The science behind remembering every lyric to Avril Lavigne’s Complicated

The science behind remembering every lyric to Avril Lavigne’s Complicated

Scrolling through the Glastonbury lineup this year, I noticed two things. First, the abundance of nostalgia acts like Avril Lavigne, Keane, Sugababes, and Corinne Bailey Rae. Second, the surprising realization that I can recall every lyric to their biggest hits, despite not having listened to them in years.

I must admit, I have a terrible sense of pitch and a poor memory. Entire vacations, books I’ve read, and even breakup conversations have vanished from my mind, never to be retrieved. Yet, somehow, I can remember music above all else. My friends can still sing every word to Natasha Bedingfield’s 2004 hit “Unwritten” during long car rides. Even my grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, can sing along to Fifties love songs, though she struggles to recognize her grandchildren. So, what makes music so special?

Kelly Jakubowski, an associate professor from Durham University’s department of music, explains that it’s partly due to “pure familiarity.” We listen to the same music repeatedly, far more often than we read the same book or watch the same movie. This constant exposure strengthens the memory trace. Even if we last heard a song 20 years ago, we likely played it on repeat back then. This repetition effect also means that if you’ve been singing the wrong lyrics, like “feel the beat on the tangerine” instead of “feel the beat on the tambourine,” it becomes nearly impossible to correct.

Another reason songs are so memorable is their emotional impact. Research in psychology shows that emotional experiences are remembered better than non-emotional ones. It’s not just the emotions expressed by the music itself, from Jeff Buckley’s melancholy to Aretha Franklin’s energy, but also the emotions we feel in response to the music or the situations surrounding it, like a funeral or a party. Deeper emotional processing of a stimulus facilitates deeper encoding in the mind, making the song more memorable.

When listening to music, multiple parts of the brain are activated. It’s not just the auditory cortex; emotion-related areas and motor regions also light up. People remember the movements and the urge to dance along. Music activates a wide range of brain regions involved in memory, emotion, movement, and reward sensitivity.

This deep encoding explains why some people with dementia can recall a tune even when other memories have faded. In 2020, a video went viral of a former ballerina lighting up and moving her arms upon hearing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Earlier this year, my grandmother sang every word of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” at my grandfather’s funeral, though she later became confused about his absence.

Sarah Metcalfe, who leads the Music for Dementia campaign, has seen many moments like these. For people who haven’t spoken in a long time, the right song can make them start singing, which can be powerful for families. Music can transform life for carers and families who feel they’ve lost the person. Some people even start attending church just to hear their parent’s voice during hymns.

Music also impacts the motor cortex. Metcalfe recalls a man with dementia who struggled to walk but could dance on one leg when listening to music. The joy and freedom on his face were captivating.

Not just any song will do. Jakubowski explains that the strongest music memories come from a period in our lives called the reminiscence bump, spanning from around age 10 to 30. This period is crucial for identity formation and optimal brain functioning. Playlist for Life, a charity, helps families and care staff find the right music for someone with dementia and harness its effects.

One man with dementia began sharing stories from his youth after hearing a band he saw live as a teenager. Many people don’t realize music can help and are amazed when it does. We also remember music from our parents’ teenage years, suggesting an intergenerational reminiscence bump. This explains why I can never forget my dad playing air guitar to Pink Floyd in the kitchen.

Music is a powerful mnemonic device. Since childhood, we’ve used music to learn the alphabet, list US states, or remember the days in each month. If we lose our memory later in life, we might return to these techniques. People with dementia are sometimes played familiar melodies with new lyrics about their morning routine.

Listening to Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” transports me back to being 10 years old, holding the CD and looking at the grungy girl on the cover of Let Go. The lyrics come back to me, and I remember imagining a tumultuous future relationship. The turquoise wallpaper of my bedroom flickers in my memory, giving me goosebumps.

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