Since I often play three to four hour shows, people frequently ask me how I remember lyrics to each and every song I play. To be honest, my memory is awful. Really, it’s incredibly bad. The trick in remembering lyrics lays in the tradition of folk music and why it exists in the first place.

Before the ability to read and write was as common as it is now, our ancestors made songs that contained the stories of their parents and grandparents. These songs would be sung and naturally learned by the next generation because of a melody and then passed on to the next generation. It probably wasn’t thought through but music was one of the best ways to pass these cultural stories from generation to generation and it’s all thanks to the melody.

A cognitive scientist from Amherst College, Matthew Shulkind, has explained that music and melody is more of a procedural process. These are activities that once you learn how to do them, you just do it without thinking. Swinging a tennis racket is his example. So when you start to sing a song that you know, the melody just flows out without focusing too much on what you’re actually singing.

This is why I think folk music did such a great job at documenting people’s culture and stories from that culture. And I’m not just talking about American folk music, I’m talking about every culture’s folk music. Even though many cultures may have never seen each other, they all had at least one thing in common, their own folk music. Melody is how they remember lyrics in their own folk music and it’s why I remember lyrics in the songs that I play.

I think of this often and why I can remember lyrics so easily after learning them. I feel like I’m getting in touch with my roots and my ancestors who may not have known how to write but they are still able to tell stories through song. It’s all thanks to the melody. Much has been remembered thanks to the affect it has on our brains, especially the stories that lyrics hold.

So how do you remember lyrics in folk music exactly? Just remember the tradition of melody in folk music and how it’s helped the human race pass stories for generations. If you can remember that one thing and appreciate it, then your brain will take care of the rest.

I cut this little thought from a recent Expressway Balladeer episode, feel free to watch the deleted scene below. What do you think about remembering lyrics? Do you have trouble or does it comes as naturally to you as driving? Let me know in the comments.