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Memory Gone, the Melodies Linger On

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Can’t get that tune out of your head, even though you have no recollection of its name? Scientists are gradually coming to understanding why. It’s starting to look like our memory for music is the result of unique brain circuitry, quite separate from the mechanisms that allow us to remember our first grade teacher or last night’s dinner.

Evidence for this can be found in a newly published case study from Germany, which looks at a 68-year-old professional cellist who developed amnesia following a bout of encephalitis.  “Despite severe memory impairments,” a research team of neurologists reports, “he performed like healthy musicians in various tests of recognition memory for music.”

His case provides evidence that music is recalled via a distinct brain network. Naming that tune requires one type of brain activity; simply recalling the melody appears to involve another. The presence of this pathway suggests music has been an important part of humans’ lives for a long, long time.