Musical Memory: The Many Pieces of the Memorization Process

“The demands placed on memory during a piano performance are remarkable, sometimes requiring the production of over 1000 notes a minute for periods of up to 50 minutes,”

Chaffin and Imreh wrote in their 1997 article about musical memory (315).

Their work, as well as the work of many other scholars studying the elements of memory as musicians use it in performance, relies on Ericsson and Chase’s theory of skilled memory, first published in 1982.

Skilled Memory Theory seeks to explain what they call “exceptional memory,” found in people who can memorize strings of numbers as long as 84 digits in length, when most people can only remember 7 units plus or minus 2 digits; or exceptional servers who memorize all of their tables’ orders.

Concert pianists, playing full concerts would fall under this definition of exceptional memory. Think of how many notes are in a full concert!

This theory also posits that the more you learn in a given subject area, the quicker and more efficiently you can memorize large amounts of information. Memorization, then, is also a skill that we can develop. We are not stuck being “bad at memorizing.”

One benefit of being a musician is that we don’t rely solely on conscious memory: we get to fall back on motor memory if our conscious memory fails. The more memory fail-safes we have, the less likely we are to get lost when we perform.

Most new musicians rely solely on muscle memory, which does fail often, and because they haven’t developed the skill of conscious memory, these motor memory failures tend to end in embarrassing situations, like stopping in the middle of a performance.

Luckily, the more we learn about music, the more we develop “skilled memory.”

So how does skilled memory work? What processes are involved in memorization, and how does understanding them help us streamline our own memorization work?

A Brief Description of Long-Term and Short-Term Memory

When we memorize something, we commit it to our long-term memory (LTM). I think of this as the back room of our brains, organized like an infinitely tall library or a ton of filing cabinets.

Short-term memory (STM) is what we use right now. If long-term memory is a filing cabinet, then short-term or working memory is our desk.

When we recall something we’ve memorized, we run to the back room, grab the file, run back to our desk, slap it down, and get to work.

Skilled Memory Theory

There are three core tenets of Skilled Memory Theory:

1. The Meaningful Encoding Principle

Experts — that is, those who are good at memorization — use prior knowledge to memorize large amounts of information.

Encoding in memory is the filing away of information in our brains and is the first step required in remembering something. A memory has to be present somewhere for us to be able to access it later. For us to file away the information, it has to mean something to us, otherwise, we’re likely to just discard it because there are a lot of other files to deal with!

This means that mathematicians who memorize long strings of numbers find meaning in those numbers. They use equations to relate chunks of numbers to each other. But this means the mathematicians have to know the equations first to make any sense out of a bunch of random numbers.

For musicians, this involves building up a vocabulary of musical patterns and structures. These include scales, arpeggios, chord shapes, harmonic progressions, accompaniment patterns, motivic patterns, and so on.

Chaffin and Imreh (1997) explained that for most pianists, it takes around 10 years for these core techniques to be fully developed and understood.

But, I will personally say that if you deliberately tackle these musical “vocabulary patterns” by practicing technique frequently and also listening and identifying these in recordings, you will cut down on that 10 years a lot.

2. The Retrieval Structure Principle

Point 1 referred to the encoding of information, which is only half of the process of remembering something. The actual act of remembering something involves searching our brain for where we stored the information.

If we can’t find the information because the filing cabinets of our brains are so disorganized, then we don’t get to remember the information.

But if we keep everything spick and span, color-coded, and in order, we can very quickly find the information again. The more times we look for and find the same information, the quicker we get at it too!

How can we organize our memories though?

The Retrieval Structure Principle relies on the concept of “chunking” in memory, otherwise known as an organized hierarchy of information, looking something like this:

In music, we can understand this as individual notes form measures, which form phrases, which form sections, which form movements, which then form the entire piece of music.

This is part of why studying music theory helps us as performing musicians. It gives us a pre-made tool for organizing vast amounts of musical information.

Williamon and Egner performed published a study in 2004 that asked participants to memorize Prelude in A Minor by J.S. Bach (BWV 889) and found that there was a general consensus regarding which measures are “structurally important.” Additionally, the participants were less likely to make memory mistakes in these structurally important measures, and the speed of their memory retrieval was much quicker for these measures than the non-structural measures.

Additionally, Chaffin and Imhreh noted that most musicians’ practice sessions coincided with formal boundaries in the music, suggesting that even if the musicians didn’t consciously choose to use the formal structures of the music to organize their mental representations of it, the formal structures still acted as important for organization.

This means that if we make ourselves aware of the formal structures of a piece, then we may be able to expedite our learning process and give ourselves a great, time-tested organizational structure for memory retrieval.

A caveat about music analysis: the “rules” of 18th century Western Classical music do not and cannot apply to all music, including all the music in the Western Classical music canon. Part of analysis includes the way you feel about certain sections, but this analytic tradition can teach us what to be aware of when we analyze a piece of music.

