Say do you remember/ dancing in September/ never was a cloudy day
- Earth Wind and Fire - September
I often find autumn to be a nostalgic time. As the rhythm of life changes from holidays to ‘back to school’, feelings and memories of previous autumns wash through me. Memory is such a potent force in our lives which is inextricably linked with our sense of music and sound. The sound of a bus or the crunching of autumn leaves under foot can trigger memories of our journey home from school. So here’s a little look at how singing is a form of brain gym that keeps our memory muscles supple at all stages of life.
From the moment we are born, we learn by listening and imitating the sounds in our environment. This continues throughout life - we notice that buzz words go in and out of fashion - whether that’s a new piece of mobile phone jargon 'Apps' or the latest teenage descriptive words ‘sick’ or a new exclamation ‘wow’ or ‘awesome’. We pick up verbal habits, intonations, accents and expressions when we hang out in different cultural, professional, social groups - I found myself after a period of living in New Zealand adding an ‘eh’ and raised inflection to the end of many sentences. No surprise then, that songs reflect the preoccupations of their times and have the tardis like ability to transport us back and forth through the trajectory of our personal, social and cultural histories.
The Mouth of Memory
Throughout history different cultures have used singing as a memory device. Before the advent of the written word, early indigenous cultures integrated the soundscapes of nature into hunting, social and religious rituals which passed on the knowledge and language of the tribe. Much of Ancient Greek theatre and poetry would have been sung rather than spoken, making the content memorable for both actor and audience. Indian Classical music is still taught through the oral tradition where the student learns by continued repetition from their guru. Whilst the visual representation of words is now considered vastly powerful in the media, internet and literature, ‘word of mouth’ is still fundamental to the way we share, process and absorb important information - we still want to hear the truth ‘from the horse’s mouth.’
Music of the Brain
Music requires a multi-level, multi-sensory response. The vibrations of sound can be perceived by everyone regardless of hearing ability. The rhythmic aspect of music stimulates motor and kinaesthetic brain functions - from surreptitious toe tapping to all out boogie-woogie. Imagining the stories contained in songs and engaging with representations of music such as scores stimulates our visual senses. The emotional and memory aspects of our brain are closely associated, which is why a weepy love song can trigger a memory of a past love. Learning and creating lyrics enables us to develop language skills and express ideas, concepts and feelings.
When we are young, singing acts as a powerful mnemomic - from the Greek mnemonikos ‘memory’ - helping us recall everything from names, alphabets, facts, concepts and social cues. A pioneering study in 1967 by Gerald R Miller demonstrated that musical mnemonics increased memory retention by 77%. Many teachers testify that young children respond far more readily to instructions when they are sung rather than spoken. Young brains are engaged and stretched by the dynamics, pitch, story, melody and intonation of song.
Traces of Time
“Singing supercharges your memory”
Composer and singing ambassador Howard Goodall explains that we build memory by capturing traces of our experiences. To fully embed a memory requires significant repetition, which is why babies and children will repeat the same action to a level which bemuses adults. My baby nephew will repeat the motion of opening and shutting a door, laughing with delight each time. The rhythm of early learning patterns is embedded in nursery rhymes like ‘wind the bobbin up’ or ‘open and shut them’ to support a child’s development in all areas, building memory until a skill becomes automatic.
Mending Memory with Music
This extraordinary capacity of music to support the creation of memory can be used to support those suffering memory loss, brain disease and trauma. As music stimulates many areas of the brain, whilst language is very specifically located, it is often found that those who have lost the ability to speak can still sing. Singing songs from earlier parts of life can restore a sense of familiarity to those with Dementia, Alzheimers or Brain Trauma. Singing songs like ‘Roses of Picardy’ was used to cure soldiers with shellshock after WWI, whilst Big Band music was found to help WWII veterans recover mobility just as walking to a rhythm is now used to treat patients with Parkinsons or stroke.
"One theory is that music as able to short-circuit the damaged area through repetition. It creates a new pathway in and people can then use that pathway out." - Lee Ann Rasar, Music Therapist, University of Wisconsin
Life Long Song
Throughout life, singing enables us to create, retain and reclaim our powers of memory. Whether it is the song at our wedding or the lullaby we heard in infancy, music puts markers in our personal timelines, enabling us to celebrate and commemorate important events and create the legacy of songs we sing to those who are to come.
Wishing you a truly memorable September