Interview with… Jane Ginsborg (singer and researcher)

Jane GinsborgPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I began as a singer and sang throughout my teenage years. I then went to the University of York to do a music degree, and subsequently took an advanced diploma in singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I largely specialised in 20th century and contemporary music, which offered lots of interesting opportunities – I worked as a soloist for many years with small chamber ensembles and with my own trio (‘Triple Echo’ – voice, clarinet and piano), as well as doing choral work, session work, solo recitals, etc. I could turn up and sight-read anything in any language!

In my mid-30’s I decided to pursue another interest and took a degree in psychology. In my final year at York I had written a dissertation on the psychology of music performance but this pre-dated the development of music psychology as a discipline, at least in the UK. Luckily at the time I was studying psychology I happened to be living near Keele University where the music psychologist John Sloboda was based. I attended a talk he gave on his research and ended up doing a PhD with him looking at how singers memorise music. The jumping-off point for this work was my own experience of trying to memorise the words of songs. I never worried about remembering the melody or an entry – rather I was always terrified that I would forget the words! In general, about a third of my practice sessions were spent warming up and doing technical work, then note-bashing to learn the notes of new pieces, and finally learning words. I wanted to have pieces memorised before I started really thinking about what the words meant, which often meant translating them from different languages (some of which I had to learn for the purpose), as well as how the words were set to music. The key thing was to make sure the words came automatically when singing in public so I didn’t have to think about what came next and could think about the performance.

The end of my PhD really marked the end of my professional career as a singer, and I became an academic: a researcher, lecturer and writer. Although my first post was as a lecturer in developmental psychology, I now hold a Personal Chair at the Royal Northern College of Music (which means I am called Professor) and am Director of the Centre for Music Performance Research there, as well as President of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music and editor of the on-line journal Music Performance Research. My research has continued to grow out of my own experiences as a singer, but I have also gone on to explore musical memory more broadly, among other things, and although I’m no longer a ‘practising’ singer, I still enjoy singing with different-sized vocal groups, and perform as a soloist from time to time.

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?
I memorised all the way through my singing career. The hardest piece I ever memorised was one of the songs in John Cage’s Songbook – the song is fully notated, unaccompanied, constructed from short semi-repetitive phrases, and the text is completely nonsensical comprising just syllables without meaning! Nonetheless, being a memory researcher, I felt duty bound to memorise the piece and perform it from memory!

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
For singers who are competent musicians, there is no point wasting time trying to learn the melody and words separately – the words and melody should be memorised simultaneously. My initial research addressed the interaction of music and words in memory: are they a double load on memory such that you have to remember two things, or do they combine so you only have a single load? We discovered that they are recalled as a single component, and hence if one goes the other is likely to go too. However skilled singers will be able to keep going even if they forget the words by using something else to keep the melody going – if you forget the words you can always sing a long vowel as long as you end it with a clear consonant! – but it is extremely hard to recite the text of a song without the music as they are stored together. Just try writing out the words of your favourite song without singing along to the melody in your head, or while listening to a different piece of music – it’s almost impossible to do! 

In most cases, information has to be meaningful to us for us to remember it. Actors often talk about needing to know their ‘motivation’ for saying each line and sometimes it doesn’t matter if they say the wrong word when they perform as long as it has the right meaning. But musicians have to perform exactly what is written. So a useful strategy for memorising is not to waste a lot of time on the meaning – what you want to express – at the beginning. It’s better to get the donkey work of memorising out of the way early on, so that you can produce both the music and the words almost automatically; then you can start to think about what you want to express in your performance. Of course it is absolutely vital to know the meaning of every word of a song and the way it has been set to music so as to give a convincing, expressive performance. But it is not necessary for memorising.

There are two ways of thinking about memory, although the two ways can be combined: structures (or stores) and processes. There are different kinds of stores for different kinds of information, which is stored for different lengths of time: you can only have a small amount of information in short-term memory and it only lasts up to 90 seconds or so, while the long-term memory has an infinite capacity and lasts for ever, but it can be very difficult to find information that’s been stored there again. Memory processes include encoding, storing and retrieving information; retrieval can involve recognition, a form of pattern-matching, or recall, which is more difficult.

