Music & Memory

Your expert musical memory

GrandmaMy fascination with musical memory can be traced to my beloved grandmother. She has a song for all occasions and just about any phrase you utter triggers the memory of a tune. Most are from her early years and she has a particularly fine memory for hymns.

As a child I decided that I had inherited my grandma’s wonderful memory for music.

I found that I could easily learn music and lyrics, and went about amassing a mental library of the sounds that I liked, including Nat King Cole’s songs, Beethoven’s symphonies, and just about every note that the Beatles ever played. All this I managed just by listening.

It was not long before I realised that my grandma and I were not alone. In my school common room friends would often gather to listen to music, quietly singing or acting out a teenage rock fantasy on an imaginary drum kit. Suddenly, knowing all the words to ‘American Pie’ was not so impressive. It seemed everyone had a pretty impressive memory for music.

Arturo+Toscanini+ToscaniniToday, I am a scientist who studies musical memory. One of my favourite cases of astonishing musical memory is that of the brilliant Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.

The legend goes that he knew every note by heart of around 250 symphonies, 100 operas and volumes of instrumental works and songs.

Extreme memory such as this is not limited to music. Every year people complete in the World Memory Championships having trained for hours to remember packs of cards or lists of random digits. And let’s not forget the everyday memory experts; waiters who take orders for a table of 20 without writing anything down or cooks with a hundred recipes in their mental store cupboard.

Memory expertise is a skill that requires practise. Techniques for building expert memory have been recounted in ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ by Joshua Foer. They include creating structure within new information, grouping it more effectively and thereby increasing the amount that may be retained. Another method is to use existing knowledge to ground new facts within memory.

Army runners


In one famous scientific case, an undergraduate known as S.F was able to boost his digit recall from a very average 7 to an astonishing total of 80. It took him months of practice but eventually he learned how to structure and group numbers more effectively using his knowledge of running times.

In a similar way musicians like Toscanini put in a great deal of effort to encode volumes of music for performance from memory, by creating structural boundaries within scores and using their knowledge of scales, cadences and phrases to group swathes of notes together in the mind.

To me, that seems like a lot of work. My grandma and I have not put in anywhere near that effort to remember our music. So how do the rest of us build up such an amazing musical store?

Once again, the secret is in memory techniques but in the case of music much the work is done for us. S.F had to learn how to build structures within random strings of digits; music comes with its own intricate patterns of melody, rhythm and harmony. These built-in structures provide a perfect recipe for storage over time with minimal effort from the listener.

Furthermore, virtually all new music from our own culture builds on aspects of our existing knowledge of music that we have built up over a lifetime of listening.

Scientists have found that our memory for brand new music is not actually very good but over repeated exposures the trace becomes detailed, refined and strengthens such that many people can reproduce the exact pitches of their favourite songs, even if they have had no musical training.

Music in older age


Musical memory is also a strong survivor. There are many cases of amnesia, dementia or head injury where a person suffers extensive memory damage but is still able to recall music. There are also touching cases where music can provide a communication portal for memories that seem otherwise lost.

Our musical memories tell our life stories. My grandma’s musical mind pops tell of her childhood experiences in 1930s Cornwall while mine speak to an incurable crush on John Lennon. With minimal effort music embeds itself in our minds and provides a pathway to ideas, thoughts and experiences. The new challenges for scientific research will be to learn how to target and harness the power of music to aid in memory loss as well as help us meet everyday memory challenges.

This Sunday (21st April) I will be giving a talk about musical memory at the TEDMED Imperial Event. Wish me luck!