Is memorability a quality in music?

I recently wrote an essay about the use of poetry in advertising. In it I used W H Auden’s poetry definition ”memorable speech” as a sort of building block for the discussion.

And it got me thinking, what happens if we transfer this to music? Is memorability a sign of quality, something that transforms the mundane into art? I find this interesting in contrast to someone like Brian Eno whose ambient works (airports etc) strived to create sonic atmospheres that don’t call our attention. In that regard, instantly forgettable - as a different kind of quality?

Auden also stressed the need for “speech”, audibly read poetry. And I believe it’s been often argued that the relation to body and breath is something important, in how we perceive and create melodic phrases.

So, I figured it might be something to discuss, or to air different views on. There might be better questions around this, but just a few to get the discussion started:

  • Is memorability something you strive for in your art?

  • Is relation to human breath/rhythm needed in music?

= = = For reference = = =

W H Auden, introduction to the book The Poet’s Tongue (1935) (My bold)

Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: ’memorable speech.’ That is to say, it must move our emotions, or excite our intellect, for only that which is moving or exciting is memorable, and the stimulus is the audible spoken word and cadence, to which in all its power of suggestion and incantation we must surrender, as we do when talking to an intimate friend. We must, in fact, make exactly the opposite kind of mental effort to that we make in grasping other verbal uses, for in the case of the latter the aura of suggestion round every word through which, like the atom radiating lines of force through the whole of space and time, it becomes ultimately a sign for the sum of all possible meanings, must be rigorously suppressed and its meaning confined to a single dictionary one. For this reason the exposition of a scientific theory is easier to read than to hear. No poetry, on the other hand, which when mastered is not better heard than read is good poetry.

All speech has rhythm, which is the result of the combination of the alternating periods of effort and rest necessary to all living things…”

(transcript found on the Internet so I’m hoping it is correct)


for music as a product yes, for music as artworks, no.


Right. It’s hard not to see the questions posed in light of Jameson’s definition of postmodernism (the cultural logic of late capitalism). I’d argue that Eno’s conception of ambient, as clever and logical as it seems, was firmly anchored within the nascent ideology of its time. So yeah, immemorability is a quality of a kind, and it’s advantageous and appealing within certain contexts (commercial and historical)… but none of this is unequivocal or inevitable.


I like the definition of poetry as memorable speech; but feel all music commercial or artwork based could come under the umbrella of “memorable sound”

In much the same way that with poetry; you often do not recall the whole piece, but have certain salient lines that stick with you in particular; it may be a melody or particular moment that sits with you long after the piece has finished.

Often the memorable quality of a poem (or any art) for me would be recalling how it made me feel when I first heard it; much the same way that I would with a piece of music.

Memorability as a sign of quality for me makes sense if you are defining memorable in terms of “worth thinking about” not in terms of it’s ability to get stuck in your head; as this does not apply to all genres of music equally whereas the former could do so.

On a seperate note; it is interesting you used Eno’s Airports as an example of music that could be forgotten; but I can hear the main refrain clear as day and sometimes get it caught in my head!


Ambient music is definitely a product. It has a clear sales pitch. I would say memorability is key to making music that lasts but remembering the melody and lyrics is a pop-centric lens. When I listen to death metal I don’t remember the lyrics. I can’t tell what they are saying half the time. I do remember the crushing riffs though. When I listen to Music for Airports I don’t hum it afterwards but I do remember how it made me feel. The gradient between art and product is murky. Good art is work you remember. A good product is something you’re willing to pay for.


There you go, maybe it did fail at not calling your attention. :blush: I don’t have any real opinion or review of Music for Airports, I just used it as an example having read/listened to his thoughts of his intention with it.

I thought about this too. Even if there’s no memorable melody/motif there may still be a memorable experience.

Enjoying reading the replies so far!

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I love how Auden, in the quote, already shows that memorability is more a secondary characteristic which results from other aspects of art. And in that, I wonder then how much you can actually strive for memorability when making art since, according to them, you would strive to make emotionally or intellectually engaging art and sort of hope that the memorability just comes with it?

When reading this, I feel like what memorability breaks down to for me (at least in connection to music) is my willingness to repeatedly engage with whatever music I’m listening to, on the basis that it’s somehow stimulating in the right way. This can be due to anything really, interesting timbres, lyrics, composition, etc. I realise this isn’t super common maybe but what I do if I really like a song is I’ll listen to it on repeat for a while. And I suppose that ultimately influences how I write my own music where one of my goals is to create enough variation to capture someone’s interest (and my own while writing) over multiple listens. This is especially true for ambient music because I think it, moreso than most other kinds of music, is a container for associations to me. Ambient tracks gain significance via the moments they accompany in my life and thus only work for me when re-listening a lot.

