Why learning, playing and enjoying music is about more than memory

A musician's hand on a piano

“What happens when you lose everything? You just start again, you start all over again.”

In 1985, British conductor and musician Clive Wearing lost his memory. Instead of blanking out his childhood or erasing a few years, this incredibly severe case of amnesia (one of the worst on record) wiped out all but his short-term memory of the last ten seconds of his life. Yet he could still remember how to play the piano and even conduct an orchestra.

The BBC picked up on this story the other week and I thought it was worth sharing here as it shows how deeply engrained the music we play and listen to can be. It not only colours our memories; it sinks deeper into our subconscious and becomes an integral part of who we are.

Dr Clare Ramsden, a neuro-psychologist with Britain’s Brain Injuries Rehabilitation Trust, said: “It isn’t just knowledge. It’s something you do.”

Musical memory is distinct from other types of memory and different aspects of playing music involve different parts of the brain, she added.

On a more prosaic level, this can mean humming a tune without even realising it (damn you, Go Compare jingle!)  or having an abnormally detailed memory of gigs and festivals. Part of this obviously comes from repetition, hearing the same handful of songs on a weekly or even daily basis, to the extent that you can remember vast swathes of lyrics.

For example, I spent three years studying English Literature at Durham and yet I can easily recite far  more song lyrics than I can lines of poetry. Indeed, this is partly why I feel so sad when people tell me they just “don’t get music” or aren’t “that bothered” by it, as they are clearly missing out on so much.

But going back to Clive’s story, it’s clear that music can make deep last connections between people that are hard to break. As his wife Deborah puts it: “Music is a place where we can be together normally because while the music’s going he’s totally himself. He’s totally normal.”

To read  more about Clive’s remarkable story, you can buy a copy of his wife’s book Forever Today on Amazon or visit his Wikipedia page.

For some bonus reading, check out this infographic about Why Music Makes You Smarter, by OnlineCollege.org.