Even with the newest technology, the memory capacity these powerful machines are incomparable to our brain. In Jourdain’s book, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, musical memory is discussed in both the composition and performance section. As a pianist, I always have to memorize my music. Memorizing music was considered an important step in the learning process. I was also expected to retain the memory for an extended period of time to ensure that was ready for performance.
Memory is divided into three sections: sensory, store term and long term memory. Sensory is environmental information we receive from our visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses. If we need to remember this sensory memory, it gets transferred to our short-term memory. Our short term memory controls our everyday functions. In terms of music, sight reading and improvisation happens here as new information is retained and repeated. When the information in short term memory is rehearsed and elaborated, it is stored alongside with our existing knowledge in our long term memory compartment. Long term memory can retain information for an unlimited capacity and duration of time. It is responsible for procedural knowledge, semantic knowledge and episodic memories. In terms of musical memory, procedural knowledge allows the performer to make music by coordinating movements to produce sequences of note such as scales and arpeggios. Semantic memory is the knowledge of this particular sequence of notes which represent the pattern; while episodic memory is specific associations to the melody of the piece.
In Williamon’s book, When Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance, many studies were conducted to solidify which memory methods are most effective for musicians when memorizing music. It goes on by saying how most people have the same memory structure. Musicians who have superior memory attribute this to using highly effective strategies when learning and retaining this information in the memory. Some useful strategies include improving memory in its most general sense, preventing age-related memory loss, enhancing study skills and using mnemonics by associating meaningless information with the material to be remembered.
In Hansen, Wallentin & Vuust’s 2012 article, Working memory and musical competence of musicians and non-musicians, there have been many studies trying to link language and music. However, they have come to the conclusion that there is not enough significant evidence to prove that music and language memory are linked. A study was conducted where musicians and non musicians were given a sequence of four syllables and asked to determine the temporal order of two syllables (Jakobson, Cuddy & Kilgour, 2003). Results indicated that musicians were less likely to confuse the order of the syllables. The study suggests that this may have to do with pitch and sub-vocalization being involved. The study followed up by memorizing a word-list given to musicians and non-musicians preventing them from using sub-vocalization. The results indicate that there were no significant differences in verbal memory scores.
There are many positive reasons to develop our musical memory. Firstly, as soloist, we will not have to turn pages and be able to monitor the physical aspects of our performance. There seems to be a stigma that when music is memorized, it will enhance the musicality of the piece. Memory also seems to guarantee a more thorough knowledge of the piece and intimate connection with the music. It also allows the performer to better connect to the audience.
The first strategy is memorizing by rote. The use of kinesthetic memory, which is by repeating it until it can be played automatically or by “feel”. Pianists do this by practicing hands separately using the same fingerings each time to develop kinesthetic memory. Professional musicians use rote memory to over learn their music for performance because kinesthetic is very vulnerable. Students learning using rote memory must be careful as it can be done without conscious awareness, which makes it unreliable because when there is a slight distraction during the performance, kinesthetic memory can be lost.
Another strategy musicians use to aid them with memory is visualization. Many musicians admit that they “know where they are on the page”. A study was conducted by Nuki (1984) to see which method of memory, visual, aural, kinesthetic or a mixture of them all, was most effective when piano and compositions were first to sight read and then memorize a piece of music. The results indicated that when students reported using a visual strategy were significantly quicker when memorizing the piece.
Memory by ear is also a strategy. Musicians need a conceptual framework before aural memory can be used. This can be completed through repetition through playing, singing or imagining the sound. Aural memory is developed when auditation occurs, which is when sound can be heard in the inner ear before beginning to practice
Analysis of music provides the musician with a roadmap for the piece. Analysis can help musicians chunk the music into sections. These sections can be further broken into smaller phrases and practiced through repetition. After these phrases have been mastered, they can be linked again into the sections. A study, Rubin – Rabson (1937), was conducted where the experimental group were asked to analysis their music before listening to it and memorizing it and the controlled group were asked to listen and memorize it. The results indicated that the experimental group memorized the pieces the quickest. Analysis of the music also helps with visual memory.
When I teach with my piano students, I always encouraged them to memorize their music at the final stages of polishing their music. Besides the fact that it is a tradition, I believe that memory facilitates the learning experience and produces a well balanced final performance. It allows students to utilize a variety of memory techniques that can be easily transferred to other school subjects and areas of life. We should be promoting the development of memory skills in the brain through musical experiences.
Hansen, Mads, Mikkel Wallentin, and Peter Vuust. "Working memory and musical competence of musicians and non-musicians." Psychology of Music 41 (2013): 779-793.
Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain, and ecstasy: How music captures our imagination. New York: W. Morrow.
Williamon, A. (2004). Musical excellence: Strategies and techniques to enhance performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.