Friday, June 22, 2007

Why do I remember the next song?

Last week a national newspaper phoned me for an answer to a readers question Why do I suddenly remember the next song when listening to a CD? A phenomenon I’m almost too familiar with since I have the habit to repeatedly listen to music. When playing an album from beginning to end the phenomenon appears just before the end of a song, just when the silence between two songs is about to start. The next song pops up in your mind (and often quite loudly), while you were hardly aware of this just a few seconds ago. To avoid this irritating effect I always use the shuffle function of the CD player or iPod, effectively avoiding the apparent learning of these transitions. However, the phenomenon is interesting in itself. It is is a result of what seems our ‘iconic’ or absolute memory for music at work. More common is our relative memory for music. While most of us can easily recognize the melody of a popular song, few can judge whether it is played at the original pitch height. We seem to remember the pitch intervals or contour of the melody, not the frequencies of the pitches itself. By contrast, the phenomenon discussed above hints at the presence of an absolute memory for music. It seems that even young children can judge whether a familiar television tune is the original or one that is scaled up a few tones. Apparently we all have both absolute and relative memory for music.