Who hasn’t experienced the thrill and wonder of watching a virtuoso pianist play a solo recital without a single sheet of music in sight? Such incredible feats of memory involve learning, memorising and performing numerous highly complex pieces of music at a level which is close to perfection. How do they do it? And why? In the highly pressurised world of classical performance, such a display seems akin to tight-rope walking without a net.
I’ve sat in many concerts (including a few where I’ve been playing myself), where the first thing I hear after the performance has finished is, “How did she remember all those notes?” While the concert-going public share their astonishment, amateur musicians woefully declare that they simply cannot memorise music, and have no idea even where to start.
So what’s the point of this blog? Quite simply to explore how and why musicians – of any type – memorise music. What role does musical memory play in performance and composition? Do different instruments or alternative musical genres demand different memorising techniques? And, importantly, can anyone learn to play from memory or is only the elite few? There seems to be relatively little written on this specific topic that is accessible to the general public and amateur musicians alike, and what does exist is generally scattered around in different places and often focussed on a single instrument. So I’ll be conducting interviews with musicians, reviewing books and papers, and drawing on my own experience as a scientist, pianist and composer to try to answer these questions. Ultimately, I would like to provide music students and amateur musicians with a sort of “how to” guide to memorising music.