Memory for Melodies

Part of the Springer Handbook of Auditory Research book series (SHAR, volume 36)


Memory for music presents a paradox. On the one hand, memory for music that people have already learned can be astonishingly good, both in extent and longevity. On the former point, consider how many tunes an average person could recognize, or even recall. No one has even attempted to measure the limits of musical memory. Concerning longevity, older adults can show excellent retention of music learned decades previously (Bartlett and Snelus 1981; Rubin et al. 1998). Even early-stage Alzheimer’s disease patients can almost perfectly discriminate familiar tunes such as patriotic and holiday songs from musically similar but unfamiliar tunes (Bartlett et al. 1995). And this memory can persist not just for songs that have words, but also for purely melodic motives, and without much context. For instance, it is not uncommon to turn on the radio and hear just a few notes of a tune, and be able immediately to hum along or at least recognize the tune as familiar.


Associative Recognition Absolute Pitch Musical Experience Pitch Height Pitch Interval 



We thank W. Jay Dowling for many helpful suggestions during the preparation of this chapter and Kay Ocker for help in preparation of the manuscript.


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© Springer New York 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Psychology DepartmentBucknell UniversityLewisburgUSA

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