Why Do Some Songs Stick in Our Minds Forever?

Like them or not, it's as if they're imprinted there.

Posted Jun 28, 2011

Settling into my seat on a lawn last week, I realized that I was about to experience a concert by a band whose hits were iconic in my middle-school years -- but about which I have thought little since.

Wente Vineyards, a grand historic winery nestled in a balmy Northern California valley, holds a summer concert series. Each concert by a world-renowned act is preceded by a lush feast that attendees can relish in the winery's restaurant or buffet-style, alfresco, on the lawn facing the stage. Sipping Cabernet and nibbling fresh figs at last week's season opener, I joined in the applause as onto the stage stepped those early-'70s successes who made wistfulness an industry: America.

A few masterfully slidey guitar arcs, then Gerry Beckley sang:

Well, I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed.

And suddenly I was mouthing the lyrics. I knew which line would come next, then the one after that, and every strum, drumbeat and keystroke. Although I had neither sung nor paid conscious attention to that song in over thirty years, I knew its every nuance. With a dawning fascination that bordered on horror, I realized that I knew this song not just with my mind but in my bones. As if imprinted there, defying what looked like forgetfulness, it roared back in an instant, forcing my fingers to tap my thighs in time, whether I wanted to or not.

The same thing happened with the next song, then the next. I never loved these songs. I tolerated them in middle school and admired their guitar artistry, but preferred David Bowie. Nonetheless, watching the stage last week, I mouthed the words and swayed transfixed -- as if possessed -- through America's entire top-ten repertoire. From "Daisy Jane" to "I Need You," I knew every song note by crystal-clear, star-dancing note and word by cringe-inducing, surely-they-could-have-devised-a-better-rhyme-for-"sandman" word.

And with each note and word came raw unbidden memories of hearing those songs when they were still new. Flashbacks raced through my mind revealing where I was, whom I was with and who I was when I first heard those songs. Sitting middle-aged amid the oaks, I was also fourteen, wearing a sky-blue sailcloth smocktop in a beige Cutlass Supreme, beach-bound, radio blaring. My newly pierced earlobes stung. That fourteen-year-old airhead with her paralytic fears of robbers and geometry was real. She was present at that concert last week, and she was me.

I could see other people my age in the audience mouthing lyrics, rocking in time, looking slightly surprised. I thought: They feel it too.

It struck me that the songs we knew when young are powerful tools: not so different in function from enchantment, brainwashing, psychedelics or time machines. I wondered whether such songs could be used as therapy, to heal.

But how do they acquire this power? How and why are certain songs -- not necessarily our favorites -- seemingly imprinted on our brains? Why are songs we learn later in life -- even those we love -- less likely to imprint in the same way?

Seeking answers, I interviewed John J. Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School whose many books include A User's Guide to the Brain and Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

"Anything that enters your brain in the formative years is potent, because it isn't overloaded with all the competing sounds and thoughts that fill your brain at age 35," Ratey told me.

"When you're very young, you're not filtering anything. You're not screening it. You don't say, 'That's bad' or even try to understand it."

During our first twenty years or so, "we're still building a repertoire of our internal selves. During that period of life, experiences tend to happen in the brain's right hemisphere, the 'feeling center' where music and sound and rhythm and flow carry the day.

"Even if you don't love a song you hear at that age, maybe you pay more attention to it because your friends are listening to it or because you hear it while exciting things are happening. Whether you like the song or not, it's novel, so it has an emotional tinge to it. The amygdala charges up the song and gives it more power, so it has more of a tendency to get encoded, which means that cells have grown to collect around it by the tens of millions."

Whatever reaches the right hemisphere unfiltered "sticks in there and can be accessed longer" -- often, for the rest of our lives.

"But as we pass through our late teens into our early twenties, we come to rely more and more on the brain's left hemisphere and frontal cortex" -- its analytical, speech and planning centers.

By college age, "we've begun to think a little too much." The brain becomes so cluttered with judgments, associations, and competing material that little reaches the right hemisphere unfiltered anymore.

Yet a familiar note or lyric from some long-ago song spurs that old code into action.

"Suddenly, that song hangs together perfectly, because you put it in there and stored it without even recognizing it," said Ratey, whose latest project involves instituting exercise programs at public schools to boost students' brainpower.

In his practice, Ratey has seen many stroke patients whose left hemispheres have been so badly damaged that they can no longer speak. Yet they can sing.

"First, they'll be able to sing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' or 'Old McDonald' or one of the earliest rhyming songs they ever heard -- while they're not able to utter a single spoken word."

I dearly hope I never suffer a stroke, as my father did. But if I do, will I surprise my doctors by belting "Horse With No Name?"