To look or not to look…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a silly question – if you’re not going to look at the score when you play, where should you look? Vocalists typically look out at the audience, as do many instrumental soloists. Pianists (and a few others – cellists, guitarists, etc.) are in a slightly unusual position because they can easily look at their fingers, where all the work is happening, and indeed many do stare at their fingers throughout a recital. But recently I’ve started to wonder if this is really such a good thing. Why do we do it? Apart from large jumps or passages with complicated finger-work, is it really necessary? Surely it must move some of our mental focus away from the quality of the sound and towards the alarming acts of speed and dexterity required?

I always memorise, and I always look at my fingers when I play. Knowing what the hand patterns look like on the keyboard forms a key part of my visual memory of the piece. When I practice away from the keyboard, I can more easily visualise my hands moving over the black and white keys than I can recall the score. When I play in the dark, I focus on what I know my hands look like on the keyboard. I’ve always thought this visual memory useful, providing an extra link between my motor memory and cognitive knowledge of the notes. But is that true? I wonder if focusing on the physical mechanics of sound production and ‘getting all the notes right’ means I am too focused on each individual note or chord, and not sufficiently in tune with the interpretation and phrasing. Would I express the emotional content of the music better if I didn’t focus on my hands to the exclusion of all else, but only glanced down when necessary and concentrated instead on softening my gaze and listening to the sounds?

Ever the experimentalist, I decided to try this out with a new piece – Scarlatti’s wonderful B minor sonata (K.87). The piece is quite fugal in nature, with multiple different voices and very few jumps or large intervals. The hands are often close together but are busily doing different things. Like all of Scarlatti’s astonishing 555 keyboard sonatas, the piece is a single short movement divided into two approximately equal (repeated) halves. Despite its formal Baroque elements and complicated counterpoint, the piece is quite heart-breakingly beautiful. Here’s the wonderful Horowitz playing the piece with his usual aplomb:

This seemed like the perfect piece to investigate playing without staring at my hands. So I’ve spent the last week or so memorising the piece, and can now play it all without looking at my hands no problem (though so far I haven’t tried it in front of anyone else!). I have to say that I love the freedom of playing and really listening to what’s going on, only focusing on my fingers when I know I need to. I feel more connected with the sound, with the shape of the phrases, and feel more able to bring out different voices. However, at the same time, I feel strangely disconnected from my fingers (until a wrong note brings me crashing back to reality!). I don’t visualise my hands when I’m play, and having memorised it this way, I find it almost distracting to look down and watch my hands meandering over the keyboard! Playing with my eyes shut is wonderful, but I’ve been warned previously that we perceive sound differently when we shut our eyes, and I feel even less connected with the physical action of actually playing the notes. Somewhat ironically, I often find myself looking straight ahead towards the score – though on closer inspection, it usually turns out to be the score of a different piece that I’m completely ignoring! It’s actually nice not to look at anything in particular while playing.

I don’t think I would want to dispense with the visual memory of my hands at the keyboard for most pieces or for performances. But I would like to try to incorporate more freedom into my playing – to eliminate the need to focus on my hands and allow me to concentrate more on shaping the sound. Perhaps this is the first step in that direction.

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Memorising music for beginners

a new brainA number of people have mentioned that they would like to try playing from memory, but don’t know where to begin. Why bother, some might ask, when you can just use the score? For me, playing from memory is not about giving bravado performances, but achieving a greater level of intimacy with the music itself. To be able to sit down, turn off the lights, and just play.

There are plenty of benefits of playing from memory, and although memorising music comes naturally to some people, I firmly believe that anyone can learn how to do it. But where to start? Here’s a few ideas if you’re keen to give it a go and memorise a piece you love.

(1) Start small – don’t try to memorise a whole piece all at once! Start with something simple, like a phrase, or a motif or even a few chords. Experiment with articulation, dynamics, tempo and listen to the effect. Try to repeat the short section from memory and only consult the score if you get stuck. Once you’ve got it, add the next short bit, and repeat.

