MUSIC + MEMORY

Learn HTML with Song

Learn HTML with Song:
Method and Memory

Learn HTML With Song has been constructed around the idea that song can be a powerful tool for bringing technical material to life so that it can be remembered and understood. These songs engage people playfully, even joyously, to learn the rules of HTML and CSS, tasks that require both some memorization and the ability to make generalizations from a large volume of data. There is no magic bullet for the process of memorization or learning*, no substitute for a bit of hard slogging and a certain amount of repetition. But learning doesn’t have to be the brute-force cramming we refer to as rote,for we learn best what engages us as whole people.

Two Paths

Two broad methods have come down to us through history for committing complex or voluminous material to memory. They were both largely ignored for several centuries but have recently received much popular attention. One method relies on words and images embedded in sound and the other on striking visual imagery. Both methods have ancient roots and enjoy some support from the modern neuroscience that focuses on learning, attention, emotion and memory. For success, either strategy depends on compelling the attention of the learner, on engaging as many senses as possible and on evoking strong emotional responses that will reliably call to mind the material to be mastered.

It’s important to mention both methods here because Learn HTML With Song actually contains considerably more than mnemonic songs. The songs on this site combine, music, lyrics, rhythm and dance with visual story-telling and a visual sense of place and character. All these elements have a role in making the material memorable and in revealing the underlying rules, or syntax, of HTML and CSS.

Hearing and song

The first mnemonic method, arguably the older because it is pre-literate, links information to be learned with melody, lyrics, rhythm, rhyme and narrative. In the English-speaking West, the simplest and best-known example would be the alphabet song we sing to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” But complex examples include the Hebrew Torah, which was handed down through many generations in a chanting process often referred to as cantillation. It is still chanted in synagogues today.

Learning that relies on song comes under the umbrella of the oral tradition. Textual evidence from sources that range from Homeric epic to Icelandic sagas suggests that, before such material was written down, it was first passed on through singing or tale-telling. This living tradition, heard and held in common in the minds and memory of a community, was how people preserved information before such storage could be externalized in manuscripts and books.

Sight and visual imagery

The second mnemonic strategy, known either as the method of loci (places) or the memory palace method, takes advantage of creative mental imagery embedded in the memory of places well known to the learner. Just as song takes advantage of the sense of hearing, the method of loci takes advantage of the impressions left by our sense of sight. It uses our “inner eye” to manufacture and remember vivid images.

To memorize a list using loci, a learner deposits items to be memorized in familiar locations. He then follows each item along a route to retrieve them from memory. Well-known places that can be used in this process could be something as simple as a family home or something as elaborate as a palace. Importantly, a learner actually has to memorize the places first before they can be used to store information.

The items to be memorized not only have to be stored in a familiar mental place but also have to be made memorable by associating them with really striking imagery. For example, if you wanted to remember that a shopping list included butter, you could mentally place a stick of bright yellow butter on a red carpet in a well-known room and imagine the butter melting into the carpet and dripping through the floorboards. By fashioning images that are striking, unusual, grotesque, occasionally even obscene, the image becomes easier to remember.

The method of loci is believed to go back to ancient Greece and was first outlined in the anonymous 1st century BC Latin treatise Rhetorica ad Herennium, which attributes the invention of t he loci to the Greek poet Simonides. Attending a banquet, Simonides left the hall for a few minutes and returned to find that everyone had been killed when the roof collapsed. The bodies inside were so mangled that families were unable to identify their loved ones, but Simonides discovered he could identify each person by remembering their place at the banquet table.

This procedure, described in Rhetorica ad Herennium and repeated by the Roman orator and politician Cicero, was part of the classical art of rhetoric and was used to help orators remember the important points of long speeches. Memory palaces have received sensational attention over the last 25 years because the “mental athletes” of international memory competitions employ them to achieve what look to most of us like miraculous feats of high-speed memorization.

Teachers and learners alike can use either of these mnemonic methods. However, teachers will probably find it easier to use song as a vehicle. That’s because the loci method depends on the intensely personal visual mental imagery of each student. It would be possible for a teacher to convey the method itself to students, but students have to “construct” the memory palace that will allow them to use it. The loci, or memory palace, method also has an important drawback: It helps people remember things more easily than words. It isn’t the best way to remember long passages of poetry or prose, for example — areas where song has a stronger claim.

How can music aid learning and memory?

Without the mediation of our five senses, we would know nothing of the world, so it’s easy to infer that our senses help us to form memories and are linked to emotions. Literature is full of anecdotes about vivid, often emotional, memories that are triggered when people encounter a familiar smell from their past. It shouldn’t be surprising then that music, which relies on our sense of hearing and our feeling for rhythm, can be a powerful aid to memory as well, so much so that it is used therapeutically with Alzheimer patients, who can often recover some memories with unexpected clarity through familiar songs.

Music engages several areas and systems in the brain. Among them is the brain stem, the oldest part of the brain, which is involved in governing many basic functions of life such as breathing and balance (an important component in our sense of rhythm). In the form of lyrical song, music engages areas of the brain that respond to and process language. And music affects a complex network known as the dopaminergic system, which is involved in reward/pleasure, emotion and learning. So music, especially in song, has perhaps always had a role to play in learning, and this would explain why so many preliterate cultures used song to store and pass on collective knowledge from one generation to the next.

In the 20th century, two scholars, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, showed that the process of composing and passing on epic poetry in song was part of a still living tradition in the Balkans. Rather than remembering long passages, Balkan singer-poets would retrieve well-known formulaic phrases to tell their stories. Lord and Parry believed that a similar process was probably used in the composition and retelling of Homeric epic, though the subject is still a matter of academic dispute.

In his book The World in Six Songs, the musician and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains in detail how this process can be used to pass on knowledge. The structure and rhythm of songs, he says, contribute to memory retrieval. The most important thing a song does is to narrow the range of possible choices when you're reaching for a word. In his chapter on “knowledge songs,” Levitin says:

The very poor typical recall of text stands in stark contrast to the very good typical recall of song lyrics, especially in the case of long epic ballads and the information-set-to-music that I call knowledge songs. Again, this is because songs provide form and structure that jointly serve to fix and constrain possible alternatives.

Let’s take a very simple example of a well-known lyric like “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” A person hearing the song for the first time will naturally find the obvious rhyme to match “all the live-long day” in the second line by predicting that the fourth line (“just to pass the time _ ___”) ends in “away.”

This is achieved both through rhyme and through the pattern of stressed and weak notes in the lyrics. “Day” and the second syllable of “a-way” not only rhyme but both have a strong stress. This is one of the ways songs lead you to the right answer for predicting or remembering a lyric.

Levitin’s explanation continues:

We don’t need to store every word of the lyric in our brain’s memory banks; we only need to store some of them, along with the story and knowledge of the structure of the song. Structural knowledge may include things like the rhyming pattern (the fact that lines one, two, and three all rhyme while four doesn’t; or the fact that line one rhymes with line three and line two rhymes with line four, and so on).
[italics added]

Melody, lyrics, rhythm, rhyme, and effects such as alliteration and assonance provide what Levitin calls “mutually reinforcing constraints” that help people to remember a song without consciously memorizing it. You can find a good example of mutually reinforcing constraints in the video about the HTML image tag in Learn HTML With Song:

I’m using H-T-M-L, Hypertext Markup LANGuage
You can use it as WELL, take a tag and make it a SANDwich.

The elements in bold caps show how rhythm, rhyme and stress are combined to reinforce your memory for the words.

The visual factor

Learn HTML With Song contains a learning bonus. It also takes advantage of our ability to remember images. Although it doesn’t require you to place things to be remembered in a particular mental place as in the loci method, it does use the striking images required in this method. For example, the HTML Image song is presented in a video that gives extra reinforcement when the dancing singers make a sandwich gesture with their hands to show how tags are sandwiched between the greater-than and less-than symbols ( <tag> ), and the gesture is reinforced by the symbols that flash across the screen. Later in the video, the students learning how to enclose a tag make the same rhythmically emphasized “sandwich” gesture as they dance.

The material to be learned is also buttressed by a familiar story (just as Levitin suggests above) about bored students who are encouraged to engage with their subject by an unexpectedly hip teacher who appears to be nothing but a bespectacled and monotonous nerd at the beginning of the tale. Once again, this fits with Levitin’s idea of mutually reinforcing elements.

Reinforcing Learn HTML With Song

Although some experts advise that teaching songs should be simple and universally familiar, like the alphabet song, any melody repeated often enough becomes familiar because of the way our minds readily absorb music and lyrics. The songs in Learn HTML With Song were created specifically for this project, so the tunes won’t be immediately familiar in the same way as “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” To remember both words and concepts from Learn HTML With Song, you’ll have to listen to each song and watch each video frequently enough to make the song yours, so that its melody, rhythm and words become part of your mental furniture. But this won't be like the repetition of rote learning.

Think of popular songs you’ve heard on the radio or in videos. They may not even be songs you like very much, but once you’ve heard them a few times, you begin to remember melody and lyrics without realizing the songs have made a sort of nest in your brain. This response to music appears to be one part of the human brain’s more general system for recognizing and creating patterns, a capacity with which human beings may be uniquely endowed.(Actually, there is evidence that parrots may recognize and respond to melody and rhythm, but so far no evidence that they can generate new songs on their own. Just search for “dancing parrot” on YouTube.)

Meanwhile, see for yourself if the material on Learn HTML With Song clarifies and makes memorable the basic rules of HTML and CSS. If you want to dig a bit deeper into the subjects of learning and memory, see the accompanying list of books and website articles that helped to fashion this article.

Catherine Osborn

*Learning and memorization are used colloquially here. Formally, of course, learning is not synonymous with memorization. It is both richer and more complex, requiring the learner to make creative links between many, often disparate, pieces of information so that she is able to derive general concepts or ideas from absorbed information. Yet there can be no learning without collecting facts and committing some to memory.
Select Bibliography
This essay was inspired by the reading of numerous books and website articles. Thank you to all the fine authors who contributed their research, and wisdom, which informed the writing of this article.

Select Bibliography

Foer, Joshua Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, The Penguin Press, 2011. (A journalist recounts his experiences in training for a year as a mental athlete and winning the American Memory Championships. Contains a good description of the method of loci and profiles many people who use it.)

Levitin, Daniel J. The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature,Dutton, 2008. (Chapter 5 is especially helpful in showing how songs aid memory.)

Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music, Dutton, 2006. (How and why your brain responds to music, by a neuroscientist and musician.)

Nelson, Aaron P. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Achieving Optimal Memory, McGraw-Hill, 2005. (Recent scientific thinking on human memory and how to keep your memory working in a healthy way.)

O’Brien, Dominic How to Develop a Perfect Memory, Pavilion Books Limited, 1993. (Advice from the eight-time World Memory Champion.)

Sacks, Oliver Musicophilia, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. (Case studies from the most humane of popular science writers about the many ways in which music affects the brain.)

Yates, Frances Amelia The Art of Memory, Routledge, 1966. (One of the first scholarly books to revive the subject of ancient memory techniques.)

Websites and web articles

Mempowered (http://www.memory-key.com) A website authored by educational psychologist Fiona McPherson, whose specialty is the study of learning and memory. Her website tries to stay abreast of the latest research into learning and memory and provides much practical, evidence-based advice for students and anyone interested in learning and memory techniques.

Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center— NSF Science and Learning Center (http://tdlc.ucsd.edu/research/highlights/rh-music-and-brain-2011.html). This link will take you to an article about music and the brain hosted by the National Science Foundation.

How Music Can Improve Memory (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/09/how-music-can-improve-memory/)This blog article covering subjects like the value of using song to learn new languages comes from KQED’s Mind/Shift section.

Music and Memory at the PsyBlog: 5 Awesome New Psychology Studies. (http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/12/music-and-memory-5-awesome-new-psychology-studies.php) This PsyBlog article reports briefly on five recent studies about the effects of music on the brain. The author is psychologist Jeremy Dean, whose work has been used by major news outlets around the world. The fifth article he cites appears to contain an error, however. He says a reported case of musical hallucinations is unique, but the phenomenon is common enough to take up most of a chapter in Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia.

Music for Memorization at Mnemotechnics.org (http://mnemotechnics.org/forums/music-for-memorization-1757.html) This article comes from a public forum devoted to mnemonic techniques.

A number of related Wikipedia articles include: Cognitive neuroscience of music; Emotion and memory: Method of loci: Music-related memory; and Oral-formulaic composition.

Catherine Osborn, Author + Editor

Catherine Osborn is a writer in the Bay Area, available for hire. She has a passion for language, and speaks multiple versions of English, HTML and CSS.