Epistemic status: probably we did lose the ability to memorize long songs due to improper practice, but it may be possible to enjoy the benefits of literacy and epic memory simultaneously.

Thanks to Niels uit de Bos for better links and editing, and to Ryan Kidd for encouragement to post.

You probably know that Socrates thought writing was terrible and it would destroy people’s ability to memorize things, because now they’re written down and don’t need to be memorized. I always thought that was a little ridiculous, maybe the effect was there and memorization would be less good, but not to a crazy extent.

Well, Milman Parry and Albert Lord traveled to Yugoslavia in the 1930-1950s, and recorded performance of gusle-player (guslar) bards. The greatest of them was Avdo Međedović. From Wikipedia:

At Parry’s request, Avdo sang songs he already knew and some songs he heard in front of Parry, convincing him that someone Homer-like could produce a poem so long. Avdo dictated, over five days, a version of the well-known theme The Wedding of Meho Smailagić that was 12,323 lines long, saying on the fifth day to Nikola (Parry’s assistant on the journey) that he knew even longer songs. On another occasion, he sang over several days an epic of 13,331 lines. He said he had several others of similar length in his repertoire. In Parry’s first tour, over 80,000 lines were transcribed.

All of the bards, which recited incredibly long songs from memory and composed slightly new lyrics on the fly “at the rate of [10-20] ten-syllable lines a minute”, and they could not have been geniuses, because there were too many of them. Instead, they had a “special technique of composition”: they were illiterate. From The Singer of Tales:

[Albert] Lord sees the existence of literacy and written/printed texts as deadly-- not to the songs themselves, but to the method of composition by which they are realised [which in the end amounts to the same thing]--schools, cities, and literacy eventually put [an end] to it in urban areas

“We must remember that the oral poet has no idea of a fixed model text to serve as his guide. He has models enough but they are not fixed and he has no idea of memorizing them in a fixed form. Every time he hears a song sung, it is different”

Once the idea that there is a fixed text enters the bard’s minds, they stop being able to compose new versions on the fly. Also presumably they can’t remember the full 13-thousand line epics because they won’t be able to remember the exact text.

Again from Wikipedia:

in 1935 Lord asked Međedović to recall a song he heard only once, for this he asked another guslar, Mumin Vlahovljak of Plevlje, to sing his song “Bećiragić Meho”, unknown to Međedović. After he heard the song of 2,294 lines, he sung it himself, but made it almost three times longer, 6,313 lines

I wrote about this from a blog post by Sam Kriss, and I was struck enough to fact-check it. The extent to which the memory and abilities of illiterate folks can be better than literate folks is very surprising to me.

It seems possible to me that literate people could replicate the feats of the guslar. But they'd have to hear the song many different times, sung somewhat differently by many different people, and resist the temptation to write it down to try to remember it as they learned. Lord's speculation on how to learn to be a bard:

We must remember that the oral poet has no idea of a fixed model text to serve as his guide. He has models enough but they are not fixed and he has no idea of memorizing them in a fixed form. Every time he hears a song sung, it is different." p.22 "Sometimes there are published versions of songs in the background. [Named Informant] in Bihac told us that he did not learn to sing until he was about twenty-eight (he was forty-five in 1935), and that he had learned his songs from the song books, the Matica Hrvatska collection in particular. Although he could not read, somebody had read them to him. He had also heard the older singers in his district. The entrance of these song books into the tradition is a very interesting phenomenon, and one that is open to gross misinterpretation. Yet as long as the singer himself remains unlettered and does not attempt to reproduce the songs word for word, these books have no other effect on him than that of hearing the song."

It may truthfully be said that the singer imitates the techniques of composition of his master or masters rather than particular songs. For that reason the singer is not very clear about the details of how he learned his art, and his explanations are frequently in very general terms. He will say that he was interested in the old songs, had a passion for them, listened to singers, and then, ‘work, work, work’ and little by little he learned to sing.

