There’s a Song in my Head.

Delicate (album)
Delicate (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(“There’s a song in my head” by Martha and the Muffins 1985 – NOT my kind of music by the way.)


The way the brain works fascinates me. It seems to favour the most unexpected linkages between memories. What brought this to mind was the fact that when I do some daily activity I often find myself humming a particular tune which my brain somehow for some reason links to that task. Now, sometimes it is easy to remember why there is a connection, but other times, I can think of no idea why that particular tune relates to that task.


Cassatt Mary The Cup of Tea 1880
Cassatt Mary The Cup of Tea 1880 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, it is probably true that at some time in the past there was an event, or even events which have caused that linkage to be formed. It may be that the linkage was indirect, through some other occurrence, but in any case the cause of the linkage has been long forgotten.


Evidently linkages can outlive the events that caused them. It may be that some traumatic event caused the linkage, and I have suppressed it. I think that this is unlikely, since it happens too often, and I don’t have that much trauma in my life, I believe!


It may be that my brain favours musical themes as mnemonics. Songs, poetry and repetition (chanting) are often used in schools to help student memorise things. How many days are there in June? And how many of you started mentally reciting that rhyme – “30 days hath September…”?


Knuckle mnemonic for the number of days in eac...
Knuckle mnemonic for the number of days in each month of the Gregorian Calendar. Each projecting knuckle represents a 31-day month. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I make a cup of tea and the tune springs to mind, what is my brain trying to do? (He said, anthropomorphically). Is it trying to remind me of something important? If so, it is likely that the thing that it considers important is important no longer, so my response, when it occurs to me, is one of puzzlement.


There’s another category of “songs in your head” and that is the “mind worm”. I can think of several. There’s the tinkly accompaniment to Gotye’s “Somebody that I used to know”, There’s the Disney “Small World” theme, which may be merely more pervasive and not a true mind worm. Just recently there’s been the rail safety commercial “Dumb ways to die”. By the way, don’t click on the links unless you want the songs in your brain. Too late!


The hidden auditorium of my skull
The hidden auditorium of my skull (Photo credit: id-iom)

I can’t think of a good reason for musical mind worms. Maybe, as an offshoot of the remembering process the brain is so susceptible to simple musical phrases that it picks up these tunes because they are simple and memorable and this is the sort of thing that the brain finds easy to recall as well as remember, and each recollection reinforces the memory in a self maintaining endless cycle.

English: Animated Atkinson cycle.
English: Animated Atkinson cycle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Poems and poetry

I usually have some idea of where I am going when I start a post, but this time I’m starting with no real idea of what I’m going to say. It’s just that the idea of “Poetry” entered my brain from somewhere and some synapse went “ping” or some switch closed somewhere in my brain. Two metaphors for something stirring my interest.

(Ah yes! I remember now. I read somewhere that April is National Poetry Month in the USA.)

National Poetry Month Display @ Forest Hills
National Poetry Month Display @ Forest Hills

I’m not going to touch on what exactly poetry is. It doesn’t lend itself to easy definition, and in fact, any definition can only  partially explain what it is, so I’ll not try to define it, although I may touch on some of the aspects of what makes it poetry. If you try for a definition, you will find that you have to keep adding exclusions and extensions to your definition, and eventually you will find that you will need to add exclusions and extensions to your exclusions and extensions.

One of the things that poetry is, usually, is rhythmical. In the poems we learnt at school the rhythm was, usually, strong. Most people of my era will remember at least the first few words of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred.

The poem also contains other well-remembered lines such as –

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die
Charge of the Light Brigade. An example of the...
Charge of the Light Brigade.

Poetry teachers tend to emphasise that the rhythm of this poem echoes the rhythm of the galloping horses, and so it does, of course. But maybe what is more pertinent is that the rhythm of the poem possibly aids strongly in the retention in the brain of the memory of the poem. Maybe a memory needs to be refreshed periodically in order for the memory to be retained and a strongly rhythmical memory is more easily refreshed.

I have no idea if it still applies, but in the early days of computers for data to be retained in the memory of the computer it had to be regularly read and re-written or refreshed. There may or may not be any real parallel between the way that computer memory and memory in the brain works, but the idea is, for me, evocative of a connection.

We certainly remember the rhythm of a poem more strongly than we remember the words – someone may start to quote a poem, run out of remembered words and conclude with “dum-de-dum-de-dah” or something.

Symphony Hall abstract
Symphony Hall abstract – rhythm in shape

If the rhythms of poetry help the poem and the ideas presented by the poem be remembered, they also act to grab the attention of the person who hears or reads the poem. Poetry shades into music and in pop music almost every song or track has a “hook”, the hook being what grabs the listener’s attention. An outstanding example is the tinkly little phrase in the song “Somebody that I used to know” by Gotye. Or the Largo from the second movement of Dvořák’s Symphony number 9 in E Minor, (From the New World) if you want something more highbrow!

These are musical hooks, but rhythmical hooks abound, such as the one in the Charge of the Light Brigade.I’ll also mention the rhythmical hook in the little poem that helps English speakers remember the number of days in each month:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November.
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
And that has twenty-eight days clear,
And twenty-nine in each leap year.

This maybe works more because the rhythm and the rhyming is somewhat defective than for any other reason! Anthropomorphically, the brain goes “Ewww! That’s wrong!” and is hooked. Maybe.

I mentioned that poetry shades into song.  As an aside perhaps Rap falls into a gap between poetry and song. Ordinary speech shades into formal speeches, which shade into prose such as is found in great novels, which shade into poems, which shade into songs, which shade into music, at least in the way that I’ve been discussing.

Pranksta Rap
Rap – somewhere between poetry and song?

The common thread is rhythm to attract attention and rhythm to aid memory. Maybe if we understood more about the effects that rhythm and rhyme have on the brain, or how the brain uses rhythm and rhyme, or even how rhythm and rhyme are fundamental to the workings of the brain (if they are), then we would understand the brain much better.

Word is Born
Poetry is usually words, but there are exceptions to that, of course