Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

What: The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, by Daniel J. Levitin (Dutton, 2008).

Why: Want someone to remember something? Set it to music.

It’s happened to all of us. You’re watching TV or listening to the radio—or maybe you’ve just got something on in the background. Days later you realize that, thanks to a catchy jingle to which you were repeatedly exposed (consciously or not), you can now recite in perfect order all the ingredients used in making a particular franchise’s hamburger. (For those of you who are of my generation, I know this tune is now playing inside your head.)

How does this happen, almost against your will? That’s what The World in Six Songs is all about, in painstaking—and sometimes painful—detail. The basic idea here is that “music is a highly efficient memory and information transmission system.”

If you want people to learn something and not forget it, set it to music. The blending of music and words ensures that a message will be remembered, even if it’s not particularly memorable. Levitin notes that patients with Alzheimer’s Disease “remember songs and song lyrics long after they’ve forgotten everything else.”

This is because music taps into both actual memory and facilitates constructive memory. It turns out “we don’t actually remember all the details we think we do, we fill in many of them subconsciously by making plausible inferences.” Music provides an excellent context for inferential thinking, in part because of the emotional punch it can pack.

I suppose an enterprising entrepreneur might want to consider setting his/her executive summary to music to give it more emotional punch and make it more memorable. Of course, being memorable doesn’t guarantee that people will like it more (or be more likely to get out their checkbooks). Warning to all heavy metal fans: You’ll remember all the words to that Mötley Crüe song, but studies show that listening to heavy metal decreases the production of hormones associated with feeling good. If something’s set to music, you’ll remember it, but you might not be happy about it.

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