Regarding whether a relation to human breath/rhythm is needed in music, two things come to my mind. First, I think that rhythm is more an inescapeable quality put onto anything that we perceive due to the fact that we just really like patterns? Yes, you can make music that let’s the listener have an easier or a harder time to impose a rhythm onto it but I think we will do that to any continuous sound we hear.
Second, needed for what? For it to be considered music? To be good? Or engaging? I guess any answer to this question sits on a spectrum depending on what rhythm means to the one answering it. :slight_smile: I find it difficult to say for myself precisely because I feel like even if the artist never intended any rhythm to be there, I’ll happily find my own if the music appeals to me somehow.


while i would never say that art stopped beeing art only because it can be a product at the same time - or even a successful one - i find it fundamentally important to understand the difference and choose wisely what is more important for you.

“Ambient music is definitely a product.”

he did not (yet) understand. :o)

I’d second the comments by @lukesignalsounds and @G4B3 and would suggest a different term: residuality, what is left behind after the direct experience is over.

For me, the word memory brings with it too many mechanical connotations that distract from the experience of art:

  • Do I remember the melody?
  • Do I remember the specific compositional arc?
  • Can I recall enough information and accurately describe it to someone else?

When my experience with new music is “memorable” it has less to do with these mechanical reductions and more to do with my intention: I want to remember whether to listen to it again in the future or whether to avoid it. In this framing, it also means that the concept works for things I like, things I don’t like and things I am blasé about. For the former, I might devote mental cycles to memorizing the specifics. For the latter two (don’t like, blasé), I only need to carry the actionable intent (avoid). This is oversimplifying, of course, because artists I have previously written off will sometimes surprise me.

But framing it based on intention and the future, I don’t need to be able to get specific and/or technical about what I remember about a piece, I simply need to carry a residual feeling with me that is labeled for future encounters and recognition. This might be a signal/noise theory of personal taste. But it is highly functional and gets at one of the experiences I crave: hearing new music and being blown away and not having a framework to describe/understand it but knowing that I want more of it.

To your post’s question, I’d say yes, memorability is a quality in music, but it could be a quality in everything, and so could some concept of residuality, where they are both might be a scale of low-to-high (that painting has low memorability for a given person; this song has high residuality and I might listen to it a lot in the coming days). But for me, the latter is the more important one for understanding my relationship to art.


Please enlighten me. Is that barcode part of the work, for stores to track product sales or both?

you said “music is…” bur music cant be.

YOU have to define what it is and treat things like you want.

brian eno is one of the most successful productmaker. there are millions of ambient tracks never released and never made for commercial release.

there are also recording and compositions of brian which were never released.

and if i show you a CD without barcodes and without clearing house blabla you have no chance to see if it was a commercial release or if i just made a few copies to share my art. you would have to ask me.

If we’re being pedantic not all ambient music is a product.

But if you’ve uploaded it to YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud, Bandcamp etc. or released it via traditional media then it is a product. Similarly if it is generative and on an App Store. Whether the creator is making money on it or not it is part of a marketplace and the distributor is either making money on it or using it as a loss leader.

So most ambient music that most people hear is a product. It is also art but as has already been discussed they aren’t mutually exclusive.

So yes, your bedroom jam you didn’t release anywhere is art and not a product. But anyone you don’t know personally has no idea it exists.

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The idea resonates with me and it avoids aesthetic judgements. All music (even “bad” music) is by definition memorable because it is not just random environmental sounds which are experienced directly through the ears. Even a field recording is memorable because it sounds absolutely nothing like real life - something was chosen, mics were chosen, preamplifiers chosen, it is played back in stereo - these are all colorations / distortions that don’t exist when listening to real environment sounds and make it more memorable.

Just because something is memorable has nothing to do with performability. Plenty of people can enjoy a melody without being able to play it back on an instrument nor even sing it passably. In fact to be able to hear something and remember it in this way requires a lot of training and talent probably helps.

I can’t think of any music of interest in which rhythm does not play some part even if the durations are extremely long (Jaap Vink, Radigue come to mind). Otherwise a lot more people would getting their kicks to recordings of a 440 Hz sine wave.

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Here’s my flag in the sand:

Music is not memorable sound. Music is memorable time.


What about cinema? It’s also a kind of memorable time. Pondering a bit more, other things also seem equally likely to fit this definition.

