The Mnemonic Power of Music



mne·​mon·​ic | \ ni-ˈmä-nik  \

Definition of mnemonic

1assisting or intended to assist memory

//To distinguish “principal” from “principle” use the mnemonic aid “the principal is your pal.”

also of or relating to mnemonics

2of or relating to memory

//mnemonic skill


We all used them in school, mnemonics, and they can surely be helpful, like this one from way back when I was a young undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee:

Never Lower Tillie’s Pants—Mama Might Come Home!

One Dr. William Bass used it in his notoriously difficult Human Osteology class to help us remember the first letters of each carpus bone in the hand. Whatever it takes.

Then there is this silly Latin mnemonic:




Translated literally it means always–where–under, but can be expressed comically as always wear underwear. But can there be a more effective or powerful mnemonic device than music? How did each of us learn the alphabet, after all. So powerful is music, it has been known and shown to draw dementia patients from the deep, deep corners of damaged, failing brains, and back into the here and now, as if they had returned after simply stepping out of the room for a moment. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon firsthand, even penned an article about it once upon a time for Upper Valley Magazine.

A few days ago, I fished my old iPod out of a plastic bag and plugged it in to charge; the scratchy glass screen flickered on right away and a thin stripe glowed crimson inside the battery icon. In just a couple of hours though, it had been restored to fully green and the home screen lit right up. There was the factory-set groovin’ girl silhouette, who had not aged at all in the intervening decade, and then swiping right, I found my music library intact. After years of lying fallow, here was my old iPod discography, good as new. Those CD albums I uploaded painstakingly, one by one—old, good albums, classic 1960s and ’70s vinyl, classical and early music, straight-ahead jazz, and on and on—flashed their thumbnail images and titles at me like familiar greetings from a passel of old friends.  

Running is what motivated me to do it. In this sultry coastal North Carolina city, depending on the day of the week and time of day, at least in this season, our shy Goldapeake Retriever—now white in the face and just a little grumpy—can’t come along with me as he wishes. He would not last a single mile. So on these occasions, I cup his whiskered chin in my hand, feeling more than a little guilty while his tail wags joyously behind him, and explain that he is to stay here while I goforarun. The tail falls, and then up he jumps onto his spot at the foot of our tall bed, with sad, sad eyes. I know he will sleep deeply, his paws all atwitch, and then will forgive and forget later on.

But also on these occasions I need some company, just as I did a decade ago during an especially uncertain final year in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it is music. In the darkness of dawn a decade ago, I routinely plugged a pair of earbuds into my iPod and stepped into the street to strike out on a run, for just a skosh over five miles.

Five miles that began in darkness and ended with pink light on the eastern horizon across the Tennessee River, where it turns south to define one edge of the neighborhood; maybe some mornings were foggy and grey. And in those five miles the music kept me company while it encouraged the cadence I had settled into comfortably by the top of the second mile. It was then I could fully climb inside myself and reflect on the tumult that was my family life in those days, and marvel how we had gotten there, and wonder what would become of us. I always returned home with a clarity of thought and the presence of mind to help me navigate whatever unpleasantness the day held. I have no real need to go back, and lord knows I’ve revisited too many times a chapter doomed to end badly.

But my iPod brought me back to it yesterday, briefly, that little electronic thing that revolutionized how we listen to music. Remember the TV advert with the guy hunched over his laptop waiting for his music to upload, and then you knew the instant it had, and off he went? While music is so accessible now on just about any phone via any number of streaming services, I really have missed the compact size and reliability of the iPod, which slides obediently inside the little sleeve I strap around my arm.

On the first morning I ran with my old library, Captain Fantastic kept me company and made me think of Elton John and Bernie Taupin and slumber parties in sixth grade where gaggles of juvenile girls painted each other’s toenails and listened to Funeral for a Friend later on with the lights turned out. But yesterday I shifted gears a bit and leaned on the melty caramel voice of James Taylor waxing poetic about fools falling out of family trees and sounds of dogs choking on chicken bones and wayward father figures and war, and peace, and lovers, and so, so many eternal plots and themes. I found myself lost in the poetry and music after a long decade without it, and then there I was, suddenly, back on one of those morning runs in Knoxville because this powerful mnemonic pulled me into it.

Then I felt my mood shift palpably. Maybe it was just the magic of endorphins, who can say, but I imagined the possibility of impelling this precise moment backward, like some little time-traveling mp3 file, and into my head on an early fall morning in Knoxville, Tennessee when everything in my life was coming unglued. It made my heart skip a beat, quickened my pace a little. Because were I to do that, I could have granted my ten-years-younger self immeasurable peace, and a certain measure of self-assurance, about the future I’d make for myself together with one of the kindest human beings that ever walked this earth. This notion in turn granted me a little peace at a moment of uncertainty for all of humankind.

Apple is pulling the plug on iTunes, so it announced a few years ago. I don’t know how that bodes for my little device. I can’t ever plug it back into my laptop, I don’t believe, because the once-landscape-changing iTunes has somehow obliterated my magnificent discography from it, and the ‘sync’ feature would scrub my iPod clean. I suppose I could painstakingly upload all those discs again, this time via an external drive, because modern laptops don’t have ‘em anymore.

So for now, my iPod will simply serve as a time capsule of sorts, as my running mate on some mornings, and as a harbinger of hope on any occasion I’m inclined to listen.

A postscript to my twenty-something, who finds old tech ‘quaint’ as does his generation: If you should ever find your mama in that deep, deep corner of a failed or failing brain, but you need to bend my ear, just play me some James Taylor. You’ll no doubt have some fancy way to do it.

Well, the sun’s not so hot in the sky today
and you know I can see summertime slipping on away.
A few more geese are gone, a few more leaves turning red,
but the grass is as soft as a feather in a featherbed.

—James Taylor, September Grass

One thought on “The Mnemonic Power of Music

  1. Absolutely! Music can rouse us from a mental fog or awaken the sleeper in the nightmare of Alzheimer’s. I have an iTunes gift card that I can’t seem to get Apple to refund or transfer toward another product. Sad to see $10 evaporate just like the iTunes on the computer…


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