Why do most people find it easier to memorize songs than poems?

I can probably count the number of poems I’ve memorized on two hands. Possibly even one. But I probably know hundreds of songs, and they include not only words, but music. And that’s likely true of most people. And I doubt anyone has ever memorized, word for word, a full chapter book, or even a regular-sized chapter of a book. Why is it easier to memorize songs than it is to memorize words without music?

Songs are often hooky and repetitive in a way that most poems are not, which sure helps.

Do you have a cite for this? Albeit one (of many) mnemonic technique is to put sentences, strings of numbers, or whatever to music in your imagination—it is one method of organising information because long repetition has made you internalize musical grammar— but poems already come eminently suited for this.

People have memorized the Odyssey, Koran, etc. for a long time.

Many, many, many people have memorized most of the Bible. It used to be much more common than it is now. For many people, it’s actually not difficult: after you’ve read something 10 or 15 times, it starts to be automatic.

Which suggest to me that one of the reasons people memorize songs is becaus they like them well enough to listen closely 10 or 15 times.

From a neuroscience point of view, the question ends up being similar to just asking “Why do humans like music?”. To which the answer is that we don’t know, but have some clues.

Sound processing in the brain is very complex, involving nodes spread out around the brain, and a lot of connection to the memory centers, with data flowing in and out of memory simultaneously. A lot of speech and other auditory processing seems to involve expectation and association.

For reasons that are still unclear, this prediction network can be really hijacked by melodies. A pattern of notes that is somewhat predictable but also has some degree of novelty can lock our attention until it becomes part of our “database” of aural patterns. And our ability to recall these patterns is very strong (well, recalling the start of a melody can be as hard to access as any other kind of memory, but from there the rest of the pattern is strongly coupled together).

I know that this is a long way of saying “I don’t know” but I’m just trying to say that this simple question actually alludes to a significant unknown within neuroscience and psychology. We’re really good at memorizing melodies, and if the song has lyrics, then the melody can be a scaffolding to help us recall those lyrics.
A poem does not have such scaffolding, and may be as hard to recall in its entirety as a normal conversation or speech.

I’d hypothesize that one factor is that the lyrics to many, if not most, popular songs are both (a) short, and (b) repetitive. Many popular songs use a simple verse-chorus structure, with the chorus being identical (or nearly so) each time.

Also, if it’s a song that you like, or that gets regularly played on the radio, you’ve probably heard it many dozens, if not hundreds, of times, building up your memory of it. Most people likely don’t often hear poetry being recited very often, and if they do, they probably aren’t hearing the same poems being recited many times over.

A book I recommend is Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks.

What that book brought home to me is the huge range of individual variation in processing of music (and lyrics) and musical memory.

One story from Oliver Sacks:

A neurobiology professor recounted to me the story of an extraordinary student, J., whose answers on one exam sounded suspiciously familiar. The professor wrote:

    A few sentences later, I thought, “No wonder I like her answers. She’s quoting my lectures word for word!” There was also a question on the exam that she answered with a direct quote from the textbook. The next day, I called J. into my office to have a talk with her about cheating and plagiarism, but something did not add up. J. did not seem like a cheater; she seemed totally lacking in guile. So as she walked into my office, what came into my head and out of my mouth was the question, “J., do you have a photographic memory?” She answered very excitedly, “Yes, sort of like that. I can remember anything as long as I put it to music.” She then sang back to me from memory whole portions of my lectures (and very prettily too). I was flabbergasted.

While this student is, like Toch, extraordinarily gifted, all of us use the power of music in this way, and setting words to music, especially in preliterate cultures, has played a huge role in relation to the oral traditions of poetry, storytelling, liturgy, and prayer. Entire books can be held in memory— The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously, could be recited at length because, like ballads, they had rhythm and rhyme. How much such recitation depends on musical rhythm and how much purely on linguistic rhyming is difficult to tell, but these are surely related— both “rhyme” and “rhythm” derive from the Greek, carrying the conjoined meanings of measure, motion, and stream. An articulate stream, a melody or prosody, is necessary to carry one along, and this is something that unites language and music, and may underlie their perhaps common origins.

As for why, nobody knows.

I’d say the simple answer is people tend to hear a song multiple times, while read a poem once or so.

But I think it’s more than that. A song as a music that help’s prompt the words and while a poem may be written to a rhythm, it’s in the author’s head what that rhythm is. A successful song not only exposes the rhythm, but it meshes in a standardized way, not just in the author’s head. You can place words into the music.

Back in my bar going days, I used to ask musicians: “Can you recite the song you just sang with out singing it?”

They would always scoff and say: “Of course I can”

And then when I asked them to demonstrate, they would do okay at first, but somewhere in the middle they would get tripped up, and have to go back and sing it to get their footing again.

Kind of like the ABCs. Most of us could sing it before we could just say it.

I think, as has been touched on, that singing engages a different part of the brain than memorization of simple verse does, so it reinforces the learning.

Similarly, I remember hearing somewhere from back in my college days that the reason to take notes when listening to lectures in class is not just to have the notes to study in the future-- you remember better than just listening even before you refer back to the notes, because you’re not only listening, you’re listening, writing, and reading what you just wrote as you write it-- 3 different parts of the brain are engaged, reinforcing the memory.

Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock making the preamble of the Constitution a song, I (and I bet a lot of other U.S. based dopers of a certain age) still remember every word of the preamble to this day (but I struggle a little unless I sing it back).

It’s not that songs are easier to memorize than poems. It’s that most people nowadays don’t try to memorize poems. If you do try, you’ll find it’s quite easy.

I have never counted and I am not going to start now, but I know many poems by heart. Many songs too. Some songs are just poems with music. Good poems have rhythm, that helps.
Joan Manuel Serrat comes to mind, who recorded two LPs around 1970 with poems by Antonio Machado and by Miguel Hernández. They were a great success in Spain and Latinamerica. I am sure something similar has happened in all languages.

I have never had a poem earworm infect my brain, no matter how easy it was to memorize.

Yep (with the caveats that free verse is not so easy – rhyme and meter are powerful mnemonic devices – and that you should recite the poetry out loud for best results). But otherwise, any differences are simply a matter of how much people are exposed to music vs. poetry in their everyday lives, and you can easily overcome them with more exposure.

And those poetic elements are very close to the bones of music. So in a way, their mnemonic power is in their access to the same mechanisms as music. I suspect, anyway.

If music was merely read instead of heard, I daresay 95% of it would be forgotten almost immediately.

I’ve yet to see a definition of “free verse” that both distinguished it from prose, and was non-circular.

However you don’t really need to try to memorize songs. As long as the song is anywhere close to being aesthetically pleasing for you then memorization happens whether you want it to or not.

Although I will concede that it’s true that we tend to also listen to songs many times over, which of course is going to help a lot. But it still just gets us back to (basically) the same question again: What is it about music that excites the conscious mind so much, and why is it that we can enjoy music the same or even more on repeated listenings (contrary to most other forms of entertainment)?

The poetry of Maya Angelou is somewhat popular, but in my opinion a lot of that popularity is due to her presentation. When I read her stuff I am hearing in my head her voice reciting, and I daresay that if all she did was write she might still be popular but not to the extent she is now.

I am skeptical. Personal experience suggests that, all else being equal, it really is easier to remember words that are set to music. But I don’t have an authoritative cite, one way or the other.