The number has to be in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. This brings up a second question: What should be included? Does a jingle count as a song? Probably. Does it count if you know most of the lyrics to a song? For example, I know all the words to the Busta Rhymes verse from the song "Scenario" (Tribe Called Quest) and know the choruses to countless songs; do they count? I would say yes but I'm sure other people would disagree and say it only counts if I know all the lyrics. Those people are decidedly not fun and I don't want to hang out with them. What's the ratio of hymns or patriotic music to rock music? I know a ridiculous amount of hymns despite the fact that I have not regularly attended mass since 1998. One of my friends told me recently that she had the song "Home On the Range" in her head and remembered all the words to it. I remember the song but only as performed as "Glee Club Rehearsal" in the musical You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. I don't know all the lyrics to "Home On the Range" but I know all of the dialogue to this part of the musical. I'm going to go ahead and count this anyway because I can.
According to an informal poll I conducted on Facebook (clearly the most reliable source for conducting poll-based research) my friends know more song lyrics than any of them could even begin to count. I was treated to the opening "rap" from the New Kids on the Block holiday gem "Funky, Funky Christmas" because that's how my friends roll. I'm most impressed with the random things people shared: their knowledge of lyrics from songs from the 50s and 60s (or even the 1920s) despite not having been alive during the songs' popularity, one person likes to sing if they're alone in a elevator, everyone knows a ridiculous number of commercial jingles. The general consensus is that for most of us our brains are 99% song lyrics. This probably explains why I suck at math but know all the words to "Livin' On a Prayer."
I did a small amount of research on the topic: Science is apparently the answer to why we remember lyrics. And maybe a little history too. Apparently the ability to remember song lyrics and melodies is a lot like having a physical skill like hitting a tennis ball or a baseball; it's something we're wired to do. This type of memory is called "procedural memory" and also includes our ability to walk and talk and why we can remember how to do things we haven't done in years like ride a bike. Another thought around remembering song lyrics goes back to early human history and oral traditions for sharing stories and history with one another. This is why we have troubadours and raconteurs/raconteuses. Telling a story is easier for some people if they are able to sing the story. Makes sense to me.
I've talked about it before but lyrics are a big part of why I still buy albums and CDs and why I've kept so many of the cassette tapes I bought in my youth. It's not just because I'm nostalgic and wish I could spend more of my time browsing in places like Tower Records and Kemp Mill Music (sadly both gone). I like spending time looking at album art and the lyrics when they're included. Other than the scientific reasons for remembering lyrics, this probably why I remember so many. It's not just the sheer number of times I listen to a song that cements the lyrics in my head; it's spending time with the lyrics and the liner notes. In the rares times that I dance in public, I always enjoy myself more when I know the songs. The familiarity of the lyrics makes me feel more comfortable, more okay with the fact that I don't think I dance well.
As I venture out for tomorrow's Record Store Day, I am reminded of this bit of dialogue from the movie Music & Lyrics:
Sophie: A melody is like seeing someone for the first time. The physical attraction. Sex.
Alex: I so get that.
Sophie: But then, as you get to know the person, that's the lyrics. Their story. Who they are underneath. It's the combination of the two that makes it magical.
That, my friends, is why I love music.
Tomorrow is Record Store Day! I'm making my way to Richmond to visit a few record stores and check out the GWAR Bar. More to come before the end of the weekend!