The Real Reason You Can Remember Song Lyrics Better Than Most Other Things

No doubt about it, earworms are irritating. We've all suffered through getting the lyrics of an annoying hit stuck in our heads on a seemingly endless loop. "Who Let the Dogs Out?" and "Baby Shark" are habitual offenders, but innocuous songs can also be earworm culprits, such as the themes for "Sesame Street" or "Barney" — both of which, incidentally, have been used to torture prisoners.

Sometimes, our ability to remember song lyrics more readily than facts is put to good use. As a child, you probably memorized the alphabet with the help of a song. And, if you're an American of a certain age, you may have learned the multiplication tables or how a bill becomes a law thanks to a catchy ditty on "Schoolhouse Rock!"

So, why is it easier to remember the lyrics to a song — especially an earworm — than, say, an important shopping list or the periodic table for a chemistry exam?

Rhymes help boost your memory

Since long before the written word emerged, which took place around 3400 BCE (per Getty), humans have required ways to easily remember and pass along information crucial to our survival as a species.

"Information like where the well is, or which foods are poisonous and which aren't, and how to care for wounds so they won't become infected," Daniel Levitin said to the BBC. A neuroscientist who also happens to sing and play tenor saxophone, guitar, and bass, Levitin is an expert on the neuroscience of music. He explained that, for hundreds of thousands of years, people have been creating songs to memorize vital information.

One of the keys to aiding memory in such oral traditions is the use of rhyme (per The Creativity Post). Rhymes make information easier to remember (per HowStuffWorks), especially when they are paired with powerful visual imagery in a song. Rhythm and melody are additional components that enable us to recall song lyrics more easily than the same words on their own.

The structure of a song makes the lyrics easier to remember

The four main parts of a pop song — intro, verse, chorus, bridge — tend to be arranged into just a few common structures (per MasterClass). This is one of the many reasons a brand new song might seem instantly familiar.

Song structure is a huge boost to memory. "That gives us a hook to hang the words on. We know that if the words don't match with that temporal structure they can't be the right words," Ian Cross, former director of the Centre for Music and Science at the University of Cambridge, told The Naked Scientists

"Lyrics to a piece of music is probably even more so because there's not only the rhythmic structure, but there's also melodic structure — the tune, the ups and downs, and the pitch that the words accompany."

When all of these elements coalesce, words set to music become far easier to recollect than words printed in plain black-and-white on a page. 

Plus, a whole group of people worked to make the lyrics of a hit song catchy and memorable, from the songwriter to the performer to the producer. No one is toiling in a similar fashion to make the dates in a history textbook enjoyable or easy to remember.

The importance of emotion and repetition

Music can influence and even improve your mood, and certain songs can trigger specific emotions. "Music is often encoded in a very personal and emotional way, and we know that when we encode anything with emotional or personal connotations, it's recalled better in memory," music psychologist Vicky Williamson, who is an expert on memory, told the BBC.

That's why a song from your high school years may be indelibly burned in your brain alongside a mental image of your teenage crush. Hearing that song even decades later can instantly bring back all of the lyrics, along with a flood of old emotions.

Then there's the simple fact that we hear popular songs far more than we realize: in shopping malls, elevators, fitness classes, restaurants, and bars; at parties and weddings; on the radio; in advertisements; and in the soundtracks of television shows and movies. Each time, the lyrics are reinforced in our brains.

And a song's chorus gets repeated even more times. Anyone who has ever visited a shopping center in December — even someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas — can probably sing the chorus of "Jingle Bells."

Regarding earworms specifically, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explained to The Naked Scientists that "they tend to be simple melodically and rhythmically." 

He added: "They tend to be the kinds of songs that the popular radio stations play and overplay. So they get stuck in there and you can't get them out. Most people aren't running around with Stravinsky in there, they're running around with 'Who Let the Dogs Out?'"