(2) Find the familiar – it’s much easier to remember things we already know, so finding familiar features in the music you are trying to learn will help. Look for scales or recognisable chords. For example, the main theme of Brahms’ beautiful Intermezzo Op.117 No.1 for piano is simply an Eb major descending scale followed by an ascending arpeggio in the right hand. If you can hear the rhythm in your head, you’ve learnt the first few bars already!

(3) Look for patterns – well written music is actually incredible economical with its thematic material, and the composer will have used the same idea multiple times in different ways. So actively looking for repeated or derived motifs throughout the piece will reduce the total amount of new stuff you have to learn. Standard compositional techniques include:

  • repeating, either in the same place or an octave above or below
  • transposing up or down a few tones (which may be associated with modulation)
  • shortening or lengthening (i.e. removing or adding notes)
  • halving or doubling the note lengths
  • augmenting or diminishing  (i.e. increasing or decreasing the intervals between notes)

(4) Notice change – often a thematic change or tonal modulation is signalled by just a single note, a pivot point, which needs to be consciously marked as being important.  Similarly, consecutive notes with a large interval between them may need special cognitive attention, to make sure you know absolutely where you’re going. You might be able to skim over the exact details of a repetitive motif once you can play it, but the identity of a pivotal note needs to stick in your memory like a proverbial sore thumb. 

(5) Try different methods – if you can learn something multiple different ways, you are more likely to be able to remember it. In addition to just playing the section again and again, try singing along, or saying the notes/chords out loud, or shutting your eyes and visualising the score/your hands. Do all of the above both at and away from your instrument. Building multiple sensory representations of a piece in your mind is fundamental to creating a good musical memory.

(6) Annotate your score – personalise your score by writing useful comments on it, particularly all the extra things beyond the notes (articulation, phrasing, dynamics, etc). Many pianists – most notably Stephen Hough in his recent excellent article on practicing – also advocate writing exact fingerings on the score before or while learning a piece. Using the same fingering throughout the learning process helps consolidate the memory, and is something you really don’t want to think about in performance!

(7) Analyse – try to understand the structure piece at a thematic and harmonic level. This doesn’t mean you have to study formal music theory (though of course it will help!), just try to build an understanding of how the piece fits together in your own mind.

(8) Start anywhere – we are probably all guilty of learning pieces from the start to the end, and inevitably overplaying the first few bars. Ideally you need to be able to pick up and start a piece from almost anywhere. So why not try learning it that way? When memorising a long piece, it can be helpful (and motivational) to learn a few separate sections at once, then join them up later. I learnt my first Bach Fugue in 4-bar chunks starting from the end and moving backwards, which was extraordinarily effective.

(9) Repeat – repetition is a crucial part of memorisation for most people, partly just to build the motor memory required. Don’t be tempted to fall back on the score (unless you specifically chose to do so) – like any technical ability, memorisation itself has to be practised.

(10) Take breaks – I find I memorise better if I take regular short breaks between trying to learn chunks of music. This could mean interspersing learning with technical work (if you’re hardcore!), or simply making a cup of tea, but really focussed work is mentally tiring and your brain will need refreshing.

Disclaimer: I am not a piano/music teacher by profession and have never tried to teach anyone to memorise. These are my thoughts, garnered from my own experience and supplemented with plenty of reading. It would be great to see some comments below if any teachers out there have ideas about where to start memorising…

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Playing from the score

VingtRegardsSince starting this blog a year ago, I’ve come to realise that I am a memorising snob! To me, memorising music is the same as learning it. Although there is far, far more to learning and successfully performing a piece of music than just memorising it, personally I can’t do one without the other. If I can’t play a piece without the score, then I simply haven’t learnt it properly yet. Try as I might to expand my repertoire by not memorising, ultimately I am only really musically satisfied with the pieces I’ve memorised properly.

