Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Music memory

I'm puzzling again about how memory works.

Something about songs makes them easier to remember. Maybe it’s the combination of sound and word; maybe the effective narrative holds it together.

Some ear worms are just fragments of songs playing in loop, so the memory of a song can be chopped up somehow into segments handy for the brain. And I find that sometimes chunks of different verses mingle.

For example, I remembered part of a famous hymn as “Thou Who almighty art, mildly ordainest judgments unsearchable, famine and sword. Bid not Thy wrath in its terror o’ertake us...”

I looked it up. Oops. “God the Omnipotent.” “Thou Who almighty art” looks like an import from a different song, which just happened to have the same rhythm . “Wisely” turned into “mildly:” I’ve no idea why. The “bid not Thy wrath” section is from a different verse. So I assembled this version from a phrase with the same meaning and rhythm, a single-word shift, and chunks of two different verses.

This suggests that I store some songs in the form of chunks and a set of links, and link the chunks together on demand. It looks like both rhythm and words serve as keys. Meaning may not be a reliable key, but it does get used.

The instrumental music playing in Urgent Care(*) included a song I’d not heard since the 70’s, and I realized I couldn’t recall more than a few lines. The melody I could reconstruct easily. (I don’t usually mix melodies together—in contrast to lyrics--though now and then I do.)

When we got home I went to look for the song--and kept coming up blank.

Executive summary: the tune was the Airport love theme, which is almost entirely instrumental, with only a couple of lines sung at the beginning and end about the winds of chance. My brain expected the rest of the words to be there, and did its best (modulo substituting “restless winds” for “gentle winds”). Missing part was especially irritating.

(*) It turns out a Mansfield bar doesn’t protect car tops when the trailer jackknifes. She had no apparent injuries, fortunately.

1 comment:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

One of my OCD hums left over from childhood is a blend of two melodies, but other than that I think they separate well in my mind. Verses, however, do muddle together quite easily, as anyone who tries to sing the later verses of Christmas carols knows. Substituting "gentle" for "restless" seems quite plausible, but it does lead to a puzzling question of how, exactly. They are both two-syllable, but they are opposites. They can't be in the same memory folder.

Except they can, of course, if one comes from another direction. The mind seeks a two-syllable word to go with the meter of the song, suggesting that tune is the driver, and perhaps meter is the dominant piece of that. We used to play a guessing game of identifying a song if all the notes were played as quarters and it was very hard. Giving someone the meter with no pitch was also hard, yet less so. But the mind may not be looking for "two-syllable words of broadly X meaning," but "two-syllable words that might go with wind," or "two syllable words that might get used in a hymn." Or even some combination of those, as the brain can be very quick about some things, even as it struggles with others.