If you’ve ever had a song stuck in your head but you can’t recall the name, your brain’s left temporal pole may be to blame.
Damage to this region can make it difficult to remember the titles for songs, famous or otherwise, new research has uncovered.
Previous research has shown the left temporal pole is important for recalling proper names, including names of famous people and landmarks. While faces and landmarks are visual stimuli, musical melodies are auditory.
“The left temporal lobe is a convergence zone that is not devoted to a single stimulus modality,” says Amy Belfi, a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Iowa and first author on the paper published in the journal Neuropsychology. “This finding supports the theory that the area is an important region for naming unique items, regardless of stimulus modality.”
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Belfi and Daniel Tranel, a neurology professor, enlisted 30 participants from the Iowa Neurological Patient Registry in a “famous melodies naming task.” The participants were further divided into 10 patients with left temporal lobe (LTP) damage, 10 brain damaged comparison patients, and 10 participants with no brain damage.
The task included listening to 52 famous melodies—some with and some without lyrics—ranging from 8 to 15 seconds in duration.
After hearing each melody, participants were asked to rate their familiarity with the melody and identify it by name. Participants heard songs like “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
LTP patients named significantly fewer melodies than brain damaged comparison patients and the control group. Overall, LTP patients named approximately 50 percent of the melodies correctly, while comparison participants correctly named approximately 80 percent of the melodies.
Recognition of melodies did not differ significantly between groups. Recognition of the song is different from remembering its title; the former refers to information that confers knowing, while the latter refers to a proper name, the UI researchers note.
Only One Right Answer
The researchers also contend that recalling names—especially proper names—is difficult, because there is only one right answer. Recognizing something—such as a melody—is easier, because it is more general, and the brain can draw upon other avenues to come up with the right answer.
“LTP patients would recite the lyrics of the song, but had no idea the name of the song,” says Belfi. “I expected a deficit, but I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if there wasn’t one.
“Music transcends what we know about the brain. People who stutter can often sing without a deficit.”
The group plans to further its work using melody and song-title recognition to investigate which brain regions are associated with isolated deficits in melody recognition. These deficits could be independent of naming defects.
“We’re going to study patients with damage to the right temporal lobe, with the expectation that they might not recognize the melodies,” Belfi says.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke funded the study.