Psychology Professor Matthew Schulkind

If you've ever marveled at being able to recognize a song after hearing just a snatch of it, don't get too proud of your towering intellect. According to Matthew Schulkind, associate professor of psychology, our ability to identify tunes is related to many things, and memory is just one of them. Not only that, we don't actually remember songs from our past as well as we think we do. 

"Everybody has this experience that you can flip through the radio, hear a song in a brief snippet, know it and be able to sing along with it as if you heard it yesterday, even though it's been many years ago," Schulkind says. "One of the experiments that I did was an attempt to explore that phenomenon in a laboratory."

In that study, which was recently featured in the Winter 2009 Discover Magazine's special issue on "The Brain,"  and is forthcoming in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Schulkind gathered a group of older adults and played songs for them that were popular across the 20th century.

"What I expected was that older adults would hear these songs and more often than not tears would come to their eyes and they’d be able to tell me everything about them – the author, the performer, the title, the lyrics," Schulkind says. "But that's not what happened at all. People recognized the songs, and they knew more about songs from the '40s and '50s than they did about songs from the '80s and '90s. But, they weren’t able to identify the titles or performers very well."

That suggests that our ability to remember music, like our ability to remember other things, erodes with time, Schulkind says. That might not seem to be a surprising finding, but it is in the context of conventional wisdom about music and memory. 

“This idea that there are a large number of songs from your youth you can hear that you remember as well as if you heard them yesterday is a myth," he says. "That said, there are probably a small number of songs for which that’s true for any given person, and your experience with that is very powerful."

Schulkind is a pioneering member of a small but growing cohort of psychologists who study musical memory. Once considered to be the Rodney Dangerfield of memory, the study of musical memory is gaining increased respect -- and attention from other researchers -- as it reveals more clues to how the brain organizes and processes chunks of information over time. The larger question at stake is how musical memory relates to memory for words and pictures -- the kinds of memory that psychologists typically study. 

"It's becoming apparent that musical memory is different from other kinds of memory in that it seems to be what we call procedural memory," Schulkind says. "It’s a skill we develop in that once the song starts, it sort of gathers its own momentum, and you remember it. In that way, it's just like once you start to hit a tennis ball or shoot a  basketball, you don’t really have to think about what happens next."

That might explain, Schulkind adds, why certain songs, jingles or melodies get stuck in our heads -- even when don't want them to.

“Once it starts, music just sort of has a mind of its own," he says. "It compels itself forward. It doesn’t need conscious attention from you to maintain it.” 

Indeed, Schulkind expects to keep devising projects and experiments in his quest to uncover even more insights about the defining characteristics of musical memory.

"My interest is in trying to understand whether the principles, theories and ideas we have that govern memory for non-musical stimuli also apply to musical stimuli," he says. "The larger question that falls from that is whether the brain architecture that’s used to learn and remember melodies is the same as the brain architecture used to remember other kinds of stimuli. That should keep me busy for quite some time."