While trying to pull together my thoughts at the beginning of this blog project, I realised it would be useful to summarise what I already know about musical memory as a kind of basic primer for reference. Below, I have gathered some introductory ideas together about why and how musicians memorise music, which are a synthesis of my own thoughts and various articles on the topic. In particular, I have drawn heavily on a series of fantastic articles on memorisation published in Piano Professional in 2004 by Jenny Macmillan, Aaron Williamon, Patricia Holmes and Heli Ignatious-Fleet (which can be found on Jenny’s website). This post will also sit permanently on a new “Basics” page, where it may get updated periodically as I learn more.
Why memorise music?
There are numerous reasons cited as to why musicians play from memory (i.e. without the aid of the score). They are better able to communicate the music without the distraction of the score; they can give impromptu performances to friends; memorising is good for the brain; and memorised solo performances are generally favoured by audiences, examiners and competition judges alike! However, there are also major disadvantages of performing from memory – most obviously, the additional stress and potential for a complete public breakdown if you forget what note comes next. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that this tradition should be abandoned to allow performers to escape the “burden” of memorisation and the fear of memory lapses. But far from being some kind of macho attempt to woo the audience, I think many people simply enjoy playing from memory. Relying on the score – a highly imperfect representation of notes captured through a formalised system of dots and lines – can distract musicians from actually making music. The term “playing by heart” is often used to describe performing from memory, and I think it captures the essence of why many of us memorise.
Memorising through musical representations
Although many people memorise for pleasure, musical memory can all too easily fall apart under the steely-eyed gaze of even the friendliest of audiences. Performing reliably from memory therefore requires active work – but it is a skill that can be learnt and (like everything) will improve with practice. Security of performing from memory can be attained by building multiple layers of different types of musical memories. If one layer breaks, the other layers are still there to fall back on. Williamon describes these as different “mental representations” of different aspects of the music. I’m going to summarise these under three broad headings:
(1) Musical analysis: developing a cognitive map of the organisational structure of a piece. This might include knowing the overall form, harmonic progression, repeated note patterns, major themes, developments and phrases. Like any normal map, this mental map of the piece can be sign-posted with major landmarks and used to orient the performer. Most people need to make a conscious effort to develop a cognitive understanding of the musical structure and individual notes of a piece, either through formal analysis or ad hoc observation.
(2) Mental imagery: forming a mental image of a piece that can be called to mind. There are various types of imagery, all of which can be used during mental practice:
- auditory, i.e. imagining hearing the music using the ‘inner ear’;
- visual, i.e. the imagining seeing an aspect of the music – which could be the score itself, notes on the instrument, or hand shapes at each moment;
- physical, i.e. imagining the physical movements of the whole body that are required;
- interpretive, i.e. imagining the emotional and narrative aspects of the music.
Different individuals vary substantially in their reliance on each of these types of imagery, and different instruments lend themselves better to some than other. However, building multiple images of the music probably improves both the security of memorisation and quality of mental rehearsal.
(3) Motor memory: creating a physical kinesthetic memory of the detailed movements required to produce the music, usually through repetitive practice at (or away from) the instrument. Although this unconscious form of memorisation comes most naturally, it also falls apart the fastest under scrutiny. Practicing by starting from anywhere in a piece can help to solidify this type of memory.
Piano Professional (2004)
Successful memorising, Jenny Macmillan, pp6-8
Musical Memory and the Brain, Aaron Williamon, pp8-12
Emotion, Imagination and Movement, Patricia Holmes, pp12-16
“I have forgotten my music”, Heli Ignatius-Fleet, pp17-19