How to Memorise Music (book review)

BookhowtomemorisemusicWhilst trawling through a bookshop recently, I came across this little gem – “How to Memorise Music” by Charles Frederick Kenyon, written circa 1905. What the book lacks in detail, it more than makes up for in style! The short text from a bygone era extols the virtues of memorising music, which only became the fashion around that time – just fifty years previously, it was the norm for soloists to play in public from the printed score. Kenyon believes that “memorising music does not call for any extraordinary talent, it merely requires… practice and common sense”. He identifies five mental “faculties” that should be combined when memorising music:

(1) TOUCH – defined as “playing the notes in a definite succession or order without the aid of any conscious faculty”. Such unconscious procedural memory is created through repeated practice. However, Kenyon believes that this entirely mechanical memory is untrustworthy and prone to failure, because the chain of physical events that connects one musical idea to another can be easily broken. Kenyon is typically forthright on this point: “Do not attempt to memorise a piece by playing over and over… That way lies ruin!”

(2) HEARING – the ability to hear a melody in the mind is crucial for musicians, as it ultimately allows them to transfer thought into sound. It can be cultivated through mental practice, and playing by ear while singing the melody as a guide. Presumably a more extensive memory of harmony would also be beneficial, though it is not mentioned.

(3) SIGHT – Kenyon limits his discussion of the importance of visual imagery to seeing the printed score in the mind’s eye. He describes a pianist friend with an enormous repertoire of memorised scores, who presumably had a photographic memory. Perhaps as a result of this unusually gifted friend, he largely dismisses visual memory for those who are not very observant! It is surprising that he doesn’t mention other forms of visual imagery, such as seeing the keyboard and movement of the fingers, which might be more achievable for most people and similarly effective.

(4) ANALYSIS – like many commentators, Kenyon believes analysis of the underlying harmonic structure of a piece is the backbone of musical memory, upon which all other types must rest. Music should be “dissected and analysed” then practiced mentally away from the instrument. He even goes as far as to suggest that musicians should be able to write a piece out entirely from memory – a mind-numbing dull task that I suspect few of us will ever attempt.

(5) EMOTION – Kenyon states that one’s emotional responses during a piece should be actively memorised, for “music is founded on the emotions”. Each separate emotion should be acutely felt, and the connection between successive emotions explored.

Finally, Kenyon suggests that musicians should include memorising study as a regular part of their daily practice. Ideally all aspects of memorising should be developed in parallel, as it is highly unlikely that all five faculties will fail at once. Interestingly, he concludes by suggesting that the greatest benefits of memorising are not in the concert hall at all, but in the solitude of one’s own practice room: “when the printed page is absent, one seems closer to the spirit of the composer one is interpreting, and the music has an added charm and significance”. I couldn’t agree more.

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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