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Why We Remember Song Lyrics So Well

The power of rhyme is ancient and ever-new

The hottest video on YouTube right now is a 5-minute spoken-word composition titled “Why I Hate Religion, But I Love Jesus.” Recorded by 22-year-old Seattle resident Jefferson Bethke, the clip has been viewed more than 18 million times since it was posted on Jan. 10. Bethke’s message — “If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?/ Why does it build huge churches, but fail to feed the poor?” — isn’t new; plenty of authors and speakers have advocated the rejection of organized religion in favor of a more personal kind of faith. So why has this version gone viral? Bethke’s youth and artless charm surely account for part of the video’s popularity. But its memorable message also owes something to the form its author chose. Despite its 21st century packaging, Bethke’s performance shares in a long tradition of oral storytelling — one that shaped itself over thousands of years to the particular proclivities of the human brain.

Oral forms like ballads and epics exist in every culture, originating long before the advent of written language. In preliterate eras, tales had to be appealing to the ear and memorable to the mind or else they would simply disappear. After all, most messages we hear are forgotten, or if they’re passed on, they’re changed beyond recognition — as psychologists’ investigations of how rumors evolve have shown. In his classic book Memory in Oral Traditions, cognitive scientist David Rubin notes, “Oral traditions depend on human memory for their preservation. If a tradition is to survive, it must be stored in one person’s memory and be passed on to another person who is also capable of storing and retelling it. All this must occur over many generations… Oral traditions must, therefore, have developed forms of organization and strategies to decrease the changes that human memory imposes on the more casual transmission of verbal material.”

What are these strategies? Tales that last for many generations tend to describe concrete actions rather than abstract concepts. They use powerful visual images. They are sung or chanted. And they employ patterns of sound: alliteration, assonance, repetition and, most of all, rhyme. One of Rubin’s own experiments showed that when two words in a ballad are linked by rhyme, contemporary college students remember them better than nonrhyming words. Such universal characteristics of oral narratives are, in effect, mnemonics — memory aids that people developed over time “to make use of the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of human memory,” as Rubin puts it.

Today, at least one company is taking advantage of these age-old memory aids to help current students remember their reading. Book Tunes, a collaboration between educational entrepreneur David Sauer and hip-hop artist Andy Bernstein (he performs under the name Abdominal), turns long, wordy books into compact, catchy raps, spoken over an insistent beat. The duo’s latest offering: a rap version of The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (“Hester’s story is set in the Puritan settlement/that was 17th century Boston where she’s being led/ from the town prison holding her baby daughter Pearl with an A on her chest/ for the world to see which we quickly learn stands for adulterer ‘cause turns out/ H is married . . . “). Book Tunes’s take on the tale of Hester Prynne is being offered jointly with SparkNotes, the study aid provider owned by Barnes & Noble, which is said to be interested in raps of other classics, such as the plays of William Shakespeare.

Traditionalists aghast at the notion may need to be reminded that many of the world’s greatest works of literature, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, began as oral chants. The lasting power of this form is something that Book Tunes — not to mention Jefferson Bethke — have already figured out.

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