How do we remember a song?
How do we remember a song? Imagine this scene: you’re walking down the street when you hear a song from an open window, without thinking too much, you start humming it as you go on your way.
Do you notice anything strange? Probably not. Everything is normal, granted. But have you ever wondered how our brain works to retrieve information about that precise song from all the ones we hear and know?
Music accompanies much of our life, whether it is a choice of ours, when we want to relax or go to a concert, or when we find ourselves listening to it without this depends on a specific choice. We listen to music while we drink a coffee at the bar, while we ‘re doing shopping, while we watch television or listen to the radio. A huge amount of stimuli and information target us and our mind, following an unconscious process, stores them to return them to us when we need them.
Remember a song in just a few seconds
Often we just need to listen to a few seconds of a song to recognize it: in a moment we can recover from our memory author, title, words and music. We can also rebuild the structure of the song to hum it ourselves. Not easy.
A further complication is given by the fact that the same song does not always arrive in the same way. Imagine listening to a song, the same song, sung first by a man, then by a woman, then by a child. The final result will certainly be different and yet our ability to recognize that piece will be the same, regardless of who sang it. Same thing if we listened to that same song performed with different instruments or modified to adapt, for example, to an advertisement. We’d recognize it anyway.
How is this possible? How can our brain memorize a song in all its endless possible variations? To achieve this, our brain performs a series of complex processes. All in a few seconds. And also uses some tricks…
The tricks used by the brain
But let’s go back to the way we recognize a song, even if its performance is very different. This is where the tricks we mentioned come in. This is because the way we make a melody is based on the relationship between the sounds rather than the sounds themselves.
When our brain listens to music it makes an acoustic analysis and transforms it into abstract musical matter, that is, it creates a representation in which every sound is identified according to the relationship with the sound that precedes it (it will be lower, longer, sweeter and so on).
How does this process happen? An interesting theory explains that the melody is elaborated by two systems acting separately. One deals with analyzing the structure of the melody, the distance between the notes, the tonality, the pitch of the sounds. The other carries out a temporal analysis, the variation of the duration of the sounds, the metrical and rhythmic aspects. Both systems send their information to the brain that stores it along with all the specific information that we have accumulated over the course of our lives and that is ready to be used if necessary.
This process involves a capacity for abstraction which in turn results from a series of cognitive operations. Our mind, in fact, collects, encodes and stores information to then perform those operations that allow it to organize the information it already possesses, finding or building relationships between them in order to give them meaning and build new knowledge.
Thanks to the unconscious ability to perform these operations, when we listen to a piece that is known to us we are able to recognize it in a fraction of a second by recovering in our memory a series of information about it.
Memorizing real melodies would make it difficult to recognize them if performed differently. On the contrary, the abstract properties that we memorize, do not change and allow our brain to provide us with the tools to recognize a piece as soon as we listen to it.
Children, too, recognize music
How many times have we clapped our hands to the rhythm of music, moved a foot or tapped a finger on a table playing a certain rhythm?
Already one-year-old children are able to show a rocking induced by the rhythm of the music. 3-year-old children are able to synchronize hand movements with music, an action that may appear simple and instinctive but which implies instead the use of complex processes of information acquisition.
The interesting thing to note is that the motor response is not induced by the sound stimulus but by the time interval between the notes.
To be able to clap we hands following the time of music we need to be able to analyze the time series of sounds, create a structure that allows us to predict the future and anticipate motor planning so as to be in tune with the sound that has yet to arrive.
It also depends on the mood
It is also important to consider the incidence of the emotional factor on the process just described. Some recent studies suggest the existence of another set of mechanisms used by our mind and connected to emotions, which would seem to be relatively autonomous from the recognition system we have examined. Only later in-depth analysis will clarify this aspect.