You’ve perhaps heard that music stimulates the brain in unique and fascinating ways. Playing, composing, and even simply listening to music can enhance our ability to focus, problem solve, and communicate, among many other tasks. Today we’re going to be discussing music’s relationship to memory, and how it influences our day to day lives (often without us realising).
Whether or not you are a musician, the sounds we absorb throughout early childhood play an enormous role in our cognitive development. Understanding the patterns in sound is how we come to understand spoken language and, in turn, learn to speak for ourselves. The relationship between memory and sound is then extremely important for our ability to express ourselves and understand one another.
Definitions of music are similar. Music is the manipulation of sound to give it abstract meaning: when we are made to feel something in connection with the sounds we hear. Like language, it is another sound based mode of self-expression, although not as direct in its meaning as words. A piece of music can obviously make different people feel many different things, because the meaning that we draw from it is dictated by our own experiences and memories of the sounds.
Just think of how many people know Send Me On My Way by Rusted Root from Matilda instead of Ice Age!
Everything we sense - from the more musical factors like the instruments and textures used, and whether it’s performed live or recorded, to your surroundings, the people you’re with, your mood that particular day - has a part to play in shaping your response to sound. So, for the most part, our feelings around sound are pretty vague, as there are so many inconsistent variables that inform the experience of even a single piece of music.
But can musical sounds not also be direct? Our memory is certainly capable of forming sound specific connections (otherwise things like words would be very difficult for us) so why don’t we do this with music? Well, perhaps if there was a way to narrow and restrict what the sounds were being associated with, we might have more luck…
Sonification is the term for representing data with sound. Raw data can be incredibly dry and difficult to find useful patterns in, so usually people like to use graphs or tables to display it in a way that is more readily understandable to the human brain. However, sometimes a visual representation is not effective and researchers opt to use sound. Think of inventions like radars and heart monitors: the sounds used are obviously not the sounds of the objects they are measuring, rather they are an abstract representation of the data.
By turning sound into something symbolic, learned through association, sounds can come to take on specific meanings! Although these simple beeps and blips are a far cry from a full piece of music, we can still think of them as musical. By reducing their duration, simplifying the instruments, and pairing the noise with a related visual, we cut down on a lot of the variables in our brain’s meaning-making process.
Ok… That’s cool, but what does this mean for me when I’m not on a top secret aircraft mission, or in hospital?
These short soundbites are used as symbols in lots of places. For instance, every time your mobile pings - a text tone, a work email notification, a tinder match - you know a lot of information before you even pick up the phone! This is because you have a musical memory, capable of retaining these sounds and their symbolic meaning. With the rise of smartphones in the last two decades, millions of people worldwide have adapted to learn and differentiate between these subtly different sounds, making them an excellent commonplace example for this ability we all seem to have to varying degrees.
Smartphones are not unique in this either. It’s something that big brands have used for a long time to slip the idea of their products into people’s subconscious; apparently with great success too, as there are dozens of ad jingles that I will be singing to my grave! Even prior to radio and TV, it’s something composers like Wagner have been playing around with since the 1800s in the form of Leitmotifs - which we’ll return to more in the weeks to come.
What Can We Learn?
Repeating a sound so that it becomes associated with an object or concept is an amazing learning tool, and once it’s internalised it can serve as a recall trigger for the larger ideas it represents for a long long time.
In his video on sonifaction, Tantacrul jokes about the news of the future being broadcast as a short series of pitched beeps from which we would effortlessly interpret the headlines of the day. Although said in jest, he notes how there is still so much more that could be done with sonifaction and this pairing of sounds and concepts - particularly for the visually impaired among us.
As a musician who has spent a lot of time developing this skill, I’m made acutely aware of these connections on a daily basis and feel that my life is enriched by being able to think critically about what I’m hearing and its impact on my brain. However, when music is undervalued as an educational tool, it sometimes feels that this skill goes unnoticed by many and is only ever used to exploit and manipulate people, when it could be really helpful for non-visual learners.
Our musical memory has so much potential, but as long as people imagine studying music to be some kind of luxury or hobby, we are missing the point! We all experience sound, and it has a huge impact on all of our brains in a very individualised way. Is there nothing to be said for integrating sound-based learning with other topics outside of the arts, and using music as a tool to educate? Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that...