brain with music notes and sound waves coming out of the ears

Melodic Memory

melody memory music and brain songwriting Apr 15, 2024

This month we're talking all about melody - how to create them, how to craft them, how to connect them to lyrics - and how melody can affect us in more ways than we might know.

To that end, I've been thinking a lot about how melody plays a role in my memories. Like how I remember, vividly, playing hand clapping games on the playground as a child and singing 'down down baby...' or how my mom used to sing this song about possums that I only barely remember (I should probably ask her to sing it for me sometime soon). Or the melody that I walked down the aisle to when I got married - Flashlights by Maria Schneider - and how each of these melodies has burned a memory into my subconscious. 

I was curious to see if someone had done some research on this, so I popped over to Google Scholar and did a quick search. There are pages and pages of entries on melody and the brain and emotions. I found entries on how we recall information differently when attached to melody, on how the brain processes melody different than words and how recall of melodies attached to words can even be found in people who have suffered a stroke or have dementia. 

As a songwriter, I work in melodies all day. I write them, I analyze them, I consider what might make a stronger melody than the first one that came out of my consciousness - and sometimes I even write melodies that I know work, but that I can't actually sing right away. I spend time thinking about those who created some of the songs I still remember from my childhood and wonder why they are 'sticky' where others are not. I wonder what melodies of mine I will always remember and which will eventually be forgotten. Melodies are specific to each of us - the ones we create are an amalgamation of our musical experiences and tendencies. They are influenced by our cultures, our listening habits and our musical knowledge. I find myself continually curious as to how we can continue to create new melodies and how so few melodies actually overlap or sound the same. It's such an interesting phenomenon. 

Can you think of melodies that you attach to specific moments in your life? What are they? How do they make you feel when you think of them? Do they help you to recall the memory in some vivid way that other memories without music don't have? What might you explore with melody and memory? 

Spend a little time thinking about how melody is integrated into your life. Maybe create a playlist of all your favorite melodies. Maybe have your students do the same. Open up a conversation - maybe a 'show and tell' where students share a song and talk about a memory that they associate with that song and why it matters to them. Or maybe journal about an important event in your life connected to a specific melody or song and how that affects you. 

There are so many ways to engage with melody - we hope this inspires you!