Music is not memorable sound. Music is memorable time.

Right, my favorite music is simply a kind of space my senses and brain can inhabit which they particularly like to spend time in. Doesn’t have to be pleasant (in fact I often like unpleasant, or too complex to immediately get a handle on), but there’s an emphasis on inhabiting a space, a sonic terrarium or landmass, an unfolding time.

A hot shower on a cold day, or a walk through a forest near your home might not be particularly “memorable” or especially distinct from the many other times you’ve had that experience, but it nevertheless is a wonderful way to spend your time that makes your mind and body feel good. I might find a visit to an art museum deeply inspiring or challenging without actually remembering most of the specifics of the art a week or month later.

This part of the quote from Auden:

it must move our emotions, or excite our intellect, for only that which is moving or exciting is memorable, and the stimulus is the audible spoken word and cadence, to which in all its power of suggestion and incantation we must surrender, as we do when talking to an intimate friend.

Is simply freighting too much responsibility and importance onto music at all times, and doing it a disservice. I can get with the notion that poetry is a sort of heightened reality where the mundane becomes magnified and freighted with a sense of all-importance that we overlook in our everyday lives. This is a great characteristic that people often are primed to look to poetry for. But one gets the sense that if Auden approached music with that same level of seriousness, he would listen to nothing but Explosions in the Sky, Wagner and Diamanda Galas all day every day. But music can simply have different functions from poetry - there is something to music as mood regulator, or sound bath, or restrained accompaniment to everyday life, or mild (or not so mild) psychoactive agent, or gentle subversion, or thing-that-takes-hours-or-days-to-unfold-in-your-brain, rather than all-caps MOVING AND EXCITING or emotional spectacle as the only possible mode. For that matter, more poetry could stand to aspire to some of these things.

They are definitely both time-based media but I would contextualize cinema as being defined by visuals in time.

Film without changes through time is photography.

Is there music without time? Even a sustained single note is happening over time.

no, ‘memorability’ is actually just a side-effect of 'intimacy’(i’d feel Auden’s sentiment more, if he had phrased it: “simplest is still the best: ‘intimate connection’"); Auden touches on the importance of this by mentioning, ‘talking to an intimate friend’ there. if you feel a deep dissonance towards something but somehow remember it anyways, then that would be something more along the lines of ‘traumatic’. trauma can be plenty memorable, shock-value can attract and hold attention easily, but i prefer a more refined sensitivity in art.
‘intimacy’ is far more important, since my focus whether creating or witnessing art is more on ‘feeling’ than on ‘thought’, more on evolving through ‘experiencing’ rather than through ‘remembering’(and if someone intimately resonates with the feeling of something, they’ll remember it anyways).

this relation is not needed, but something to demarcate time will help it ‘feel’ more like music. I could subjectively decide in this moment the ringing in my ears from tinnitus is ‘music’, then some other time, just call it an ‘annoyance’… the way in which my own(the listener’s) attention-span has marked out that time with feelings and meanings determines whether it’s music to the ears or not(and to anyone who would argue that my tinnitus is not music: these aren’t your awesome ears, so you could never be sure if we’ve both ever experienced this same awesome ringing, baby! :crazy_face: :metal: (and to those who would further ask “but is it a ‘memorable’ kind of ringing, raja?” to that I’d reply, “I’m sorry I can’t hear you over this awesome ringing in my ears, therefore it seems YOU ARE THE ONE who is not memorable, baaahahahahaha!" :rofl: :metal: :crazy_face: :metal: :rofl:)).


But photography is not film. For a film to work as intended the order of events has to be preserved. Film needs time and therefore requires memory.

Music similarly requires an order. If you take a piece of music and rearrange random snippets it’s also not going to work or it become something else.

My point was mostly that to say music primarily about time doesn’t make really distinguish it very much. Sound is essential.

Words also must be read or heard. We cannot even perceive language without time and memory.

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Photography isn’t cinema, but cinema is photography in rapid sequence. If you slow the frame rate enough a film is perceived as a slideshow of photos.

Similarly music is sequential sound, but music and sound are kind of recursively defined because sound is just changes in pressure. Neither music or sound exist at all without time.

My (perhaps too abstract) point was that music is somewhat more “fundamental” because film minus the passing of time is photography which is still art; whereas music (sound we consider special to listen to) minus time is a pressure value which most people would not consider art.

To loop this wobbly train of thought back into the thread I would say music needs to be memorable in that you remember to listen to it again because you liked it.

Apologies if this reads like a stoned philosophy undergrad. I’m typing as I think, not forming real opinions.

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