but this is not a for profit venture… just trying to provide a more enjoyable way to retire or at least ‘slow down.’

  16. My family is Mexican, so we speak Spanish. My son Ernest used to sing Barney’s song: “One, two, three, four, five,/Once I caught a fish alive,/Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,/Then I let him go again…”. Ernest speaks English fluently now, even though he has not been to any English-speaking countries.

  17. Kurt says:

    This girl does a great job with the Australopithecenes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrfT5q6oUUY

  18. Robin Morgenweck says:

    I have always thought music defined certain memories in my life. This article confirms my thoughts. When I hear a song, I will remember a time and a place when I heard that song before. It keeps me in touch with my past memories good or bad. As I do not have a good memory to begin with, I listen to music all the time and it keeps me aware of all my past and present experiences. It is my heart and soul.

  19. Gretchen Hansen says:

    As a world language teacher, I was always looking for ways to help students recall some Japanese vocabulary, such as the 1)7 days of the week, or the 2)first 10 days of the month (tricky counters!) or even 3)all 46 Hiragana syllables: 1)To the tune of “Old Mac Donald Had a Farm:” nichi, getsu, ka sui, moku, kin, do! and 2)Sing the syllables of”Tsuitachi, futsuka, mikka, yokka, itsuka,muika, nanoka, youka, kokonoka, touka to the first bars of “Hadyn’s Surprise Symphony, and memorizing the AIUEO song with gestures and action verbs! So much good retention by students who were allowed to hum on a quiz, but not tosing the words aloud

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