Earworm neuroscience: why some songs stick in our brains : Short Wave – NPR

Hey, SHORT WAVErs. Rhitu Chatterjee here with former SHORT WAVE intern Rasha Aridi. Hey, Rasha.
RASHA ARIDI, BYLINE: Hey, Rhitu. I’m so excited to talk with you.
CHATTERJEE: Me too. So I hear you have something fun and musical for us today.
ARIDI: I do. I got the idea for this episode a while ago. I had come home one day, and I found my parents loudly playing old Arabic songs while they were cooking – the kind of songs that they used to play on cassettes in the car when I was little.
CHATTERJEE: Oh, you know, coming from a culture where old songs are still just as loved and enjoyed, for me, old Hindi and Bangla songs evoke so much nostalgia even today.
ARIDI: Me too. They’re really special. And I haven’t heard, you know, these Arabic songs in years and years. But after just a few seconds of listening to them, the tune and all the lyrics just came flooding back to me, and I found myself singing along without even realizing that I remembered that song. Have you ever had that feeling?
CHATTERJEE: Oh, absolutely. You know, I’ve had these moments a lot lately as I’ve been singing to my son while putting him to bed. And lo and behold, my brain pulled out these old songs that my parents had sung to me when they put me to bed or I had sung as a child. And entire songs – the lyrics just came right back.
ARIDI: Oh, that’s so sweet, Rhitu. And, yeah, that same feeling kind of led me to ask, how in the world did our brains just summon the lyrics and the tune from what feels like the deepest depths of memory? Not knowing was bugging me. So obviously, I made a call.
KEITH DOELLING: My name is Keith Doelling. I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the Institut de l’Audition in Paris, France. I do neuroscience of speech and music perception.
ARIDI: Keith says he tends to remember the music and forget the lyrics of a song, but his wife is the opposite.
DOELLING: And she often asks me this question of, why do I remember this stuff when I can’t remember the things I actually need to remember at work, for example?
CHATTERJEE: (Laughter) That’s so relatable.
ARIDI: Right? He says he tells her…
DOELLING: Because you listen to it a lot at a point in time, it sort of really sort of stays ingrained into your memory.
CHATTERJEE: So songs just get really ingrained in our memory because we listen to them a lot?
ARIDI: Yes, but that’s just a teeny part of it. How songs get encoded is the key to understanding why our brains are so good at remembering them.
CHATTERJEE: So today on the show, the neuroscience behind that surprising moment of, wow, how do I still remember that song?
ARIDI: And how songs can stick with us for a long time, even when other memories start to fade.
CHATTERJEE: I’m Rhitu Chatterjee.
ARIDI: And I’m Rasha Aridi.
CHATTERJEE: You’re listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
CHATTERJEE: OK, Rasha, so let’s get into it. I probably have thousands of songs stored up in my brain, a collection that’s been growing since I was a child. So how is it that I can remember many of those songs, but I still can’t tell you when some of my closest friends’ birthdays are?
ARIDI: (Laughter) So first, let’s look at some of the elements of songs that make them easier for our brains to remember. Many have rhyme, repetition, rhythm, which are important because…
KIMINOBU SUGAYA: Your brain is kind of lazy.
ARIDI: Meet Kimi Sugaya. He’s the head of neuroscience at the University of Central Florida, and he co-teaches a class called Music and the Brain. He was telling me how our brains love rhyme and rhythm because they help us encode information better. And the better you encode something, the better you can retrieve it later.
CHATTERJEE: As in more reference points for our brains, right?
ARIDI: Yes, exactly.
CHATTERJEE: And isn’t this also a result of using melody – not just words, right?
ARIDI: Yep, you’re using an auditory stimulus, too, so that’s just one more way to encode that info.
CHATTERJEE: Got it. And repetition also plays a role, I’m assuming, in encoding that information because the more you hear something, the more likely it is to stick.
ARIDI: Right.
CHATTERJEE: And I wonder, is that why we tend to learn the chorus of a song first – because we hear it over and over in a song?
