If, like me, you grew up in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s, you probably remember the game show Name That Tune, where contestants heard brief snippets from popular songs and had to name them as quickly as possible. Even though I didn’t know most of the music, which was primarily American Standards from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, I still found the show fascinating. My favorite part of the game was when the two contestants engaged in a bidding war, where a clue was given and the contestants bet on how few notes it would take them to recall the title of the song. Sometimes a contestant could actually name a song after hearing just one note! (Of course, this probably meant they could guess the song based only on the clue, but you couldn’t beat the drama of a contestant boasting “I can name that tune in one note.”)
The show demonstrated how powerful a melody can be as a memory device. The songs were all played by an orchestra or pianist, without the lyrics, and contestants (and viewers at home) could often guess the name of the song within only one or two seconds. But is a melody really the best way for us to remember a song? Maybe we could do it even better, if only there was a TV show called Name Those Lyrics.
While we’ve discussed a study demonstrating that both music and lyrics were about equal, that study was concerned primarily with reaction time. In Name That Tune, once a contestant made their bid on a melody, they had plenty of time to think about what the title of the song was.
A team led by Zehra Peyrnircioğlu had 180 psychology students listen to partial melodies or read lyrics or titles of moderately popular songs, and then asked them to use that information to recall something else about song. So if you heard the melody, you might be asked to hum back more of the melody, recall the lyrics, or the title. If you read the lyrics, you might be asked to hum the melody, recall more lyrics, or the title. If you saw the title, you could only be asked for lyrics or melody. To make the task difficult, lyrics and melodies came from the verse of the song, not the more familiar chorus. Here are the results:
When listeners heard melody snippets or read the title, they remembered the other elements of the song in the 10-15 percent range. But when they read lyrics, they could hum back the melody or recall the title of the song significantly better. They also made significantly fewer errors. Name Those Lyrics would be a much easier game show than Name That Tune, even though the researchers were careful to only present lyrics that did not include words from the song’s title.
Oddly, reading lyrics didn’t improve respondents’ accuracy in generating additional lyrics — and even hearing music and lyrics together didn’t help respondents predict the next part of the melody or lyrics better than music and lyrics alone.
Interestingly, respondents didn’t believe the lyrics helped them more than the other elements of songs. When respondents couldn’t give an answer, the researchers asked them to rate how well they thought they knew the answer — if they were given a clue, how likely would they be to produce the correct response? Then later they were given a multiple choice test instead of being asked to produce an answer with no help. Respondents systematically underestimated their ability to produce an answer when prompted by lyrics.
We seem to believe the melody and title of a song will help us recall it better than the lyrics, when in fact the opposite is true.
Peynircioglu, Z., Rabinovitz, B., & Thompson, J. (2007). Memory and metamemory for songs: the relative effectiveness of titles, lyrics, and melodies as cues for each other Psychology of Music, 36 (1), 47-61 DOI: 10.1177/0305735607079722