Having witnessed a number of poor performances by score-bound musicians, who apparently didn’t know the music well enough to perform it, I’ve always assumed this simple truth to be universal. What use are dots on a page once you’ve learnt a piece? Moreover, I have long felt that watching soloists play from the score actually detracts from the music, and that I enjoy music far more when it is played from memory. However, after attending a number of fabulous performances by extraordinary musicians using a score , I’ve come to realise that this assertion is totally false.

For example, towards the end of last year, I was lucky enough to attend a fabulous concert of Messiaen’s great Vingt regards sur l’enfent Jésus by pianist Cordelia Williams. The concert itself was held in the cavernous medieval chapel of King’s College Cambridge, where Messiaen’s sublime harmonies resonated throughout the space and transcended our normal musical world. Lasting more than two hours, this astonishing 20-movement piece is an absolute tour de force of 20th century music, presenting enormous physical and emotional challenges to the pianist. Williams briefly introduced each movement to the rapt audience, and played the majority of the piece from memory without reference to the score. Just three movements were played with the aid of the score, all of which were quite chromatic and extremely technically demanding, though the page turner remained on stage throughout the performance following the score (mostly sat away from the piano). This occasional use of the score did not detract at all from my enjoyment of the music itself, and I could hear no difference in the quality and boldness of the playing between movements. The mind boggles as to how anyone can learn this amount of frighteningly difficult music and there was absolutely no question here about the performer not knowing the notes – whether the score acted as a safety net or an aide mémoire I don’t know, but the whole audience (myself included) was simply blown away by this authoritative performance.

Clearly it is possible to play a memorised piece or just a section of a concert from the score, and I have many friends who do just that. This ‘safety net’ approach certainly removes some of the performance anxiety about forgetting the notes, and helps to ensure that detailed articulations and phrasings are executed as planned. However, once a piece is properly memorised, I find it quite distracting to use the score and ultimately it degrades my ability to play without it. Although I still don’t think I would wish to perform a solo piece from the score, there is no doubt that some people can and do so with great musicianship.

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Interview with… Roland Robert (violinist, pianist, composer)

RolandRobertsPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a principally a violinist and have performed in various capacities as soloist, chamber and orchestral musician. I studied violin and piano as joint first study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in recent years have been playing the piano more again and have just made a CD with my wife, the violinist Ani Batikian.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I always memorise solo repertoire as I am learning, a habit since childhood. My teacher made me learn everything from memory,  including Kreutzer studies. I mostly perform with music though as these days as I am mainly performing chamber music, sonatas and directing orchestras. I have performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons maybe close to a hundred times but always use the music as I feel the solo part is an integral part of the texture.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
No thankfully. There again if I wasn’t totally prepared or 100% confident of my memory I would take the music on and have it placed discretely nearby. I don’t think there is so much pressure or expectancy these days to perform from memory. If you are playing solo every week then of course everything is much easier than the occasional moment in the spot light.

As far as memorisation I have never really thought about it until recently when I was trying to teach myself jazz piano. As a child, memory just happened. I played the Schumann Piano Concerto and never thought about memory.  As stated somewhere on this blog, jazz musicians have superb memory skills. Here is an excellent resource, a free PDF on visualisation and memory tools for learning jazz.

I have always been aware that there are many elements to memorising music and these must come together in an act of unconscious mastery after the unconscious consciousness stage has been attained.

But how? I think to consciously try to memorise is a non starter, at least for me. It is a process and it is best attained by concentrating on the things that are not memory. The jazz PDF illustrates that mastery of improvisation is linked greatly to how well developed ones ear is. The same applies to classical music, the written down version of jazz. By this I mean, developing pitch sense, hearing harmony and polyphony coupled with ones own ideal internal performance, and linking this with the inner eye.

So the first step is to learn to hear and listen.

The second is embrace the two beliefs below. This is in part achievable by suspending our everyday conscious beliefs of reality.

The first of these is that we are all connected to the hub of a universal consciousness and connecting to this will take us directly to becoming one with what we want to know. In this case, being able to access with ease the piano pieces we are consciously learning. The Chopin Etude in Gb major is already there, we are not having to recreate it everytime we want to play it or play it from memory.

This is something I think good jazz players do naturally, they are recreating from memory. It is a little like driving a car, you are looking behind in the rear view mirror while also checking your speed and looking ahead in the distance anticipating other driver’s moves.

I think some classical musicians have a tendency to get caught up too much in the intellectual side of music instead of letting go and finding the freedom jazzers have. Which leads me to the last prerequisite for masterful memorisation. It is a feel thing. Playing by heart means letting go of left brain consciousness and feeling the music unfold as it goes on its emotional journey.

By way of a curious synchronicity I must relate something which happened recently before I had come across this site. I was trying pianos in a store and unconsciously started playing a Beethoven Sonata, the C major, op.2 no.3 which I have not played since I was 15 years old. I think the trigger was the sound of the Bluthner I was trying, I haven’t played a Bluthner since playing the one I grew up with. After the first page or so my memory got stuck and the harder I tried to consciously remember the chords or notes the more I floundered. I then had a flash back of when I had last performed this piece. Suddenly my mind went to the Arnold Bax room at the Royal Academy of Music circa 1980 and there I was playing for my entrance exam. The emotions of that audition were so strong that they opened the musical memory bank of op.2 no.3 and I proceeded to play the rest of the movement without hesitation. In fact as I was playing part of me was a few bars ahead, a little like the earlier analogy of driving a car. Which reminds me of something that Valentina Lisitsa says on practicing. She says practice to perform as much as possible because performance is where you learn the most. Check out her YouTube channel, she has filmed hours and hours of herself practicing.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
When I was going through a period of conducting orchestras I realised how important it is to be able to conduct without a score. The difference between having a head in a score and being able to engage with the orchestra every moment without a score is huge.  So for an exercise I decided to memorise Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherezade and had to work out how to do this. Firstly I broke the piece down into sections within the movements and practiced singing and conducting without the score. This wasn’t so difficult if the music was playing along in the same vein, but some of the movements have a lot of tempo and time changes and you have to see these coming otherwise it’s too late to go from say conducting 6/8 to 3/4 in an instance. Therefore I created a musical mind map with big beat and tempo changes, which helped a lot. I could then see these coming in my mind’s eye, a little like road signs on the motorway preparing you for the next junction. Of course there are those geniuses who conduct everything from memory. I remember playing all the Stravinsky Ballets with Esa Pekka Salonen and the Philhamonia, he never used a score. Or Abbado conducting a Boulez piece with a time change every bar at breakneck speed. Phenomenal! In Bernstein’s biography he tells the story of being in Fritz Reiner’s conducting class and Reiner shouting out to a fellow student, “what note is the second oboe playing in bar 57?” Reiner expected this level of memorisation from all his students. How about opera singers? They not only learn 3 hour roles, sing in a foreign language, but remember stage directions too. The human brain is capable of much much more than many of us believe.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
For solo works, from the beginning.  Get away from the dots as soon as possible.

At the moment I am preparing the piano part of the Cesar Franck violin sonata and even though I will use the music for the performance as it is a duo, I am memorising it as I learn. I find it difficult to play complex piano parts looking at the music.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
I find that many of my students have difficulties in memorising due to their own belief that they can’t do it and the fear of performing without music is too great even to bother trying.  So much work on confidence building is needed. In the Soviet system you didn’t get your lesson unless you turned up with the piece fully prepared and memorised.

So in conclusion, I think we have to all find our own way to memory mastery by experimenting with all the different techniques available. For those who are newly starting out to memorise just take small steps, a few bars a day. But do it everyday and be persistent and most of all keep the desire strong.

Website: rolandrobertsmusic.com

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Chetham’s, school of flying fingers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have just returned from an amazing week at Chetham’s International Piano Summer School in Manchester, UK. This year was my third visit and, as usual, it didn’t disappoint. The summer school is full of hundreds of piano-maniacs, ranging from individuals who only started playing post-retirement, to international concert pianists, and everything in between. The week includes lessons, workshops, lectures and concerts and everyday is packed with musical activity. We all worked hard and played hard, exploring new ideas and forging new friendships through a shared musical passion. To the aspiring amateur, it provides both a heavy dose of inspiration and a lesson in humility.

The role of musical memory came up in various ways throughout the course, most obviously through the relative aptitudes and desires of pianists to play without a score. Amongst the participants, it was hard not to notice that most of the (jaw-droppingly talented) children played from memory, while most of the (heart-poundingly enthusiastic) adults played from scores. Of the dozen or so wonderful professional concerts I attended over the week, the majority were played completely from memory, including a staggering 90-minute recital of all of Brahms’ late piano works (Op.116-119) from Graham Caskie, and an utterly spell-binding all-Chopin programme from Eugen Indjic. Interestingly, two pianists decided to use scores for their entire concerts – Philippe Cassard, comical star of the final Cabaret show, and Artur Pizarro (who actually used an iPad with a foot operated page-turner!). Despite my personal prejudice towards playing from memory, I have to admit that the use of scores did not detract from the music at all; both recitals were full of drama and passion, and both artists produced a quality of sound and lightness of touch that was simply magical. Unusually, there was also a short play by writer Jessica Duchen about Messaien’s haunting Quartet for the End of Time (following by a fabulous concert of the same work) in which, rather surprisingly, both actors read their parts. Although the play was very moving and well acted, I felt this did somewhat detract from the work.

In my own piano lessons with José Feghali, a master of tone quality and atmospheric playing, we specifically discussed memorising strategies. He emphasised the need for memorising entire sections hands separately, and practising them at speed starting from anywhere, before putting the hands together. This method allows a meticulously detailed approach to both learning and practising, which should substantially strengthen memory and the ability to perform under pressure. Although I’ve never been a great fan of learning hands separately, I suspect this might simply be laziness! When asked to play just the left hand of the Scarlatti G major Sonata K.427, which I know very well and regularly play from memory, I was surprised to find myself stumped after just a few bars. In this case, my lack of detailed work on each hand separately showed in a lack of control in busier sections, leading to notes being clipped or missed altogether, something I failed to really notice playing hands together. The situation was much worse in the Chopin Gm Ballade, where I discovered that I didn’t really know many of the notes in sufficient detail to stand up to thorough scrutiny. I was definitely persuaded, and will certainly be incorporating hands separately practise into my piano regime from now on.

The final lecture of the week was given by the indefatigable Murray McLachlan, a formidable pianist and Head of Keyboard Studies at Chetham’s itself, who started the summer school back in 2001. He focused on banishing the inner demons that so often threaten to derail a performance. Sadly, a lack of self-belief and fear of forgetting often contribute to severe performance anxiety in musicians, especially soloists who chose to perform from memory. But as Murray pointed out, nervous energy can also be viewed as an enjoyable and important part of creating an exciting, stimulating and memorable performance. On the topic of memory lapses, and silencing the chatter of internal monologues (typically saying unhelpful things like “You’ve left the oven on!” or, worse  still, “You’ve forgotten the next note!”), he was quite adamant that concentration was the key – being in the moment and focusing on the music, singing the line and dancing the rhythm. He suggests saturating the music with creativity, colours and voicings so that every moment contains a wealth of musical ideas in which the nervous performer can immerse themselves. Both mental and physical preparation are of course essential, including mental practice and visualisation of the performance itself, and a thorough knowledge of the chords and underlying harmonic structure will help any hapless performer get back on track should a complete memory lapse occur. Sage advice indeed.

There were simply too many wonderful moments and individuals to mention all of them here. As always, I learnt an enormous amount, enjoyed myself immensely and have returned full of enthusiasm and musical energy.

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Interview with… Jane Ginsborg (singer and researcher)

Jane GinsborgPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I began as a singer and sang throughout my teenage years. I then went to the University of York to do a music degree, and subsequently took an advanced diploma in singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I largely specialised in 20th century and contemporary music, which offered lots of interesting opportunities – I worked as a soloist for many years with small chamber ensembles and with my own trio (‘Triple Echo’ – voice, clarinet and piano), as well as doing choral work, session work, solo recitals, etc. I could turn up and sight-read anything in any language!

In my mid-30’s I decided to pursue another interest and took a degree in psychology. In my final year at York I had written a dissertation on the psychology of music performance but this pre-dated the development of music psychology as a discipline, at least in the UK. Luckily at the time I was studying psychology I happened to be living near Keele University where the music psychologist John Sloboda was based. I attended a talk he gave on his research and ended up doing a PhD with him looking at how singers memorise music. The jumping-off point for this work was my own experience of trying to memorise the words of songs. I never worried about remembering the melody or an entry – rather I was always terrified that I would forget the words! In general, about a third of my practice sessions were spent warming up and doing technical work, then note-bashing to learn the notes of new pieces, and finally learning words. I wanted to have pieces memorised before I started really thinking about what the words meant, which often meant translating them from different languages (some of which I had to learn for the purpose), as well as how the words were set to music. The key thing was to make sure the words came automatically when singing in public so I didn’t have to think about what came next and could think about the performance.

The end of my PhD really marked the end of my professional career as a singer, and I became an academic: a researcher, lecturer and writer. Although my first post was as a lecturer in developmental psychology, I now hold a Personal Chair at the Royal Northern College of Music (which means I am called Professor) and am Director of the Centre for Music Performance Research there, as well as President of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music and editor of the on-line journal Music Performance Research. My research has continued to grow out of my own experiences as a singer, but I have also gone on to explore musical memory more broadly, among other things, and although I’m no longer a ‘practising’ singer, I still enjoy singing with different-sized vocal groups, and perform as a soloist from time to time.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I memorised all the way through my singing career. The hardest piece I ever memorised was one of the songs in John Cage’s Songbook – the song is fully notated, unaccompanied, constructed from short semi-repetitive phrases, and the text is completely nonsensical comprising just syllables without meaning! Nonetheless, being a memory researcher, I felt duty bound to memorise the piece and perform it from memory!

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
For singers who are competent musicians, there is no point wasting time trying to learn the melody and words separately – the words and melody should be memorised simultaneously. My initial research addressed the interaction of music and words in memory: are they a double load on memory such that you have to remember two things, or do they combine so you only have a single load? We discovered that they are recalled as a single component, and hence if one goes the other is likely to go too. However skilled singers will be able to keep going even if they forget the words by using something else to keep the melody going – if you forget the words you can always sing a long vowel as long as you end it with a clear consonant! – but it is extremely hard to recite the text of a song without the music as they are stored together. Just try writing out the words of your favourite song without singing along to the melody in your head, or while listening to a different piece of music – it’s almost impossible to do! 

In most cases, information has to be meaningful to us for us to remember it. Actors often talk about needing to know their ‘motivation’ for saying each line and sometimes it doesn’t matter if they say the wrong word when they perform as long as it has the right meaning. But musicians have to perform exactly what is written. So a useful strategy for memorising is not to waste a lot of time on the meaning – what you want to express – at the beginning. It’s better to get the donkey work of memorising out of the way early on, so that you can produce both the music and the words almost automatically; then you can start to think about what you want to express in your performance. Of course it is absolutely vital to know the meaning of every word of a song and the way it has been set to music so as to give a convincing, expressive performance. But it is not necessary for memorising.