We can distinguish five different kinds of memory:

(1)  Kinaesthetic memory (finger memory for pianists, embouchure lip memory for brass players, body memory or singers, etc.) is created by doing. Musicians often find that they have committed a piece to memory simply by repeating it many times, and although it’s invaluable to be able to able to play or sing ‘on automatic pilot’, as we’ve seen, on its own this procedural memory is the least reliable type of memory. Although remembering individual patterns may be easy, remembering a sequence of patterns can be difficult. Kinaesthetic memory is generally reliable in the middle of a pattern, but difficulties can occur if there is a break between patterns in the sequence – like breaking a link in a chain. Therefore breakdowns often happen at junctions, particularly switches (where almost repeated patterns lead to different parts of a piece).

(2)  Visual memory is created by seeing – the score, fingers, the conductor’s beat, etc. People often know where they are on a score (spatial memory), but very few people have a detailed eidetic (photographic) memory.

(3)  Auditory memory is created by hearing the music in your mind before making the sound. This is particularly crucial for a singer, or any instrumentalist who has to pitch their own note, particularly if they don’t have perfect pitch. Once a piece has been memorised the musician can hear, with the mind’s ear, as it were, where they are going in the piece, and is in a position to run over it again and again in their head.

(4)  Analytical memory is created by analysing the music. This is the first and most important piece of work to be done when memorising. The reason it needs to be done at the start of the process is so as to be able to understand the structure of the piece in terms of its sections, patterns, phrases, repeats, variations etc., so that it can be memorised in small chunks that can be linked together, and then the links themselves memorised. The analysis can be at any level (not necessarily formal harmony and counterpoint!) and the musician’s own understanding of what underlies the architecture of a piece is what really matters. This could relate to keys, melodic patterns, time signatures, etc. The structure of a piece provides a framework for recall. This is likely to be predictable in much classical music (for example, strophic songs consisting of several verses) just as it is in jazz standards or pop songs (intro, verse, chorus etc.) but may be less so in contemporary music.

(5)  Many musicians associate rote memory with kinaesthetic memory: as I said, if you play or sing a piece enough times you will develop a ‘finger’ or other kind of physical, bodily memory for it. But actually you can and should use all the other kinds of memory as you are going through the process of memorising. Your knowledge of the structure of the piece will help you ‘see’ and ‘hear’ which bit comes next in your imagination. Once you’ve got it securely memorised you will be able to run it over and over again in your mind while doing other things – walking, sitting in the car, waiting for a bus, and so on. You’ll be able to think about it and how you are going to perform it wherever you are, and when you are actually playing or singing from memory in public – if one kind of memory fails, you will be able to draw on one of the other types.

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?
Yes, many times. Memorising is generally easiest for children and gets harder as you get older. I don’t think this is really due to age-related memory loss, but to overload! Older people have so much information already stored in their memories that it can interfere with the encoding and storage of new information and make it hard to retrieve accurately.

I have found that a large proportion of students who want to study music psychology suffer from performance anxiety, largely due to fear of memory lapses, which in turn is often fuelled by having had a memory lapse! Many students have experienced something called ‘blocking’ – the experience of feeling disembodied when playing and suddenly realising that it’s as if they are somewhere on the ceiling looking down at their performance, and not knowing where they are in the music. This is like running on autopilot, and is often caused by a musical training regime that requires too many perfect repetitions of a piece, leading to boredom. While students who don’t practise enough aren’t likely to suffer from this type of memory lapse, many other things can go wrong!

To reiterate: rote learning itself is not unreliable, but being on mental automatic pilot can allow the chain of associations to suddenly break. Being on physical automatic pilot, while at the same time thinking about the music, will keep the performer present in the moment and in control of their memory recall. A really polished performer is listening to the music all the time they’re playing or singing – focusing on the acoustics, intonation, interpretation, effect on the audience, etc. – and can focus their attention on tricky sections or musical junctions as needed. Ultimately, performing is so much more than performing from memory.


About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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One Response to Interview with… Jane Ginsborg (singer and researcher)

  1. This is absolutely fascinating, and one of your most interesting interviews to date. As a totally amateur (and not very good) singer, I’m intrigued to learn that Jane’s research confirms what I’ve always felt to be true – that remembering music and words becomes a single activity. And if the words are in another language (I’ve sung a lot in Latin and not always understood everything) their meaning seems to be of little importance compared with the sounds of individual words, the combinations of vowels and consonants, and the rhymes or lack of them across a phrase. All these elements combine to form one musical sound-component to be recalled. I imagine this might explain why remembering poetry is so much easier when there is metre and rhythm and rhyme. One can often recall chunks of a poem, then fill in what’s missing with made-up ‘noises’ that fit the music of the verse. What a shame, as Jane points out, that as one gets older this wonderful ability is impaired by sheer information overload!

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