Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Music & Memory
Name: Missy McClellan
Status: N/A
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A 

I am wondering whether or not music has an effect on short-term memory, and if so, why?

I don't know, but I'd guess so. Memory is strongly affected by simultaneous activity in other parts of the brain. You remember words you've spoken better than words you've only read or heard. You remember items better if they're part of a picture you've seen or imagined. You recall where you left your keys by "retracing your steps," duplicating your physical activities, in reality or in imagination, of the time. It's also true that rhythm appears to assist remembering otherwise unconnected data; mnemonics to recall lists work better if they have rhythm and/or rhyme (and even better if they are vulgar). Oral tradition is often rhythmic or musical. Advertising uses "jingles." Important rules and folk wisdom are often rhythmic or alliterative: "red sky at night, sailor's delight...", "red, right, returning," "a stitch in time saves nine," etc. So it seems likely that music helps memory. For it to work in this way, one piece of music seems to need to be specifically and repeatedly associated with only one piece of data. This rules out listening to the radio while doing your homework, but it would be interesting to set your French vocabulary list to music. When I was in college I sang the first transition-metal row of the periodic table to the "ABC" song (like Tom Lehrer's "Elements") to remember it, and I did. I still do 13 years later. As to why it works, I can only guess that our minds appear to recall associatively ("I was doing this, and then she said that, and that's when the dog...") and the more associations you can make with a piece of data the better it sticks. Secondarily, rhythm appears to speak to a very basic part of our emotional selves, so it may enter memory with fewer distractions and anchor well data associated with it.

Christopher Grayce

Click here to return to the Biology Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory