Rhyme & rhythm

As we all know, rhyme and rhythm help make information more memorable. Here's a few ideas that may help you use them more effectively.

Rhythm and rhyme are of course quite separate things, and are processed in different regions of the brain. However, they do share some commonalities in why and how they benefit memory. Rhyme and rhythm impose pattern. For that reason, rhyme and rhythm are particularly valuable when information is not inherently meaningful.

Remember that organization is the key to memory. If information cannot be meaningfully organized, it must be organized by other means.

Imposing a pattern, by using, for example, rhyme and/or rhythm, is one of those means.

Patterns are remembered because they are orderly. An important aspect of order is that it is predictable. When we can anticipate the next part of a sequence or pattern, we encode that information better, probably because our attention has been focused on structurally important points.

There is another aspect to patterns, and to rhyme and rhythm in particular. They help recall by limiting the possible solutions. In the same way that being told the name you want to remember starts with “B” helps your search your memory, so knowing that the next word rhymes with “time” will help your search. Of course, knowing the sound ending of a word helps far more than simply knowing the initial letter, and when this is in the context of a verse, you are usually also constrained by meaning, reducing the possibilities immensely.

Rhythm isn’t quite so helpful, yet it too helps constrain the possibilities by specifying the number of syllables you are searching for.

It is clear from this that for rhyme in particular, it is most effective if the rhyming words are significant words. For example, “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” is pretty good (not brilliant), because “two” is a significant word, and “blue” is sufficiently strongly associated with the ocean (another significant word, since it suggests why we remember him). On the other hand, this verse for remembering England’s kings and queens is not particularly good:

“Willie, Willie, Harry, Steve,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three,
Edward One, Two, Three, Dick Two,
Henry Four, Five, Six, then who?
Edward Four, Five, Dick the Bad,
Harrys twain and Ned, the lad.
Mary, Lizzie, James the Vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again.
William and Mary, Anne o'Gloria,
Four Georges, William and Victoria.
Edward Seven, Georgie Five,
Edward, George and Liz (alive)”

The fact that it is in verse, providing rhyme and rhythm as mnemonic aids, is obviously helpful, but its effectiveness is lessened by the fact that the rhyming words are forced, with little significance to them.

Rhythm has another function, one it doesn’t share with rhyme. Rhythm groups information.

Grouping is of course another fundamental means of making something easy to remember. We can only hold a very limited number of bits of information in our mind at one time, so grouping is necessary for this alone. But in addition, grouping information into a meaningful cluster, or at least one where all bits are closely related, is what organization (the key to memory — can I say it too often?) is all about.

Studies indicate that groups of three are most effective. The gap between such groups can be quite tiny, provided it is discernible by the listener. The way we customarily group phone numbers is a reflection of that.

If you can’t group the information entirely in threes, twos are apparently better than fours (i.e., a 7 figure number would be broken into 3-2-2: 982 34 67). Having said that, I would add that I would imagine that meaningfulness might override this preference; if a four-digit number had meaning in itself, say a famous date, I would group it that way rather than breaking it into smaller chunks and losing the meaning.

But let us never forget the importance of individual difference. Baddeley[1] cites the case of a Scottish professor who had amazing memory abilities. One of his feats was to recall the value of pi to the first thousand decimal places — a feat he would not have bothered to perform if it had not been “so easy”! Apparently, he found that simply arranging the digits in rows of 50, with each row grouped in lots of 5 digits, and reciting them in a particular rhythm, made them very easy (for him) to memorize: “rather like learning a Bach fugue”. The psychologist who observed him doing this feat (Ian Hunter, known for his book, “Memory”) said he did the whole thing in 150 seconds, pausing only (for breath) after the first 500. The rhythm and tempo was basically 5 digits per second, with half a second between each group.

There’s also some evidence to suggest those with musical abilities may benefit more from rhythm, and even rhyme (musically trained people tend to have better verbal skills, and, intriguingly, a 1993 study[2] found a positive correlation between pitch discrimination and an understanding of rhyme and alliteration in children).

The “3 Rs” — rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. It’s not a fair analogy, because these differ considerably in their importance, but I couldn’t resist it.

I want to repeat something I’ve said before — because it is absolutely fundamental. Repetition is essential to memory.

There is sometimes a feeling among novice learners that mnemonic strategies “do away” with the need for repetition. They do not. Nothing does. What memory strategies of all kinds do is reduce the need for repetition. Nothing eliminates the need for repetition.

Even experiences that seem to be examples of “one-trial” learning (i.e., the single experience is enough to remember it forever) are probably re-experienced mentally a number of times. Can you think of any single experience you had, or fact you learned, that you experienced/heard/saw only once, and NEVER thought about again for a long time, until something recalled it to mind?

It’s a difficult thing to prove or disprove, of course.

However, for practical purposes, it is enough to note that, yes, if we want to remember something, we must repeat it. If we’re using a mnemonic strategy to help us remember, we must include the mnemonic cue in our remembering. Thus, if you’re trying to remember that the man with a nose like a beak was called Bill Taylor, don’t omit any of your associative links in your remembering until they’re firmly cemented. I say that because if the “answer” (nose like a beak à Bill Taylor) pops up readily, it’s easy to not bother with remembering the linking information (beak = bill; pay the tailor’s bill). However, if you want the information to stick, you want to make sure those associations are all firmly embedded.

Rhyme and rhythm are mnemonic cues of a different sort, but however effectively you might use them (and if you use them wisely they can be very effective), you still can’t avoid the need for repetition.

Always remember the essential rules of repetition:

  • space it out
  • space it at increasing intervals

(see my article on practice for more on this)

Interesting resource:

The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form:: A wonderful idea for remembering those difficult or rare words, if you’re learning English as a second-language or simply want to expand your vocabulary.

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for June 2005

References: 

  1. Baddeley, A. 1994. Your memory: A user’s guide. Penguin
  2. Lamb, S. & Gregory, A. 1993. The relationship between music and reading in beginning readers. Educational Psychology, 13, 19-28.