“Musical Excellence” edited by Aaron Williamon offers a wealth of sage advice for enhancing performance, including Jane Ginsborg’s wonderful chapter on memorising music. The chapter outlines some of the basics about short and long term memory but particularly focuses on strategies that the budding musician could employ to improve their ability to memorise music.
There are a few general recommendations for improving musical memory:
- improving memory in general, by understanding memory and having the motivation to improve (I guess this blog puts me nicely into that category!);
- slowing age-related deterioration, by doing all the standard things to stay healthy (reducing stress, keeping active, eating well, using your mind, etc.);
- enhancing study skills, by studying and analysing the material in detail; and
- using mnemonics, such as rhymes or phrases, to associate essentially meaningless information with the material to be remembered.
Ginsborg describes memorised music as a “mental representation” consisting of many layers, ranging from a holistic overview of a piece and its meaning, to detailed knowledge of individual notes and phrases. Importantly, she asserts that “different kinds of memorising strategies can contribute to the formation of mental representations at their different levels and enable attention to be shifted, during practice, from one level to another.”
Sensory information is essential to the most basic level of music memorisation – knowing the notes and how to play them. Auditory, visual and kinaesthetic information can all play an important role in building a mental representation of a piece, and different musicians no doubt use a mixture of sensory data during both encoding (memorising) and recalling (remembering) music. Perhaps the most widely used strategy is to “memorise by rote”, often largely unconsciously, by doing highly repetitious practice. This type of memory is primarily kinaesthetic and can be achieved in many cases by simply practising bars, phrases and sections over and over again. Because this type of memory can be unreliable and is extremely vulnerable to interference, most expert musicians use other strategies in conjunction to secure their memory. Nonetheless, over-learning a piece (to the extent that it can be performed accurately without active thought about what note comes next) allows the musician a certain freedom to focus on communication and interpretation.
Memorising visual information is often particularly useful for musicians working from a notated score, and many people report knowing where they are on the page when playing. In contrast, musicians from outside the Western classical tradition are generally more reliant on memorising by ear, building their memory through listening and imitating what they hear. Aural visualisation – imagining how the music should sound – is one of the most valuable skills a musicians can develop, and being able to ‘hear’ a piece in your ‘inner ear’ enables practising away from the instrument.
A more holistic understanding of the music and its organisation also requires analysis and conceptual thinking. Developing a conceptual musical representation requires understanding not only each individual piece, but also familiarity with the musical language and culture in which it was written. Ginsborg states that “the use of conceptual memory is the crucial overarching strategy that no musician can do without”. Regardless of training, expertise or musical genre, fundamentally a musician must know where they are in a piece and how the structure of the work fits together. Oftentimes clear structural boundaries exist within the architecture of a piece (chorus and verse, for example), which create natural chunks to organise practice and facilitate memorisation.
Ginsborg ends the chapter by addressing a problem unique to singers – remembering both music and words. Drawing on her own research in this area, she tackles the question of whether it is better to learn the words and music independently or simultaneously, suggesting that learning the two together is a more effective strategy than learning them separately. Although I’m no singer, I know from experience that artificially coupling music and words can also be very useful for learning a specific set of words, or a musical phrase or rhythm (presumably by exploiting their interaction while creating multiple different but interdependent memory retrieval cues).
The view of memorising music as a process of building up related layers of different representations is one that appeals to me enormously. Not only does it explain how we memorise music, but it also offers a number of different approaches for improving memorisation – analytical, visual, aural and kinaesthetic – all of which have a role to play.