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There's a thing in our very literate modern society which still survives following more or less the same pattern: jokes (and the longer ones in particular).

Think about it: even if you can easily find printed books full of jokes, in practice jokes are mostly an oral thing. You tell one to a friend, who in turn tells it to another friend, and so on. But unless the joke is a single sentence, at every step in the chain it will be distorted and retold a bit, even if it remains recognizably the same joke (for some people, adding a lot more words to the original version is also not uncommon). Nobody is expected to remember a joke word-by-word, and even the same person telling the same joke twice will probably not use the very same words. Yet it will be the same joke.

Maybe being a guslar is not so different from telling a joke 2294 lines long. Note also that "being able to repeat a joke non-exactly after hearing it once" is not considered difficult, even if the joke is 200+ words long (while "being able to repeat 200 words exactly" is basically impossible for the average person).

Maybe being a guslar is not so different from telling a joke 2294 lines long

That's a very good point! I think the level of ability required is different but it seems right.

The guslar's songs are (and were of course already in the 1930-1950s) also printed, so the analogy may be closer than you thought.

What do you mean by them memorizing the songs, if they don't repeat them word for word? Do you only require that all the events in the version they heard happen again in the version they sing? Are there audio recordings of their singing? Those should help reduce confusion here.

When you study practical rhetoric, you learn to hold speeches without any written memory-aid. Instead, you use something like the method of loci to remember a sequence of concepts that you want to lay out to the audience, but you do not memorize any exact phrasings.

The first time you pull it off is almost magical, because the benefits are immense and obvious. You have full freedom to walk around, stand in front of the lectern or wherever you like, look everyone in the eyes and ascertain whether they're following along with you, and to change the speech on-the-fly.

Oddly, it's a lot less stressful this way.

You remember everything you want to say, just not how you're going to say it. You trust yourself to find suitable words when you get there. So have you "memorized the speech" or not? I think yes, in every way that matters.

I'd like to tie this into illiteracy. The privileged class in Ancient Rome were literate, of course, but several ancient Roman teachers said that it was better to compose the speech without writing any part of it.

That is, if you write a speech and then try to memorize it, it will tend to be in a shape that's more difficult to memorize!

It's better to instead generate the sequence of concepts in your head, like an illiterate person! The result tends to be more amenable to memorization.

(The Roman elites of course still wrote during some parts of the process, notably "inventio", which is not composing the final speech, merely writing lots of lists/mindmaps to explore the subject)

That's very cool, maybe I should try to do that for important talks. Though I suppose almost always you have slide aid, so it may not be worth the time investment.

They memorize the story, with particular names; and then sing it with consitent decasyllabic metre and rhyme. Here's an example song transcribed with its recording: Ropstvo Janković Stojana (The Captivity of Janković Stojan)

the collection: https://mpc.chs.harvard.edu/lord-collection-1950-51/

The one you linked doesn't really rhyme. The meter is quite consistently decasyllabic, though.

I find it interesting that the collection has a fairly large number of songs about World War II. Seems that the "oral songwriters composing war epics" meme lived until the very end of the tradition.

It's definitely not exact memorization, but it's almost more impressive than that, it's rough memorization + composition to fit the format.

Is there a reason I should want to? I mean that sincerely. Is there a reason I should want to memorize a specific handful of books' worth of information? Because rather than memorize a few thousand pages designed to be memorizable, what I've actually done is read/hear hundreds of thousands, mostly likely millions, of pages or their equivalent, with hundreds of new pages per day added, and extracted the key insights as best I can while keeping track as best I can of where I got them and how they all fit together.

I've read or heard or watched the Iliad and Odyssey, Plato, Aristotle, the Oresteia, the Bacchae, and thousands of other books, plays, songs, movies, shows, lectures, podcasts, etc. Would anything about me be better if I'd instead memorized the Catalogue of Ships or the exact text of Plato's Crito and Apology

I think the skill expressed by the bards isn't memorization, rather its on the fly composition based on those key insights they've remembered. How else could Međedović hear a 2,300 line song and repeat the same story over 6,300 lines?