There are two ways of thinking about memory, although the two ways can be combined: structures (or stores) and processes. There are different kinds of stores for different kinds of information, which is stored for different lengths of time: you can only have a small amount of information in short-term memory and it only lasts up to 90 seconds or so, while the long-term memory has an infinite capacity and lasts for ever, but it can be very difficult to find information that’s been stored there again. Memory processes include encoding, storing and retrieving information; retrieval can involve recognition, a form of pattern-matching, or recall, which is more difficult.

We can distinguish five different kinds of memory:

(1)  Kinaesthetic memory (finger memory for pianists, embouchure lip memory for brass players, body memory or singers, etc.) is created by doing. Musicians often find that they have committed a piece to memory simply by repeating it many times, and although it’s invaluable to be able to able to play or sing ‘on automatic pilot’, as we’ve seen, on its own this procedural memory is the least reliable type of memory. Although remembering individual patterns may be easy, remembering a sequence of patterns can be difficult. Kinaesthetic memory is generally reliable in the middle of a pattern, but difficulties can occur if there is a break between patterns in the sequence – like breaking a link in a chain. Therefore breakdowns often happen at junctions, particularly switches (where almost repeated patterns lead to different parts of a piece).

(2)  Visual memory is created by seeing – the score, fingers, the conductor’s beat, etc. People often know where they are on a score (spatial memory), but very few people have a detailed eidetic (photographic) memory.

(3)  Auditory memory is created by hearing the music in your mind before making the sound. This is particularly crucial for a singer, or any instrumentalist who has to pitch their own note, particularly if they don’t have perfect pitch. Once a piece has been memorised the musician can hear, with the mind’s ear, as it were, where they are going in the piece, and is in a position to run over it again and again in their head.

(4)  Analytical memory is created by analysing the music. This is the first and most important piece of work to be done when memorising. The reason it needs to be done at the start of the process is so as to be able to understand the structure of the piece in terms of its sections, patterns, phrases, repeats, variations etc., so that it can be memorised in small chunks that can be linked together, and then the links themselves memorised. The analysis can be at any level (not necessarily formal harmony and counterpoint!) and the musician’s own understanding of what underlies the architecture of a piece is what really matters. This could relate to keys, melodic patterns, time signatures, etc. The structure of a piece provides a framework for recall. This is likely to be predictable in much classical music (for example, strophic songs consisting of several verses) just as it is in jazz standards or pop songs (intro, verse, chorus etc.) but may be less so in contemporary music.

(5)  Many musicians associate rote memory with kinaesthetic memory: as I said, if you play or sing a piece enough times you will develop a ‘finger’ or other kind of physical, bodily memory for it. But actually you can and should use all the other kinds of memory as you are going through the process of memorising. Your knowledge of the structure of the piece will help you ‘see’ and ‘hear’ which bit comes next in your imagination. Once you’ve got it securely memorised you will be able to run it over and over again in your mind while doing other things – walking, sitting in the car, waiting for a bus, and so on. You’ll be able to think about it and how you are going to perform it wherever you are, and when you are actually playing or singing from memory in public – if one kind of memory fails, you will be able to draw on one of the other types.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
Yes, many times. Memorising is generally easiest for children and gets harder as you get older. I don’t think this is really due to age-related memory loss, but to overload! Older people have so much information already stored in their memories that it can interfere with the encoding and storage of new information and make it hard to retrieve accurately.

I have found that a large proportion of students who want to study music psychology suffer from performance anxiety, largely due to fear of memory lapses, which in turn is often fuelled by having had a memory lapse! Many students have experienced something called ‘blocking’ – the experience of feeling disembodied when playing and suddenly realising that it’s as if they are somewhere on the ceiling looking down at their performance, and not knowing where they are in the music. This is like running on autopilot, and is often caused by a musical training regime that requires too many perfect repetitions of a piece, leading to boredom. While students who don’t practise enough aren’t likely to suffer from this type of memory lapse, many other things can go wrong!

