Could a Memory System Be Built on Music?

Most memory techniques are based on the idea that visual images are easier to remember than abstract data.

Most memory books that I’ve read also say to use all of your senses, though they generally focus on the visual aspect because visual memory is strongest.

As I practice memory techniques I try to pay attention to why I remember certain things and forget others.

I’m a musician and music is running through my head almost constantly. I often suddenly notice the melody that is playing in my head and realize that it must have been playing in store or cafe I left 5 or 10 minutes ago. Simple unconscious repetition of sounds never heard before can be retained for a significant amount of time.

Music has several elements that make it highly memorable:

  • Rhythm and meter
  • Melody and harmony
  • Rhyme (if there are words)

Melody and rhythm can contain data. Intervals between notes have numbers, and Western music theory has comprehensive rules about how chords are used. Much popular music is written according to formulas to make it as memorable as possible.

One only has to hear a catchy melodic phrase once or twice before it is memorized. That phrase could then be dissected. This has gotten me thinking about whether a mnemonic system could be built on music.

It would require a very good knowledge of music theory and a well-trained ear. I’m not sure what the applications would be, but it seems like there could be a way to encode information into music.

Music has been used by composers to encode information. The Bach Motif is one simple example, where Bach’s name is encoded into the music:

b-a-c-h Motif

BACH motif: B flat, A, C, B natural

I have some ideas about this, especially with memorizing words or learning languages. At the moment, I’m just thinking out loud. I will write more about it if I’m able to come up with anything useful. 🙂

I also wrote some thoughts about memorizing music on JoshNotes.com, though I haven’t had time to experiment with it.

Image of BACH Motif © Bastique under Creative Commons license.

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    5 comments

    • Actually some of my images for numbers and cards are primarily based on music/sound. When doing speed cards or numbers, i dont have time to spend a lot of time visualizing my images. I just have to briefly think about it; like a flash. So that means that most of my images are really just a small unique thing that I hook on to. For my sister (28) for example, it’s just a glimpse of a pony tail, or my mom (65) its more like a cozy feeling. But sometimes, some images have a sound – 16 is Arnold Schwartzaneggar and my hook for him is the typical Austrian grunting sound he makes “aughhh.” James Bond (07) is the james bond theme. The best is 94 – Neil Diamond. I never think of what 94 looks like, I just think of a faceless man saying “hello” (like from Neil Diamond’s song “hello”) lol.

    • That’s interesting. Maybe I’m spending too much time visualizing details of my images.

      94 used to be Neil Diamond for me also. I mistakenly thought that he sang the song about riding through the desert on a horse with no name — so my image was a guy riding a horse. 🙂

    • 606 in the Major System becomes JSJ. Rememberg.com suggested “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in Wikipedia. I downloaded a clip of the opening bars and I use that sound as a peg.

      103, dismay, reminds me of a Beastie Boys track with line that ends with the lyric “much to my dismay.”

      None of the mnemonics books I’ve read discuss such a use very much. This surprises me, as the song stuck in your head demonstrates an overwhelmingly strong memory. On the other hand, classical mnemonics had no experience with recorded sound, and paper books have no ability to reproduce sound. Perhaps the omission comes from media limitations.

    • I am an adult musician with ADD. When I go from one visual setting to another, I lose absolutely everything in my working/short term memory. In particular, when I get out cars, I systematically forget to pump parking meters. For the longest time, I would drive places knowing I would have to pay for parking, remind myself multiple times, and then forget.

      BUT! The one thing that does not leave my head is whatever tune or song is running through it at the time. My breakthrough came when I thought of setting the words “pump the meter” to catchy music every time I knew I would have to pay for parking. I would park, get out of the car, walk down the street, and then suddenly realize that I was still singing about pumping a parking meter but hadn’t done it yet.

      This is the best use for “ear-worms” that I have yet found. It’s a very specific niche — most memories I need refreshed during the day are better served by phone alarms with labels. But I can’t program an alarm while driving and I don’t know exactly what time I’ll arrive, so an ear-worm is perfect.

    • BUT! The one thing that does not leave my head is whatever tune or song is running through it at the time. My breakthrough came when I thought of setting the words “pump the meter” to catchy music every time I knew I would have to pay for parking. I would park, get out of the car, walk down the street, and then suddenly realize that I was still singing about pumping a parking meter but hadn’t done it yet.

      That’s a great idea. I wonder if it could be combined with musical languages like Solresol to encode more information. Maybe a system of fixed melodies could be used to represent specific common tasks or concepts.

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