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The Important Relationship Between Music and Memory

Most of us would agree that singing worship songs in our gatherings is important. But do we realize just how important those songs are to our growth as believers? In a New York Times article entitled "In One Ear and Out the Other," Natalie Angier examines the limited power of human memory. She points out that while we can't quite seem to remember the birthday of a loved one, we can't quite forget every word of the Gilligan's Island theme song. Why is that? It seems that if you add a little music to something, it's more likely to be remembered. That's how the brain is wired to work. Angier writes:

Though scientists used to believe that short- and long-term memories were stored in different parts of the brain, they have discovered that what really distinguishes the lasting from the transient is how strongly the memory is engraved in the brain…. The deeper the memory, the more readily and robustly an ensemble of like-minded neurons will fire.
This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life's offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. "The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination," said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. …
A simple melody with a simple rhythm and repetition can be a tremendous mnemonic device. "It would be a virtually impossible task for young children to memorize a sequence of 26 separate letters if you just gave it to them as a string of information," Dr. Thaut said. But when the alphabet is set to the tune of the ABC song with its four melodic phrases, preschoolers can learn it with ease.

In other words, the hymns or choruses we sing—which combine Scriptural truths with moving melodies—teach us things that won't easily be forgotten. That should probably give us pause—pause to reflect on the value of what we have in the hymnals tucked away in our pews; pause to revisit what is being projected on the screens that line the front of our worship auditoriums; pause to remember that God has given us a powerful tool in music and its potent relationship to human memory.

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