Memory, Music, Degeneration and Learning

I have written previously about the role music plays for and with my Dad and his dementia. And here I’d like to just share some of my further observations,  musings, questions and conclusions with how some sufferers with dementia and Alzheimer’s might be handling their degenerating memory and disorientation with regards to things musical.

Whilst my Dad’s condition is certainly not outside the norms of how the condition impacts upon those sufferers, one of the things that takes him out of the norms is that he is not just a lover of music, an appreciator of what he remembers that he likes when he hears it – but he also played and still plays an instrument. We have a harmonium and it not only gives him a chance to exercise his fingers on the keys, but he can also exercise his feet on the pedals – pumping air to “drive” the instrument.

We have been running a little routine for a while now which involves him remembering a tune, or a song, and maybe just odd snatches of the lyrics – and then I go and find the lyrics on the internet and print them out for him. He must have some 80 or so songs like this in his ‘library of lyrics’ – and then he can play and read the words at the same time – and sing along with the “voice in his head”.

Now, I have to say I’m guessing at this last bit – because what is really going on in side our head when we are singing? How do we remember songs? Are we singing on the inside and then join in with ourselves when we start singing on the outside? Of course readers of music, and especially those who can sight read and sing ‘off the page’, are actually operating a different skill set from the innate one of singing from memory.
And it is the ‘from memory’ facility that I’m particularly interested in here because it is clear that how and/or where we remember music and how and/or where we remember words appear to be two discrete areas and/or functions. Here again, how my Dad’s brain is wired up with regards to memory centres is certainly contained within neurophysiological ‘norms’, so there can be no other explanation for his crystal clear memory of the notes and his vague, fragmented memory of the words.

In the original posting of this I included a video interview where legendary singer, songwriter and guitarist Glen Campbell talked about his experiences with his own onset of Alzheimer’s, and the preparations for his ‘Farewell Tour’ of the UK in 2011.

For Glen , the short term memory, the words and associations in longer term memory were all fragmented – and the drawing together of all the data from whatever referential places he had coded it to seemed – to all intents and purposes – to be no longer possible.
The coding up of all the data relating to the sonic experience in the music, however, had not been affected in this way. For Glen – as for my Dad – the notes, the intervals, the rhythms, the harmonic structures, the chords, the fingering on the instrument, the volume, the timbre – indeed every component of the music except all the words – was recalled with clarity.
For Glen, and my Dad, the label of the song title plus the “keyword” lyrical references are coded with the musical data also. And yet when Glen spoke the lyrics in conversation rather than singing them, then his memory broke up without the music it was bound to. It seemed that the sequential connections broke up – rather like the radio transmissions from someone on a distant planet.


So – is musical information coded up a different way, or coded to a different area in the brain, or is it how the data is handled on re-presentation (how it is remembered).

Is there a parallel here with how we learn music in the first place or how we even have the ability (or otherwise) to sing in tune?
And what about being able to sing in tune – is there a genetic factor; are we hard wired for the musical experience in terms of that particular inner sense? My Dad can sing in tune, his sister (2 years younger) is completely tone deaf. No amount of environmental or familial influence in her upbringing could change that. Her daughter (my cousin) is also tone deaf – so was that modelled or genetically hard-wired? Almost certainly the latter, I would say.
So – if singing from memory IS our ability on the outside to match what we are hearing on the inside – then the tone deaf are only matching what they are hearing on the inside also.

Occasionally my Dad will ‘stumble across’ a song not in his current repertoire, but one that clearly was part of his repertoire in the 1930’s. As explained above – I will go and print the lyrics for him – however, it is fascinating watch how the fingers of his left hand fall easily into playing the accompanying chords and following the correct fingering and harmonic structure. It is said that we never forget how to ride a bike, once learned – however this detailed musical ‘how to’ is miles easier for my Dad than riding a bike. After almost 80 years of NOT playing the song he slips into playing it as if he had been doing that through all the intervening years. That has to be unconscious recollection from a hard-wired memory.

Memory Banks or a Filing System

Imprints and traumatic experiences they say are also hard-wired, etched in memory for all time – but the musical hard-wiring is nothing like that. So – is it about where in the brain we code up the memory, or where in our holographic representation of memory we code it up?

What do I mean by the holographic representation of memory?

Ask anyone about something they remember and their eyes will look to a particular place.  If you ask them about something else in their memory they, more often than not, will look to a different place. It is as if their recollections are distributed, in a “holo-deck” fashion, out in front of them.
With sounds, you may notice they do this while moving their head slightly to another position, as if they are ‘cocking’ an ear to hear something more clearly. We probably follow even more micro-patterns like this with other sensual recollections also. (And not with just sensual recollections either, as I discovered when experiencing name amnesia!)

In some parts of the world, our accepted cultural idea that we have just 5 senses is not held as true. Some believe balance to be a separate sense, for instance. For others there are a further number of perceptive centres also.
I’ve worked with athletes in terms of showing them how to perceptually move their centre of gravity to other areas of the body. I also know what happens with some people’s balance when the lose visual orientation – by getting them to stand on one leg and then close their eyes. I’d be interested to experiment with some of their holographic representations relative to their balance, for instance, rather in the same way as Mapping Across uses sub-modalities to change some of our perceptions.

So, take a look at how you remember things. There’s the way we remember things when we are trying to learn something – and there’s the rest of the ordinary stuff. When learning we seem to require repetition to get it “in the muscle”, and yet there are some parts of learning that come really easy – and in a different way. In addition to that “come easy” – there’ll be some things that come easy to you and me, and yet not to him and her. How we best learn we should match with how we revise (or revisit). If I can’t put names to faces very well and yet you can, then I should try coding my data up in other ways – OR I should try re-presenting it in other ways.


This brings me back to my question about my Dad and the nature of the data that he recalls with such ease. My Dad remembers faces and voices, but not labels. If I say X (someone’s name) is coming to see us, with 2 exceptions he won’t know who that is, even though he knows them. The label (their name) has no accompanying picture (image) or sound (voice). The only name labels he regularly maintains are his family from his youth and mine and my Mum. Curiously, sometimes I don’t think he ‘makes’ the connection between us all either – because on occasions he talks about my Mum as if he thinks she was someone I never knew!

Our memories are held together by a series of connections and associations, that sometimes appear to be quite random, and yet they are never that in reality. The coding at the time of every event we remember has a huge bearing upon how we continually perceive the event, and where – specifically and spatially – we can best recall the event. When our re-presenting faculties break down it is either through severed connections or associations, or a loss of the holographic point of reference.

To my mind it seems that with music – and especially musicians – the point(s) of reference are in a unique area; an area seemingly sheltered from a breakdown in synaptic functionality.
The other thing about music is its universality as not just a language of communication but also a language of sensual meaning.
As such, to ignore its relevance in schools as well as its relevance in degenerative brain diseases, is to devalue one of humanity’s cornerstones of expression.