Please tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I currently manage the Auditory Cognition and Development Lab at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (led by Dr Erin Hannon), a psychology lab that studies how infant, children, and adults learn about speech and music.
In comparison to my musical peers, I fell into music quite late. I became interested in music during adolescence and studied jazz bass formally in high school. Currently, I (try to) compose contemporary classical music and produce electronic music that is reminiscent of 80s synth-pop.
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?
The majority of my bass training centered on improvising and memorising the eminent catalog of jazz standards. As a bassist, it is common practice to learn the harmonic changes of a standard (i.e. chord progressions) and spontaneously create a bassline that highlights these changes instead of playing a notated, predetermined bassline. If a jazz composition does center on a main melodic theme or motif, the bass player might play it in unison with another lead instrument. I actively memorise both the chord changes and the themes of standards because it offers me a greater degree of flexibility as a musician and performer: I can seamlessly join a jazz session with no score.
When I do play piano music, I memorise the score completely and perform without it. Analogous to how I approach jazz music, I tend to conceptual others music genres (e.g. classical piano music) as large, harmonic structures. Note: I elaborate on this later…
Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
During a bass performance, one that requires me to play a written part, the form of memory lapse that I commonly experience relates to the recall of rhythms. Often, I am able to recollect the notes of a melody or bassline (say, the bassline to the jazz standard Red Clay) and the fingering on the fretboard but I cannot remember note durations or rests between notes – in essence, I cannot remember the rhythm of the melody. I find this fascinating. I theorize that, for me, this might illustrate a disconnection between pitch and rhythm in my memory or it might suggest that my motor memory might dictate only location-specific information (e.g. the placement of fingers on the fretboard) but not temporal information (e.g. how long my fingers should remain on the frets).
For classical piano performance, I am more likely to experience a memory lapse in the middle of a piece rather than the beginning or end. I would predict this trend follows the Serial Position Effect: it is easier to remember items from a list that are positioned near the beginning or end. I suppose a musical work could be defined as a “list,” a long sequence of notes or a list of music-related events.
Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
In my experience, classical piano music is harder to memorise in comparison to jazz, rock, and other forms of popular music. I have always attributed this difficulty to the complexity of classical music (sorry jazz lovers!): classical piano music is less-repetitious (the brain likes repetition), utilizes larger structures, and requires more technical skill to perform than jazz /rock bass.
How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Drawing from my jazz bass background, I tend to conceptualize any piece of music in its harmonic framework (if the piece uses western harmony, of course!). For instance, on piano, if the piece requires the performer to finger the notes C-E-G I remember this section simply as an arpeggio of a C-major chord. This “chunking,” I believe, helps with memorisation.
For bass performance, I do visualize my fingers on the fretboard. However, I tend to do this as part of rehearsal, particularly when I am not playing the piece but thinking through it. Sometimes, I might even tap my left-hand’s fingers along an imaginary fretboard.
At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
I start memorising as soon as I approach a new piece. As a proficient bass player, I am no longer concerned with the physical constraints imposed by the instrument: I do not need to contemplate finger positioning, plucking, and synchronizing my left and right hands. I imagine for a novice bassist, a great deal of cognitive energy is exhausted on attending to the technical demands of a new piece. I would not be surprised if this impairs a novice’s ability to memorise the more “musical” aspects of a composition.
How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I theorize that my memory for music leans to a more analog model of memory. I find it difficult to start playing a piece in a “digital” sense — on demand, beginning at any point of the composition. Often, I need to start playing several measures back, usually at the beginning of a music phrase, in order conjure up the desired section from my memory. I use this trick often to deal with memory lapses.
As unscientific as this sounds, most memory lapses occur when I begin to “over-think” the performance. If I attend to the technical elements of the performance (finger positioning, pedaling, etc.), I am prone to forget the passage of music that comes up next. For prevention, I do not contemplate how the music should be played, in a technical manner. Rather, I think about the piece from the perspective of the listener – does this performance sound musical?
Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
In a word, repetition. I have found that I will inevitability forget a piece of music over long stretches of time. Popular music has been easier to retain but there is less to memorise than a classical piece of music.
What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Music memory is essential for composition. When a compelling melody arises from improvisation or from sitting at the keyboard, I try to record or notate it immediately. I have found that when I fail to do this and then attempt to remember the melody, I have trouble remembering the rhythm. This is analogous to my experience with performance memory lapse – in essence, I forget how to “perform” this melody I have written and can only recall the notes of the melody; not the rhythms.
I think that composers utilize implicit music knowledge (e.g. tonality) and an unconscious understanding of the piece they are working on, to forge a composition. To illustrate this idea, I would wage that most composers find it natural and easy to predict where a melody should progress to and consequently resolve. This process is similar to the mundane experience of finishing someone else’s sentence – the brain is anticipating, without our awareness, and based on previous exposure to and experience with a specific language, the brain can accurately fill in the blanks. My hunch is that a similar experience is quite common for composers. I am not implying that there is no conscious, deliberate, or analytic decisions to be made throughout the compositional process. In fact, for me composition is a tug-of-war between implicit and explicit knowledge – a deliberate manipulation of musical ideas which arise naturally.
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?
Sadly, I have not. And admittedly, I am not acquainted with the literature on music & memory.