How Musical ‘Earworms’ Can Improve Your Memory

Why that song you can’t get out of your head might help you access and retain positive experiences from the past.

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Posted in , Feb 21, 2022

Singing out loud

If you haven’t yet seen Disney’s latest film Encanto, I can’t recommend it enough. For viewers of literally any age, the story is fascinating, the animation beautiful and the messages about cross-generational love, survival and honesty—inspired.

And then there’s the music.

“Surface Pressure,” a song about the physical (and emotional) weight one character carries for her family, and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” about an estranged character whose prophecies are feared and misunderstood by the family, both broke the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in January.  “Bruno” is the first number one Disney hit since the smash “Let It Go” from the 2013 movie Frozen.

The songs, by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, are the kind that one might wake up humming or suddenly be grooving to while doing the dishes. In other words, they’re grade-A “earworms.” 

Rather than lamenting the way these and other songs get “stuck” in our heads, researchers are exploring some benefits of mentally repeating songs we love. A team from the University of California, Davis, recently published findings that showed a strong connection between familiar music and the ability to recall detailed memories from the past.

The experiment involved playing a familiar song while showing study participants a movie clip they had never seen before. Participants who replayed the music in their heads had a far better recall of the unfamiliar clip a week later, as compared to people who heard the music but didn’t get it “stuck” in their heads.

“Spontaneous, internally cued memory reactivation,” the authors wrote—that feeling when a song pops into your head for seemingly no reason and reminds you of something you saw, felt or experienced in the past—“is a naturally occurring memory process that improves retention of real-world event knowledge.”

In other words, earworms might be a key to helping people retain and access their memories. Future research will explore how this memory mechanism might open up new treatments for dementia and other cognitive issues. 

Whether you watch a musical film like Encanto or press “play” on another familiar song today, take a moment to thank your brain for the reminder of how rich the soundtrack of your life truly is.

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