Guide to Memorizing Music (book review)

Guide-GoodrichWhen I came across a little “Guide to Memorizing Music” – written by Alfred John Goodrich in 1906 – I assumed it would contain more-or-less the same advice as similarly short book from the same era “How to Memorise Music” by Charles Frederick Kenyon that I reviewed previously. But in fact the books could not be more different. Goodrich’s guide contains almost nothing about different sorts of memory – auditory, visual, motor, etc – but instead focuses exclusively on analysis as the key to forming secure musical memory.

Right from the start, Goodrich warns against the “customary mechanical process of memorizing by rote – i.e. playing the notes and repeating them until they are remembered”. He contends that the secret to rapid mastery of a piece of music is “apprehending the design” through detailed analysis, which he divides into:

  1. Melody (or motif), particularly the pattern of intervals between notes
  2. Harmony (major and minor) and cadences
  3. Unrelated tones (e.g. suspension, embellishments, passing notes, etc)
  4. Chromatic sequences
  5. Modulation
  6. Chord sequences
  7. Inversions (of both chords and motifs)
  8. Imitation and canon
  9. Form

Quite a hefty list for a little book. Make no mistake, this is a serious work covering elements of music theory, and sadly the jovial tone of Kenyon’s contemporaneous little manual is entirely absent. Each and every aspect of the music should be patiently examined before attempting to play it to understand how the composer constructed the piece. To demonstrate the point, Goodrich takes the reader on a journey of excruciating detail as he analyses every nook and cranny of numerous examples. Although surprisingly scant reference is made to memorisation directly, the importance of forming a “musical image” and “hearing mentally” appears frequently throughout the book.

Despite its dryness, the book provides a fascinating insight for those unaccustomed to deep musical analysis, and does truly offer a do-it-yourself guide for this method of working. After my recent success learning Rautavaara’s fabulous Partita away from the instrument, I can attest that the method definitely works and, as Goodrich promises, offers enormous economies of time. The analysis doesn’t have to be academic or formal, but it does need to be detailed and thorough. My only reservation about this approach is that appears to ignore emotion, which is at the heart of music but lies beyond a well organised catalogue of notes. Surely imagery and expressivity must play a role not only in memorising, but also comprehending the original intention of the composer.


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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