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.

I’m Off To Bedfordshire

[Originally posted on 07 August 2008]

I’ve got a love/hate relationship with sleep.
This oscillates every 12 hours or so.
It goes back to when I was 8 years old, when the two times a day I moaned the most were:
‘Muuum, just let me sleep 10 mins more’
and
‘Muuuuum, just let me stay up 10 mins more’
I’d like to think that both those parts of me are still very much alive.

A Teenage Motto
A Teenage Motto

Sleeping is essentially boring: it’s drifting into unconsciousness; it’s a lack of activity; we just do it because we have to. And yet, waking up in the morning can be so damn hard in the face of sheer laziness and inertia.  Lie-ins are tempting, sometime irresistible, but when you think that all this dozing takes up around 1/3 of our lives, this suddenly seems like a massive waste.


I’ve certainly had many times at Durham when I thought ‘I wish I just didn’t have to sleep’. It gets in the way when you’re really busy, so wouldn’t it be great – never sleeping? If you could have all that extra time back, there are so many more useful things you could fit into the time – learn a musical instrument, a language, catch up on work or just organise your life. It’d be fantastic. But in real life you can only cheat fatigue for so long before you go insane, or, in extreme cases, after about ten days or so, you die.
Maybe I’m an optimist, but I imagine a nice hospital-bed death as being a bit like falling asleep: giving in, drifting off, letting go of consciousness. Apparently 53% of us are fortunate enough to die in this way, but would that make it any less scary?

Nodding off on the job
Nodding off on the job

Of course we could die every time we fall asleep, but it’s not something we worry about. When you’re asleep you’re at your most vulnerable, completely open to attack and abuse and so sleeping next to someone else is the ultimate sign of trust. You are showing that you are 100% comfortable around them, and you trust that they won’t hurt you. Effectively you are putting yourself entirely at the other person’s mercy, which makes it such a big stage in any relationship, even if you’re not going to have sex.
Also, pranks on sleeping people are really quite damaging – you may laugh it off at the time, but it majorly dents any sense of trust. A friend of mine recently got robbed whilst he was in the house and asleep, but to be honest I’m not sure it would have been much better to be awake!
I could ramble on about this subject for ages, and there are so many ways of exploring it, but basically I think that sleep is at once our best friend and a necessary evil. It is the most boring thing you can do, from an exterior perspective, but it is also meant to burn more calories than watching TV!
But that’s another rant for another time.

Now Playing: Reuben – Good Luck