Your emotions or your expressive interpretation can also create part of the retrieval structure. Williamon and Enger explained that musicians use a combination visual, aural, and kinesthetic cues throughout the performance of a single piece.

Imreh, in the 1997 study, explained that some of her cues are emotions she wants to convey to the audience, such as “mysterious.” Others are fingerings or dynamics.

I highly recommend checking out the study, as they include a helpful diagram of what Imreh perceived to be all of her retrieval cues.

3. The Speed-Up Principle

The final principle of Skilled Memory Theory “states that with practice, normal subjects can increase the speed of storage and retrieval in LTM so that it approaches the speed of information storage and retrieval in STM” (243 Ericsson and Staszewski, 1989)

The more you learn and memorize vast amounts of information in a particular subject, the quicker and more efficient you’ll get at it.

Most people have experienced this naturally in their lives, from going through flash cards for classes to memorizing the layout of your home.

I actually really like thinking about the home as an analogy for memory. When you first move into a new home (which I recently did, which might be why this is on my mind), you might set up your kitchen in a logical way. Most people put dishes and glasses in upper cabinets, and you consciously know this.

But pre-coffee brain, the next morning, has to stop and really think about where the coffee mugs are. You might stand there thinking, “what am I doing?” while staring at the cabinets, because your morning routine isn’t set up. The more times you wake up, grab the coffee mug, and stick it under the coffee maker, the less you have to consciously think about it and the quicker you become at it.

What Can We do at Every Stage of Musicianship to Cultivate Music Memorization?

Expose yourself to a lot of music.

Sight-reading isn’t just about learning to read sheet music better. It’s also about exposure to common patterns in music. Additionally, listen to a lot of music. Not only will you pick up on expressive cues, you’ll also give your brain some practice with musical patterns.

Practice your core techniques frequently, not necessarily longer.

Because memory and learning involves the retrieval of encoded information, we have to practice running to the back room and getting the files of information. If we leave the file just sitting on our desk for long periods of time, that doesn’t get us much exercise and certainly doesn’t give us the opportunity to practice finding the information again.

But yes, definitely practice core techniques like arpeggios in common inversions, scales (regular scals, in 3rds or 6ths, starting on the 5th step, in parallel and contrary motion), harmonic progressions, chord shapes, and other common patterns (worksheet forthcoming).

Analyze a lot of music.

Oh look, music theory is important! I am a little biased since I got my Master’s in theory, but learning how to analyze music gives us the tools to create organizational structures for memory retrieval. It gives us vocabulary to label musical concepts and is a time-honored tradition that’s been nuanced over the years.

As mentioned above, there isn’t just a single theory of music. There are many ways to analyze a single piece of music: harmonically, rhythmically, motivically, emotionally, etc.

I do encourage learning some traditional theory first: my book, website, and course recommendations can be found on the Resources page if you’re not sure where to start!

Final Thoughts

Isn’t it just so inspiring to learn about how the mind interacts with music?

Before I read all of these studies, I thought that you had to be a member of Mensa to memorize well. I also downplayed how much information is contained in a single piece of music. The number of notes, note duration, dynamics, tempo changes, emotion, articulation, harmony, and so much more.

If you’ve ever memorized a piece of music, you’ve achieved an incredible feat, and the next time you do it, you’ll do it a lot faster!

Now get to it! You’ve got a world to impress!

Happy practicing! :)

References

Chaffin, Roger, Gabriella Imreh, Anthony F. Lemieux, and Colleen Chen. “Seeing the Big Picture: Piano Practice as Expert Problem Solving.” Music Perception 20, no. 4 (June 1, 2003): 465–90.

Ericsson, K. Anders, and William G. Chase. “Exceptional memory: Extraordinary feats of memory can be matched or surpassed by people with average memories that have been improved by training.” American Scientist 70, no. 6 (1982): 607-615.

Ericsson, K. Anders, and James J. Staszewski. “Skilled Memory and Expertise: Mechanisms of Exceptional Performance.” In Complex Information Processing: The Impact of Herbert A. Simon, edited by David Klahr and Kenneth Kotovsky, 235–67. London; Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1989.

Imreh, Roger Chaffin Gabriela. “” Pulling teeth and torture”: Musical memory and problem solving.” Thinking & Reasoning 3, no. 4 (1997): 315-336.

Williamon, Aaron, and Tobias Egner. “Memory Structures for Encoding and Retrieving a Piece of Music: An ERP Investigation.” Cognitive Brain Research 22, no. 1 (December 1, 2004): 36–44.

Williamon, Aaron, and Elizabeth Valentine. “The Role of Retrieval Structures in Memorizing Music.” Cognitive Psychology 44, no. 1 (February 1, 2002): 1–32.

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