When I was studying for exams I found it almost impossible to memorise the dates I had to know for psychology. I had an A4 sheet of paper with about 40 psychologists and the dates they carried out various studies and I took it with me everywhere for weeks to try and learn as many of those as I could. By the end I managed to remember about half of them, despite at one point having actually created a hat that would dangle the paper permanently in-front of my line-of-sight.
During this same time though, I did manage to memorise the entire of 'Nod Your Head' (the Men in Black 2 single) by Will Smith. Which kind of seems… typical. And I'm not alone in this either: I know countless other people who can recall entire soundtracks and yet struggle to remember even basic things like the fact that they were meant to be picking up milk when they next went shopping.
Clearly our brains are somehow wired to be especially good at remembering music lyrics (and rap lyrics) – so it's just a shame that it would be impractical for us to write and record a song every time we had to learn something new…
But if we could work out why our brains are so good at remembering music, perhaps that might shed some light on how we could more easily remember other things? Bearing in mind that most of us have the lyrics to hundreds if not thousands of songs stored in our brains, this is clearly a very powerful phenomenon worth tapping into.
One of the key reasons that we are so good at remembering music is the same reason we are so good at remembering a number of things that we repeated multiple times. Take piano players for instance – they can remember entire sonatas and play them perfectly by memory. In some cases people suffer with severe amnesia and forget who they are, but can still play their favourite songs when they sit down at a piano. Likewise a dancer will retain the moves to dances for many years, and so will a martial artist remember all the moves in the forms they have to learn.
The common denominator here is practice. In each of these cases you will rehearse the thing you need to remember over and over again to the point where you can remember it in great detail. That's because you strengthen the network of neurons every time you rehearse and eventually they will be so strongly glued together that your brain can't help but follow through them. Thus performance becomes almost unconscious.
When we hear a new piece of music and like it, we will then tend to listen to it again and again. Even if you don't like it, you will probably hear it a good thirty times before it stops playing on the radio. Then subsequently, it will be as though you are hearing the song again every time you remember it.
So one way you can help yourself remember those important facts for your exam is to simply repeat them over and over again in the precise same order so that eventually they get glued together in mind and you can't help but remember them all once you remember the first one.
Due to the way our brains use networks to store and retrieve information, it becomes easier to find information that has more associations. Think of each of these associations as 'routes' to where you stored the information; just as it's easier to find a location with lots of roads leading to it, so is it easier to recall a memory that has lots of other memories associated with it.
When we remember a song lyric then we will remember a tune, a certain voice and probably different instruments. All these things help to provide our brain with more context to help uncover the memories that we were looking for and make those memories longer lasting.
You can use this to your advantage when trying to remember information you need in an exam. By remembering things such as where you were when you tried to memorise the information, how you felt, and even what music you were maybe listening to at the time, you can provide your brain with contextual clues that might trigger your memory. The best case scenario would be to revise in the same room where you would be taking the exam, but if that's not possible then you should try to keep as many aspects of your environment consistent as possible whenever you revise. Then when you need to recall that information you can try to help yourself do so by recreating that environment in your mind's eye.
Rhyme and Pattern
It's also worth considering the power of rhythm and rhyme in remembering things. As there's no obvious evolutionary reason for us to remember songs it may seem surprising to think that our brain so readily stores information that rhymes or follows a beat.
In fact, it makes perfect sense when you think about it as both the number of beats and the rhymes themselves provide clues as to what the next line is.
So if the first two lines are 'Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow', you now know that you're looking for a word that rhymes with 'snow' and that can be joined to that sentence in roughly the same amount of syllables or 'beats'. This greatly reduces the number of candidates your brain has to consider and so helps you to find the right answer much more quickly. You now have a number of different cues all of which can help you to jog that memory and find what you're looking for.
So if you want to help yourself memorise information, think about the way you're structuring it and devise it in such a way so that remembering the first detail accurately will lead logically to the next detail – this is one reason that mnemonic devices can work so well. Studies have shown that simply making things rhyme can aid greatly with recall.
When you look at it like this it now becomes fairly expected that songs would be relatively easy to remember as they are so rehearsed and as they are so structured.
There are also a couple of other things that play a part though. For one you'll probably have noticed that you remember more songs from your childhood/teen years than you do now that you're older. This is due to the brain's enhanced plasticity in our youth – as we get older our brain becomes less adaptable and we find it harder to take on new information. Studies suggest this is in part due to a substance called 'NR2B' in the brain which is more abundant in our earlier years. However it may also be due to the simple fact that we use our brains to learn more frequently when we are younger, thus ensuring that it stays better at taking in more information.
You may also have noticed you have a tendency to remember songs you enjoy better than the songs you don't. Ignoring the fact that you probably play songs you like more often (well duh…), this is due to the impressive power of emotion when it comes to forming memories. When we are emotionally moved by something you see or hear, the brain assumes that that information is important and as such works harder to store it. In the case of a great piece of music that sends tingles down your spine, your brain is going to assign more significance than to a boring pop song you don't like.
And as such the very best way to help yourself remember information when you're studying for an exam is always to take a subject that you actually find interesting to begin with!