ARIDI: Exactly. And that can apply to the tune, too. Typically, in Western music, at least, a song has a motif – like, a series of notes that plays over and over throughout the song. So we hear that tune repeating just like the chorus. As an example, Keith talked about the song “Leave The Door Open” by Anderson .Paak, Bruno Mars and Silk Sonic. He even played part of it on his piano.
DOELLING: You know, the first thing you hear is the, like, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo (ph) – a simple chunk, right? It just has a series of notes which you can kind of group together and will repeat throughout the piece over and over again. (Playing piano).
CHATTERJEE: So we hear that repetition within the song, the lyrics and the tune, as well as us replaying songs we like over and over, so helping out our lazy brains.
ARIDI: Yeah, it’s just like one more shortcut. And to make things even easier for our brains, Keith says we only really need to remember a snippet of a tune, and our brain can often fill in what comes next.
ARIDI: That’s what he researches – how our brains use things we learned in the past to complete patterns and songs.
CHATTERJEE: And we can take advantage of the stickiness of songs to help us remember things, right? I mean, isn’t that what we did in school when teachers would make up songs or jingles to help us remember what they taught us? I’m thinking of ABCs often being taught as a song and not a list of 26 letters, right?
ARIDI: Yup, that’s exactly right. Like, I was taught the quadratic formula in the ninth grade when my math teacher sang the formula to the tune of “Pop Goes The Weasel.”
DOELLING: (Singing) X equals negative b plus or minus radical b squared minus 4ac, all over 2a – yeah.
ARIDI: I asked Keith why after all those years of not using that formula I can still sing that annoying song. He said that we remember things better when we associate them with other things.
DOELLING: You have a melody that you know super well, and you’ve sort of attached that in a line to the quadratic formula. It’s stuck with you for as long as you remember the initial melody, which will probably be forever.
CHATTERJEE: Wow. So again, gets back to sort of encoding things better, and that math formula is just hitching a ride on the tune that you know by heart.
ARIDI: Basically. And since my brain is associating that info, it’s encoded even better.
CHATTERJEE: Well, I have to say your math classes were much more musical than mine.
ARIDI: (Laughter) So that’s the first leg of this explanation. Now let’s get into what’s really going on in your brain when you hear a song.
DOELLING: The first thing that will happen – so the music will hit your eardrum, and that will cause a cascade of neural activity that goes through your brain stem into primary auditory cortex.
ARIDI: That’s where music gets processed. Our brain tries to organize what we’re hearing by identifying things like melody or harmony. And Kimi told me that the language center of your brain will also get involved.
SUGAYA: Our brain has a very special area of processing the language or producing the language. And the music affects to the same part of the brain first. So then we can recognize or we can understand the music.
ARIDI: That’s the part of the brain that processes words when someone speaks to you, but it also works on the lyrics when you hear a song. And the part that makes sense of tone and fluctuations in speech is also processing the melody and beat of a song.
CHATTERJEE: So it’s stimulating your brain in all sorts of ways, then.
ARIDI: Yes, because listening to music is a really active experience. Let’s say you’re reading the lyrics or following sheet music. The visual processing center of your brain also lights up, interpreting what you see. And music also activates your motor cortex, which coordinates body movements.
CHATTERJEE: And that’s why we tap our feet or sway to music so easily.
ARIDI: Exactly. And the part of the brain that coordinates movement and balance also joins the party, too, you know, making sure you don’t land on your bum…
CHATTERJEE: (Laughter).
ARIDI: …Or get a little too carried away there. Those are just a few areas of the brain that are stimulated by music. There are a lot more.
CHATTERJEE: And what about the feelings and emotions we get from listening to songs? Where do those come in?
ARIDI: Yeah. Well, first, listening to music is a really rewarding experience. And that’s at a chemical level. When we enjoy music, our brain releases dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brain.
