Music as a memory game

You can only enjoy music when you can remember sound. Without a functioning short term memory you cannot remember any musical motive nor enjoy music. Luckily your brain is trained to hear speech and just loves remembering sound pattern, especially rhythms. But your short term memory cannot hold long onto larger chunks of information, so soundbites need to have a certain length for your brain to remember and process it .

Composers can help your brain enjoying music more easily by designing sound-structures in time that the short-tem memory can process. So it can remember a theme or a motive for you to enjoy.

What happens if we design music that is difficult for our short-term memory?

In twelve-tone music, all 12 notes have to be used once before the composer can repeat one of them in a next series of 12 notes. Because twelve-tone music has this non-repetitive structure that takes a rather long time, the brain finds it difficult to remember and process. This is why that music is difficult to understand and not really enjoyable for a lot of people. Without structured repetition of short soundbites it is not easy to remember it and you have to hear the music a few times to remember the phrases.

You remember patterns better than just random notes. That’s why remembering and enjoying atonal music is difficult. It doesn’t come naturally.

So when you hear twelve-tone music for the first time, you brain is like “What did he say?”

The short-term memory can hold bites of information of 4 sec. during 10 seconds. You loose all recall options from your short term memory within 600 seconds. This limits the timeframe a composer can use for introducing a new theme. Not only can’t we hold on to the theme for a long time, we also have to hear it repeated to store it in our long-term memory. So there is an optimum where a soundbite of a certain length sounds like a recognizable theme and can be remembered well by the short-term memory.

There is an optimum number of repetitions needed to reinforce the theme into your long-term memory.

Long term memory is needed for storing a melody. To retain a melody it must be periodically repeated by a least simulating the articulation in your brain. So you have to hear it at least in your internal hearing to retain the melody for a longer period. When you are storing a melody in your long term memory and you get distracted, it will be forgotten. You have to hear it all over again to remember the melody.

The audience will forget the theme when the percussionist hits a big bang on the tamtam and scares the shit out of them .

Distraction tasks impair the short term memory. Loud persussion, changing choirs, or just adding instruments has to be processed by the brain and impairs the short term memory of a theme. The brain can only concentrate on one change at the time. So a smart composer doesn’t change the theme and the orchestration at the same time. Because the audience will also be distracted by a dropping mute and still have to process the music.

The working memory or the brain holds information for 10 – 20 seconds. When you repeat a phrase of this length, the long term memory will solidify that musical idea in your brain. The longer the phrases, the fewer phrases we can remember for a long period. When the audience get’s distracted by a phone going off while processing a phrase and it will be forgotten. You will have to play the piece all over again for them to remember it. So better state your main theme a few times, so people will remember it for sure given all circumstances.

When you add a new melody, the older melody get’s pushed away. So the original melody has to be repeated after hearing the new melody, because our brain thinks it hasn’t heard it before. It’s even more difficult for the brain to distinguish between melodies when they sound a bit the same. Your brain will make up a melody that sounds a bit like both and remember that.

So your audience might even remember something that you did not compose at all.

It will be interesting to analyse work of other composers to see how long the phrases are, how often they are repeated and how much new melodies differ from each other. Because music that is agreeable to a lot of people, must have intuitively managed to entertain the brain, have it process music at an agreeable pace. And this saying that your music is just right when people sing it in their way home? That’s indeed the case, because that music fitted the brain perfectly and is remembered long after the concert had ended.

More reading:

  • For scientific research on the effects of change in instrumentation on the recognition of musical materials by Maduraell, Vieillard and McAdams. (2004)

By Anneloes Wolters


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