So if you gained the skill of the great bards you would be able to read the Odyssey and then retell the story in your own engaging way to another group of people while keeping them enraptured.

Is there a reason I should want to?

I don't know, I can't tell you that. If I had to choose I also strongly prefer literacy.

But I didn't know there was a tradeoff there! I thought literacy was basically unambiguously positive -- whereas now I think it is net highly positive.

Also I strongly agree with frontier64 that the skill that is lost is rough memorization + live composition, which is a little different.

I'm not sure it only applies to memory. I imagine that ancient philosophers had to do most of their thinking in their heads, without being able to clean it up by writing it out and rethinking it. They might be better able to edit their thoughts in real time, and might have a stronger control over letting unreasonable or not-logical thoughts and thought processes take over. In that sense, being illiterate might lend a mental stability and strength that people who rely on writing things out may lack. 

Still, I think that the benefits of writing are too enormous to ignore, and it's already entrenched into our systems. Reversing the change won't give a competitive edge.

Memory needs to be developed. The ability to develop memory didn't disappear with the advent of writing, though some of the motivation may have. Still, the ancient Greeks and Romans developed a technique for memorizing long strings of pretty much anything. It's generally known as the method of loci and it continues in use to this day.  Here's the opening of the Wikipedia entry:

The method of loci is a strategy for memory enhancement, which uses visualizations of familiar spatial environments in order to enhance the recall of information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, journey method, memory spaces, or mind palace technique. This method is a mnemonic device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises (in the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero's De Oratore, and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria). Many memory contest champions report using this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words.


John O'Keefe and Lynn Nadel refer to:

... "the method of loci", an imaginal technique known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and described by Yates (1966) in her book The Art of Memory as well as by Luria (1969). In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject 'walks' through these loci in their imagination and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use.

If you're curious psychologist David Rubin has written Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (Oxford UP 1995).

We're witnessing a similar change in our time. Many people today think that reading books is difficult and impressive, when 20-30 years ago everyone was reading books easily for fun.

A similar thing is happening with music: people are losing the ability to enjoy instrumental music. Instrumental songs almost never chart today, compared to the 60s and 70s. People do listen to soundtracks from movies and games, but that's a borrowed emotional effect.

I haven't checked, but willing to bet that people's ability to navigate without an electronic map is also pretty much gone.


A thousand years ago , reading books was considered difficult. The venerable Bede was considered prodigious for his ability to read without moving his lips.

when 20-30 years ago everyone was reading books easily for fun.

I was actually surprised how many people currently in their 40s or older haven't read a book since they finished school. It is not obvious, until you ask. People who read books talk about them, but people who don't read books usually don't mention that fact.

Yup, I know people among all age categories who basically never read books on their own. One of them was my grandpa (RIP), who once tried to read a long fiction book (I don't remember which one), managed to read one page a day with significant effort, and quitted shortly after.

How does this compare to freestyle rapping? While freestyle raps are certainly not the same length of these epics, the ability to compose (and then recall) verses composed on the fly would seem comparable. It seems like a compelling comparison especially in light of the proliferation of hip-hop and it's integration into online spaces.

A few other questions about these Yugoslavian Epics comes to mind: How much redundancy is there? How many plot-holes or continuity errors are there (akin to Homeric Nods)? How many divergent narrative threads are there?

Would I be right to assume that if the poet can recite their poem again but retaining the same plot holes and discursions that it indicates a superior memory? If they are using a template or formula to create these discursions why wouldn't they tend to "correct" plot holes or produce different discursions each time? Standup comedians may repeat routines thousands of times, but especially for more improvisational comics like Robin Williams or Gilbert Gottfried you would be hard pressed to find two exactly alike, and like these bards they are entertainers.  

Been doing this. Reading less. Writing a LOT less. Memory has improved a lot.