DOELLING: Music will activate the sort of deep brain dopaminergic systems like the basal ganglia, which are sort of codes for rewarding experiences. You know, it activates when you have a good meal or, you know, when you take a narcotic.
ARIDI: Yeah. And the emotions we feel when listening to music, whether it’s happiness or heartbreak, gets processed in a few different areas of the brain, like the amygdala, which attaches those emotions to our memories.
DOELLING: So it’s not just a musical experience, right? But it’s also what were you going through when you listened to that piece of music? What were the different sort of contexts around it, which all can play into this kind of thing?
ARIDI: And then those memories get processed in the hippocampus, which is our brain’s main hub for learning and memory. So all of that info – our dancing, singing, emotions – get filed away in different parts of your brain.
DOELLING: Which sort of increases the chances that it’s going to be encoded at the sort of high-level hippocampal area.
CHATTERJEE: So more reference points again for the brain. But I’m wondering, Rasha, how does all that activation in our brain translate into how we remember songs?
ARIDI: This part is amazing. Because so many different parts of our brain process music, our memories of music are also stored away in different parts, too. So if you can, you know, remember looking at a piece of sheet music, that memory is coming from the visual processing center. Or if you can remember a dance, that memory is coming from the cerebellum that houses your muscle memory.
CHATTERJEE: Got it. Got it. It’s starting to come together.
ARIDI: Yeah. So, Rhitu, when you were talking about singing to your toddler…
CHATTERJEE: And those entire songs coming back to me.
ARIDI: Yeah, that’s also your muscle memory kicking in. Your brain can remember how you moved your mouth when you sang. So even if you can’t, you know, fully remember the lyrics, your mouth’s muscle memory is going to kick in to help you form those words.
CHATTERJEE: Wow. I would have never in a million years known that my mouth’s muscle memory was somehow involved.
ARIDI: (Laughter).
SUGAYA: The music may be able to connect those bits and piece of the memory you stored in different places. That’s how the memory can be recalled by the music.
CHATTERJEE: So when we hear an old song after a few years, our brain is able to pull that information from all types of stored spaces because we encoded it in so many different ways with our singing and dancing and the memories we attach to songs.
ARIDI: Exactly. There are a lot of bits and pieces stored up in the brain. It explains why some people with memory loss can still remember music. For example, some folks with Alzheimer’s who played the piano when they were younger can still play it, even if they might not remember the names and faces of loved ones anymore. Scientists think that’s because the disease doesn’t have the same effect on the cerebellum, where muscle memory is stored.
CHATTERJEE: So that huge network of songs and memory across the brain increases the chances that people can still remember it.
ARIDI: Yeah. And here’s the final thing I’ll leave with you, Rhitu. We’ve already mentioned how tightly songs and emotion are connected. And according to Kimi, that’s the No. 1 reason we remember songs so well.
CHATTERJEE: And I know that emotions are really important to memory in general. And songs can make us feel, say, joy or heartbreak. And those emotions then help us encode songs better in our brains.
ARIDI: Yeah, the auditory cortex is highly connected with the amygdala, that part we talked about that houses your emotions.
CHATTERJEE: Yeah, yeah.
ARIDI: So when we experience something emotional, the amygdala will signal to another part of the brain to be like, hey, remember this. File it away in long-term memory.
CHATTERJEE: Incredible.
ARIDI: Yeah. And that’s why when you hear a song, you can be transported back to the moment you remember listening to it. So for me, that was sitting in my parents’ car, listening to Arabic music on the drive to elementary school with my little brother.
CHATTERJEE: That’s such a lovely memory. Well, Rasha, thank you for bringing us this episode.
ARIDI: Anytime, Rhitu. And a huge thanks to Kimi Sugaya, Keith Doelling and Melita Belgrave for talking with me.
This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, edited by Viet Le and Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Berly McCoy. A very special thanks to Jon Hamilton for his help. And that music clip you heard – that’s from Amr Diab (ph). I’m Rasha Aridi.
CHATTERJEE: And I’m Rhitu Chatterjee. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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