To reiterate: rote learning itself is not unreliable, but being on mental automatic pilot can allow the chain of associations to suddenly break. Being on physical automatic pilot, while at the same time thinking about the music, will keep the performer present in the moment and in control of their memory recall. A really polished performer is listening to the music all the time they’re playing or singing – focusing on the acoustics, intonation, interpretation, effect on the audience, etc. – and can focus their attention on tricky sections or musical junctions as needed. Ultimately, performing is so much more than performing from memory.

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Strategies for Memorising Music

Musical Excellence“Musical Excellence” edited by Aaron Williamon offers a wealth of sage advice for enhancing performance, including Jane Ginsborg’s wonderful chapter on memorising music. The chapter outlines some of the basics about short and long term memory but particularly focuses on strategies that the budding musician could employ to improve their ability to memorise music.

There are a few general recommendations for improving musical memory:

  1. improving memory in general, by understanding memory and having the motivation to improve (I guess this blog puts me nicely into that category!);
  2. slowing age-related deterioration, by doing all the standard things to stay healthy (reducing stress, keeping active, eating well, using your mind, etc.);
  3. enhancing study skills, by studying and analysing the material in detail; and
  4. using mnemonics, such as rhymes or phrases, to associate essentially meaningless information with the material to be remembered.

Ginsborg describes memorised music as a “mental representation” consisting of many layers, ranging from a holistic overview of a piece and its meaning, to detailed knowledge of individual notes and phrases. Importantly, she asserts that “different kinds of memorising strategies can contribute to the formation of mental representations at their different levels and enable attention to be shifted, during practice, from one level to another.”

Sensory information is essential to the most basic level of music memorisation – knowing the notes and how to play them. Auditory, visual and kinaesthetic information can all play an important role in building a mental representation of a piece, and different musicians no doubt use a mixture of sensory data during both encoding (memorising) and recalling (remembering) music. Perhaps the most widely used strategy is to “memorise by rote”, often largely unconsciously, by doing highly repetitious practice. This type of memory is primarily kinaesthetic and can be achieved in many cases by simply practising bars, phrases and sections over and over again. Because this type of memory can be unreliable and is extremely vulnerable to interference, most expert musicians use other strategies in conjunction to secure their memory. Nonetheless, over-learning a piece (to the extent that it can be performed accurately without active thought about what note comes next) allows the musician a certain freedom to focus on communication and interpretation.

Memorising visual information is often particularly useful for musicians working from a notated score, and many people report knowing where they are on the page when playing. In contrast, musicians from outside the Western classical tradition are generally more reliant on memorising by ear, building their memory through listening and imitating what they hear. Aural visualisation – imagining how the music should sound – is one of the most valuable skills a musicians can develop, and being able to ‘hear’ a piece in your ‘inner ear’ enables practising away from the instrument.

A more holistic understanding of the music and its organisation also requires analysis and conceptual thinking. Developing a conceptual musical representation requires understanding not only each individual piece, but also familiarity with the musical language and culture in which it was written. Ginsborg states that “the use of conceptual memory is the crucial overarching strategy that no musician can do without”. Regardless of training, expertise or musical genre, fundamentally a musician must know where they are in a piece and how the structure of the work fits together. Oftentimes clear structural boundaries exist within the architecture of a piece (chorus and verse, for example), which create natural chunks to organise practice and facilitate memorisation.

Ginsborg ends the chapter by addressing a problem unique to singers – remembering both music and words. Drawing on her own research in this area, she tackles the question of whether it is better to learn the words and music independently or simultaneously, suggesting that learning the two together is a more effective strategy than learning them separately. Although I’m no singer, I know from experience that artificially coupling music and words can also be very useful for learning a specific set of words, or a musical phrase or rhythm (presumably by exploiting their interaction while creating multiple different but interdependent memory retrieval cues).

The view of memorising music as a process of building up related layers of different representations is one that appeals to me enormously. Not only does it explain how we memorise music, but it also offers a number of different approaches for improving memorisation – analytical, visual, aural and kinaesthetic – all of which have a role to play.

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