Musical memory is the ability to remember music-related information, such as tones and pitch. Researchers have found that, although similar, musical memory is encoded differently from language, and may actually be a different type of memory altogether.

MIT researchers stumbled upon what they called the brain’s “pitch center” by accident while studying the superior temporal gyrus of the brain. “We were looking for a music region,” said Neuroscientist and head of the study, Sam Norman-Haignere. “Instead, we found a pitch region.” Their studies found that area of the brain had a much stronger response to music than random noise or speech,” he said.

The findings of this study provoked a lot of debate at the recent (2011) Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Meeting, where for the first time musical memory was discussed. The question is whether pitch involves a whole network all by itself, or is it processed and stored in just one area of the brain? How is it that the brain processes music differently than it does language?

Case studies presented at the conference suggest that memory is much more complex than scientists had previously imagined. It may be the key to unlocking all sorts of different memory problems.

A presenter from Northwestern University, Jennifer Krizman, tested a group of 14-year-old children in Chicago, half of whom were Spanish/English speaking while the rest spoke English only. She asked them to tell her if they could hear a specific sound  (the word “dah”) against a quiet background, and then one that was full of noise. The bilingual children were much better at picking out the word when the surroundings were noisy.

According to previous studies, the pitch of the voice changes when bilinguals switch languages. It could be that their brains have found a way to “fine-tune” their ability to hear at different levels of pitch when switching from one language to another.

The link between music and memory is not a new concept. Musical training has been shown to improve verbal memory in people of all ages. Research has shown the in Alzheimer’s patients the last memory to go is music. They believe that playing a musical instrument may help to fight off the disease.

There were two extreme cases of how musical memory is involved in brain function. One involves a man who could remember only music, and the other one who could remember everything BUT music.

In 2005 a concert pianist had his entire memory bank wiped out from a viral infection – his entire memory EXCEPT for music. He had no memory of anything from his entire past, and is only able to recognize his brother and his caregiver. The medial temporal lobes of his brain, the section responsible for storage of facts and events (both short-term and long-term memory) were lost. To the amazement of his German doctors, however, he could play concertos from memory and learn new music. That portion of his memory was completely intact. Even more startling, he could recognize musical compositions he had heard before his illness, and could tell the difference between music that originated before and after his illness. He even was able to recall his reaction to music he had heard a few hours ago, although he couldn’t tell you anything else that occurred at that time or after.

On the reverse side, a case in the 1990s found that a man’s memory was totally intact after doctors discovered lesions located in the superior temporal gyrus of the brain, but the patient could not retain anything musical.

Carsten Finke, a researcher from the Charité – Universitätsmedizin in Berlin believes these cases could point to an interesting phenomena, that musical memory is different from other types of memory.

Music has shown to be an important memory tool, and further research into how our brain processes musical memory has potential to help improve memory.

From the desk of Ron White



Scientific American – Exploring the Musical Brain at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting:

Wikipedia – Music-related Memory:

Huffington Post, Healthy Living – Cellist Memory Wiped Out From Virus, Doctors Stunned by Musical Memory: