Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Memory Booster! Using Music to Memorize Lists and Facts.

The popularity of shows on television, like Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics," and party games such as "Encore" emphasize the power of music to help us remember words and numbers. If I write the phone number 867-5309, you may naturally start singing the hit song by Tommy Tutone! I often use music to help my clients remember phone numbers, addresses and lists of information like the months of the year or counting by twos, fives or tens. The children I work with have a range of disabilities from autism to mental retardation, but the principles of music that facilitate memorization remain the same for helping anyone remember key items of information.

1. Use "chunking" - Telephone numbers, as they are written in the United States, (###) ###-####, are good examples of dividing up information into manageable pieces of information. One way I have used this idea is by dividing up lists like the twelve months of the year into two groups before making up a song to help children memorize them. In addition, I use two different songs for each set of months in order to differentiate the "chunks" and make them more memorable.

2. "Piggyback" songs - These are songs where new words are used with an old melody. A great example of this is the Alphabet Song which is set to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Piggyback songs are easily overused, but very helpful for teachers and parents who are not musically trained. I usually make up original melodies for use in memorizing material, but it is possible to find appropriate popular tunes that appropriately fit the text to be memorized. I suggest not to use the same tune for all of the different "chunks" of information. Folk songs or songs from the 50's and 60's are usually very good sources for trying out piggyback tunes. These songs are usually very simple in structure, easily sung and very familiar. The melody for (Oh my darling) Clementine, for example, works well to sing about the days of the week:

There are seven days,
There are seven days,
There are seven days of the week.
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

3. Add body movements - Kinesthetic memory can be a cue for cognitive recall and kids love to move their bodies to music. A perfect example for this is when kids are chanting, "Hip, hip, hurray!" and naturally pump their arms and fists high up into the air. Adding body percussion such as clapping, stomping or patting your knees at times in the songs can help to emphasize certain lyric information. Strategically placed claps or stomps can also "chunk" the song into smaller parts and allow the singers to refocus and get back on track with the group if they were behind or forgot some of the lyrics. These actions can be very useful for children who have mental retardation or Down Syndrome. Sometimes it takes many repetitions of the song, but in my experience, they eventually learn the action and prefer songs with movement over songs that only use singing.

4. Sign language - Add sign language for key words or even for the whole song. Signing is both kinesthetic and visual! When using sign language for a song pay special attention to keeping the signs in tempo with the rhythm of the music and making the signing motions larger or smaller according to the dynamics and lyrics.

5. Use melody and harmony effectively - Most songs have obvious lyric and melodic phrases that sound incomplete if not finished. One example of this could be singing, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it ______," and just leaving the word and the melody blank. This space can be used for important information since it is the most likely place in the song that a word will be remembered when the melody is sung as a cue. An added advantage to this song is that the lyric phrase is repeated many times, providing even more emphasis for important information.

6. Try a Bigmak! - Ablenet has a step by step Bigmak or Littlemak that can be programmed with multiple words or phrases so that the recordings are played sequentially as the button is pushed. This is a great feature for lists and allows non-verbal children to participate in the songs.


  1. Hello,

    I am a student at Full Sail pursuing my Masters Degree in Education in Media design and Technology. I am also a music artist at heart and even though I know a lot about music for the first time I seeing things a little bit differently. I am starting to see how music can be used as a tool to educate and help motivate people in various ways. I remember learning those nursery rhymes. You made me remember how much music influenced my education for the better.

    You see, originally I am from Jamaica and when I came to the states, I struggled in school due to language barriers but through music I was able to overcome those challenges. Good Old nursery rhymes helped save my life. So I must now say that music does not only help you retain new information but it can break social/culture barriers as well.

  2. Hi Jasmine,

    Thank you for your personal story and wonderful insight! I will keep your testimonial in mind when I work with children from non-English speaking homes. Good luck to you!

  3. Hi
    I was just wondering what is a "Bigmak". I tried accessing but received a server error. I was just wondering was the link removed. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for the heads up! I fixed the link. "Bigmaks" are switch devices that can record audio for a couple of minutes at the touch of a button. They are easy for a person with disabilities to activate since they have a large surface and do not require much effort to push down and activate. Please try the link now and take a look!

  5. I too am an EMDTMS student at Full Sail University. I also have an adopted son from Romania that, among many other challenges, has been diagnosed as very midly autistic. Most manifestations of this are self-soothing movements and rhythms. He is most at home with earphones on his ears and his entire body swaying back and forth. For the most part he functions as normally as can be expected but his learning is always a challenge. He has trouble making real-world connections and transferring knowledge.

    I have two questions for you; Although he as attempted taking music in Middle School (he is now 14) and washed out, is there a specific type of musical training that might better suit his needs? We have been learning about the effects musical training can have on memory and I wonder that I would be wasting money to simply enroll him blindly in a music tutoring program.

    Also, In the time after writing this initial article, have you done any research or practice with the learner themselves CREATING the kind music you mention (chunking, piggy back songs, body movements and sign lanquage)? I wonder if there is a technique to teach studying with these kinds of techniques? Where I would normally ask one of my kids to use index cards to practice something they need to memorize, could I ask him to make his own dance or song? He is old enough now to take ownership of his difficulties and I want to teach him strategies for beating them?

    Any thoughts?

  6. Thank you so much for reading and also participating in the discussion! How wonderful that you were able to adopt. That must be a neat experience! I think it is admirable that you are trying to expose your son to music learning. It sounds like he does have some affinity for music and maybe even music preferences. That is a good start! I think you are not alone in your experience that traditional music classes or lessons have not been entirely successful. Unfortunately, every locality has its own unique places that might be appropriate for a student with ASD, so it will be hard for me to make recommendations. I would suggest that you contact a local music therapist who can help you find a proper school, teacher or learning environment for your son. You can go to musictherapy.org and find a local music therapist.
    As for using the ideas in my article, it is something that I do all the time. Most of the songs and activities I use, however are based on songs or information that are specific to a certain client and so would not necessarily be beneficial to another client. I write new songs or activities for each situation or client based on their music preferences, information they need to know and skill level or ability. One place you can go to find some good songs that help to teach or memorize information is at www.listenlearnmusic.com. Rachel Rambach is a music therapist that uses many of the strategies I have talked about in her songwriting. I hope you will not give up in helping learn about music. Another suggestion, depending on the type of instrument your son wants to learn could be investigating a teacher that uses the Suzuki method. This method involves more aural learning. Thanks again for your comments and questions and good luck! I hope you will update me and the other readers about your musical journey!

    Take care,


  7. Thank you so much for sharing your information! I am taking a sommelier exam in June (In Italian!) and need to memorize several lists of names and grapes, plus lots of chemistry oriented information that my brain generally cannot process! I will try to make some songs up to study and if I pull them off I'll share them with you and with my classmates!

  8. Good luck, Toni! I am so glad that you have found this helpful! Please let us know how the testing goes and we would all love to hear the songs you come up with!




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