Chunking for improved memory

Grouping bits of information into memorable chunks is a well known technique for improving memory recall. Numerous classic studies such as George Miller’s “magical number seven, plus or minus two”[1] (which according to Google scholar has been cited over 16,000 times!) have shown that the probability of recall is greater when a chunking strategy is used. We can only hold a small number of discrete items in this working memory at a time (i.e. 7 + 2), but more information can be stored by chunking – combining a number of items into a single chunk based on prior knowledge.

For example, try remembering the following 15 letters:

Now try them again:

And just one last time:

Same letters, different order. Remembering the second is much easier than the first because there are 5 chunks instead of 15; remembering the third is even easier as there’s just one chunk. The bigger the chunk, the more information you can memorise. Learning consists of building bigger and bigger chunks to encode more and more information.

This makes a lots of sense when it comes to memorising music. Chords, scales, arpeggios and familiar melodies can each be remembered and recalled quickly as a single chunk once someone is familiar with these basic musical building blocks. Individuals with a broad musical knowledge of melody and rhythm, and a deep understanding of form and harmony, are likely to be better chunkers. But the principle applies even at the most basic level – anyone with minimal musical training would find the second example below much easier to memorise than the first, though they contain the same 8 notes, because it’s just a familiar C major scale:


Chunking also goes some way to explaining why sequence is often critical for recall [2], and hence many people need to go back to the start of a piece or section when they get stuck. For example, try singing the third line of ‘Happy Birthday’ (one of the best known tunes in the world) without racing through from the beginning. Difficult, isn’t it? If a piece is simply remembered as a single linear chunk, when a link in the chain breaks, subsequent elements in the sequence become inaccessible, so recall starting from the middle is difficult. An expert musician can minimise this problem by building a hierarchical structure of retrieval cues, allowing them to access smaller units of music from their long term memory. Practising starting from anywhere helps embed these cues throughout the piece rather than just at structural boundaries, which removes the dependence on sequence for recall.

The activity of chunking can be divided into two sub-types: goal-oriented, which occurs as a result of deliberate conscious control, and perceptual, which occurs automatically and continuously during perception [3]. We automatically group musical themes into chunks when we listen, and we actively dissect music into chunks for analysis. Moreover, specifically practicing chunks of various sizes is enormously effective, starting from just a few notes and working up to an entire section. Whether it’s grouping notes together or chopping long sections into smaller units, there’s no doubt that chunking plays an absolutely critical role in musical memory.


[1] Miller, G.A., The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information, Psychological review 63 (1956); 81-97

[2] Dowling, W.J., Rhythmic groups and subjective chunks in memory for melodies, Perception & Psychophysics 14 (1973); 37-40

[3] Gobet, F., Lane, P.C.R., et al. Chunking mechanisms in human learning, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5 (2001); 236-243


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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4 Responses to Chunking for improved memory

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  4. Pingback: How to memorise music, in theory and practice | Memorising Music

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