Recalling Old Lyrics But Forgetting Passwords

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I drove to Houston the other day to deliver some LeTourneau earth-moving models that had been damaged, to a company that specializes in creating these types of scale models — and to have lunch with my middle daughter, Mere. On the way down, I decided to tune in to a satellite radio station that focuses on “mellow” songs from the 1970s and ’80s. By “mellow,” I suppose they mean the songs don’t feature a bunch of screaming guitar chords and indecipherable lyrics. I was never into heavy metal, preferring songs with lyrics I could understand, even if at times the phrases were somewhat banal.

It’s rare that I take such musical blasts into the past. I prefer to explore new artists, not listen to the same folks that attracted me back in high school and college. But soon, as I headed down U.S. Hwy. 59, reveling in the freedom to safely do so, I was singing along with songs from the days when my hair reached my shoulders and I could fit into size 30 jeans — days long gone. A song would come on, and soon I would be singing along with the band — America, Chicago, Dan Fogelberg, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin and others.

What struck me is how quickly the lyrics came back to me, though in some cases I hadn’t heard the song in many years. What also popped out is how downright goofy some of the lyrics were, especially through the prism of maturity. More on that later. I was interested in learning more about why I can remember a Joni Mitchell song (no banal lyrics there) from 50 years ago as it plays on the radio but have already forgotten the Facebook password I reset yesterday. So I went to the internet in search of legitimate articles on the subject.

A writer for Huffington Post in 2016 had the same question. She talked to the director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Schey Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging, who explained that motivation has a lot to do with what our brain chooses to remember. “We have a lot of information that comes into our brain all the time, so we have to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not,” Stephen Rao told the Huffington Post. So apparently my brain decides it’s more important to know the lyrics to Horse With No Name than the access code to our storage unit, which I have to look up on my phone every time.

I’ve been through the desert
On a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert, you can remember your name
’Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain


Remember what I said about banal lyrics?

Another factor is repetition. If you asked me cold turkey to recite the lyrics to Cat’s in the Cradle by the late Harry Chapin, I would be able to provide snatches of it, but that’s about it. But when that song came on the mellow satellite station as I passed through Lufkin, I was singing along. Elizabeth Margulis, author of a book on musical memory, says repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the song line we expect to come next.

“A sense of shared subjectivity with the music can arise,” she said in an interview I found. “In descriptions of their most intense experiences of music, people often talk about a sense that the boundary between the music and themselves has dissolved.”

Another issue is that learning becomes more difficult as we age (Facebook password, storage unit code) because the disk is full of old song lyrics heard over and over. At least, that was the conclusion of a 2013 New York Times article about memory. It likened memory to writing on a blank piece of paper versus on a newspaper page (quaint anecdote about a printed newspaper).

Mine is more like writing on a newspaper page with invisible ink. That’s why I often can’t recall the names of authors whose books I am currently reading or buy the same novel twice.

Enough of all that. I’m going to get back to my novel, whose author’s name once again escapes me.


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