Why can I remember song lyrics after so long?

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1. Lyrical miracles

You haven’t heard a song in years, maybe not since your teens. But then it pops up on the radio, in a bar or on a TV commercial, and you can remember every single word.

But what if you were asked to remember what you studied for your exams the same year that song was released? Or what you wore the day you got your results? There is a good chance you can’t remember a thing, or at least very little.

So why do lyrics stick with us? It might be all to do with how your brain processes audible information, and where it compartmentalises that information. The leading theory suggests lyrics have their very own storage section in the brain, and one that is separate from where melody is stored. Here’s how it works.

2. It's all in your mind

The reason certain lyrics stay with us has been something of a mystery. But a study by Daniela Sammler, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, suggests lyrics are processed separately from music once in the brain.

3. Like riding a bike

There are at least three reasons why we remember musical lyrics well, says music psychologist Vicky Williamson.

The first reason is mere exposure. Music is everywhere; in shops, bars, cars, gyms and restaurants. Most people have no idea how often they have listened to their favourite songs, but it can add up to hundreds even thousands of times.

Repeated exposure to any stimulus increases the likelihood of retention, especially when the information is identical each time, as it will be with a recording. Hence, the first reason that lyrics might come easily to mind is because we bombard our memory with them.

Emotional triggers

The second reason lyrics often stick is because they can be related to strong emotions. Music can trigger these in of itself and we can link it to emotional events, becoming representative of our big highs and lows.

In general, emotional memories are easily recalled without repeated exposure. However, people often listen to emotional songs frequently because of the psychological reward they experience, be it a high or a low.

Motor memory

Finally, lyrics can come effortlessly to mind because they are part motor memory. A common reaction to music, lyrical or not, is to learn to sing along, even if we only do this out loud in the privacy of the shower.

Memories that are motoric in nature become habit and can be recalled subconsciously with little effort. Examples include your memory of how to walk, drive, or swim. For this reason, it is fair to say that recalling lyrics can be as easy as riding a bike.

4. WATCH: If you sing, sing, sing

Fran Healy, lead singer of the band Travis, talks about why lyrics matter to him and why he thinks they stay with people.

5. Test your music memory

Select one answer from the three options in each question.

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See if you can complete the songs based purely on your memory of the lyrics.