Sometime on Jan. 1, 2008, the radio networks of the United States will switch from a five-week rotation of holiday Christmas classics back to regular music programming. Which makes us wonder: What is it about some traditional music, and some repeat impressions, that can be so compelling for humans?
This is no trivial question, given the trend in advertising to constantly barrage consumers with the latest, and often loudest, new concept. Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist best known for being portrayed by Robin Williams in the film Awakenings, has studied the effects of music on memory and found that, somehow, music is rooted in the most primitive parts of our minds.
In simple terms, music combined with communications hits the brain with a form of double impression — the message sinks in deeper, and once in, the music replayed can accurately withdraw it. This is important, because our minds often have trouble processing or recalling memory accurately without strong cues.
Sacks tells of his own memory slipping when he thinks back to a North London bombing during World War II. He vividly recalls seeing two bombs fall:
On another occasion, an incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire-indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal …
Trouble was, Sacks never saw the second bomb explode; his brother Michael told him recently that his memory had deceived him.
I was staggered at Michael’s words. How could he dispute a memory I would not hesitate to swear on in a court of law and had never doubted as real?
“What do you mean?” I objected. “I can see the bomb in my mind’s eye now, Pop with his pump, and Marcus and David with their buckets of water. How could I see it so clearly if I wasn’t there?”
“You never saw it,” Michael repeated. “We were both away at Braefield at the time. But David [our older brother] wrote us a letter about it. A very vivid, dramatic letter. You were enthralled by it.” Clearly, I had not only been enthralled, but must have constructed the scene in my mind, from David’s words, and then taken it over, appropriated it, and taken it for a memory of my own.
This is extraordinary — one of the most brilliant men in the study of neurology can’t recall accurately seeing a bomb explode, and admits it. It points out that advertisers and communicators need far more the CPMs and GRPs to make an impact on the consumer’s mind; they need something heavier to make the impression stick, and be recallable.
Music is one powerful tool, and advertisers have long used it. If you think back to the 1970s, many TV and radio commercials had musical narratives — Oscar Mayer had a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a, Coke taught the world to sing in perfect harmony, and Burger King sang about having it your way. Even the famed early outdoor signs of America had a musical cadence: Around the corner, lickety-split, beautiful car, wasn’t it? Burma-Shave. Our dad saw that in the 1940s, told us the rhyme in second grade, and we still recall it. For some reason, the use of music jingles in advertising has faded. Perhaps the market was oversaturated, and like the 1970s moustache music just went out of vogue.
Musical communication reaches something primitive in all of us, tied to deep memories and our desire to survive. However annoying, we can’t get some tunes out of our mind. Soon, we bet, some clever marketer will bring the jingle back.