Could forgetting song lyrics be a sign of Huntington’s progression?
A columnist searches for answers when his wife can't recall the words to a song
I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. My wife, Jill, told me she recognized a song but couldn’t remember the lyrics. This sent me spiraling down what she calls the Huntington’s Disease Black Hole. It made me wonder if her memory lapse was yet another symptom of her terminal illness.
To understand my dramatic reaction, I must explain Jill. When we first met, she remarked that she loves music. I was happy to share that I do, too. She paused and said, “Not as much as I do.”
I laughed but quickly realized that she wasn’t joking.
She said music plays an important role in her life and is her safe space. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in her mind or her life, listening to music centers her and makes her happy and less anxious. She connects songs to memories and thus can remember what she was doing when a particular song comes on.
I also found out that her taste in music is eclectic, and she knows many, many songs. She even proved it. She told me to pick up my phone and play any song I wanted. I clicked on the version of “Hallelujah” performed by Jeff Buckley. She started singing Leonard Cohen’s lyrics. I played another song, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. She knew all the lyrics. I looked up several more songs from various decades. She knew the words to all of them.
In the years since that conversation, I continue to be amazed by her encyclopedic knowledge of musical lyrics. Whenever a song plays, I watch her as she starts to mouth the words. She notices my admiration and smiles. It makes my heart skip a beat knowing how much she enjoys all music — except, coincidentally, two of my favorite acts: U2 and Bruce Springsteen.
It’s also why my heart hurt a little when she recently told me she didn’t remember the words to a song. It didn’t make sense to me. It was like me telling her I can’t stand puns.
‘I haven’t had a clue’
Because Huntington’s is a neurodegenerative disease that affects memory, I had to find out if Jill’s memory lapse was a one-time thing or if it might be another sign that her disease is progressing.
I started researching how the brain stores and retrieves memories. At a certain point, Jill wondered what I was looking for, so I told her. She sat down next to me on the couch, held my hand, and asked why I was going down the research rabbit hole before talking to her about it.
“I wanted to have answers for you if you had questions,” I said.
“My love,” she whispered, “I really just didn’t like the song and didn’t want to sing it. What I said was ‘I don’t want to remember the lyrics,’ not ‘I don’t remember the lyrics.’”
“Oh,” I said sheepishly.
I sometimes have trouble processing what people tell me, so it’s common for me to mishear something. Jill is used to that happening, which is why she’s so patient with me.
“I appreciate your concern,” she said, “but talking with me before you start worrying that Huntington’s might be the cause of something is the better way of handling anything that comes up.”
I was relieved to hear Jill has not slipped in her music memory, but I was sad to realize the song she didn’t like — “Magnificent” by U2 — was one of my favorites. I promised I’d talk to her the next time something came up that concerned me about Huntington’s.
She said she promises to love me despite my U2 admiration.
Note: Huntington’s Disease News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Huntington’s Disease News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Huntington’s disease.