Why You Should Teach Your Brain the Music Before Your Body

Why bother with memorization?

ElephantIn my previous article, I emphasized the importance of learning the music really well intellectually before beginning to learn the physical aspects of playing the music. If you want to focus your work on the musical shaping, artistry, and the attention to detail that will set you apart as a top performer, then you must have a crystal clear mental picture of the music before you begin. Moreover, memorizing the music even before you begin to try and play it will give you a chance to work with interpretive ideas from the very beginning.

Many musicians such as church organists and collaborative pianists have to learn large amounts of new music rapidly for frequent gigs. In order to have the security necessary for a polished performance, these musicians mostly rely on tremendous sight reading skills instead of an invulnerable mental picture of every detail of the piece. The technique of memorizing the music first that I am advocating is specifically for musicians preparing for juries, recitals, auditions, or for a series of performances using the same repertoire.

For professionals who must rely on their reading skills, the memorization step may be necessary for certain passages, but not for the entire piece. If performing at a high level with such a high turnover of music is still a problem, it may help to do some memorization as a way of bolstering your quick preparation skills. Sight reading and memorization are both skills that can be cultivated and trained. Sign up for my newsletter so that you don’t miss future posts on sight-reading skills.

The Dangers of Muscle Memory

When my performance of the Bach G-Minor Prelude from WTC II fell apart during a recital, it was because I had memorized the music by playing it over and over. I could play it from memory, but I couldn’t imagine it from memory with enough detail to be able to recover from a slip. By memorizing first, you ensure that your understanding of the music isn’t just muscle memory or merely being able to hum the tune. It’s a mental picture of every note in the piece in its musical context.

With that in mind, here are some basic principles of music memorization. These will apply to both of the memorization techniques that I will be showing you over the course of the next two articles.

Basic memorization technique

ChunkingSuppose that you are convinced of the necessity to memorize the music first, and now you are sitting with the music in front of you wondering how you are going to get every one of those hundreds of notes to stay in your head.

It is a well-documented principle (Miller 1956) that we are able to hold about seven (plus or minus two) items in our short-term memory at a time. So it would make sense, then, that you need to divide the music up into little segments that are four to eight notes in length, and then rehearse them one by one until you’ve got them in mid- to long-term memory. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it?

Luckily, you can rely on a technique that psychologists call “chunking”, where a group of notes that hang together pretty well will be able to fit into just one of the seven or so slots available in short-term memory. The basic technique of learning only small handfuls of notes may be necessary at times, however, when we cannot find any “chunks” that make sense.

Make friends with musical patterns

By chunking the music into groups of notes, you can increase the amount of music that you can memorize in one sitting, but you can dramatically increase the amount of material that you can include in a single chunk by looking for larger patterns in the music. Patterns that you can rely on include both chords and chord progressions, along with standard melodic and rhythmic patterns. So being able to do some basic music analysis will help you immensely with memorizing music quickly and thoroughly.

There’s more to this than just finding patterns that make it easier to group notes together. The quality of your memory improves with your familiarity with the pattern. You must therefore “make friends” with common musical structures. Let me illustrate this with an example in another domain.

In the American Sacred Harp singing tradition, the songs that are sung are selected by members of the group when they are called to lead the group. The leader calls out the page number of the song that they have selected, everyone turns to that page in their Sacred Harp book, and they begin to sing. In this community, favorite songs therefore become strongly associated with their page numbers. People will even talk about a song using its page number instead of its name.

You can probably see from this example how already having strong associations with certain numbers would aid in memorizing something like a phone number. Suppose that I needed to memorize 404-236-5962. I am already “friends” with all of the chunks in the string. I know that 404 is the HTTP error code for “page not found”; 236 is the route number of the main highway through my home town and also the page number of William Billings’s “Easter Anthem” in the Sacred Harp songbook; and 59 and 62 are the page numbers of the most common opening and closing songs at Sacred Harp singings. In a way, I’ve already memorized the number.

Naming Your “Friends”

Key SignatureI teach my music theory students that knowing the theory behind scales and key signatures is important, but making friends with every musical key is what is necessary for true musical fluency. When I’m looking at a piece of music written in three sharps, I don’t have to stop and think about what keys have three sharps in their key signatures. Since I am already friends with all thirty major and minor keys, I know that when I see three sharps, it is either my friend A major or her brother F-sharp minor. It shouldn’t take all that long to memorize some facts about thirty different keys.

With a little more work, you can add all of the types of chords commonly seen in tonal music to your musical Facebook friend list. How useful will these friends be in helping you quickly find patterns in the music that you need to memorize?

Melodic patterns are also worth making friends with. Some melodic figures, like the cambiata, already have names. Some may need naming in order to help you recognize them when you see them again. Solfege is one nice way of naming musical patterns.

It is therefore worthwhile to work toward having more sophisticated ways of recognizing patterns in music. Regardless of the sophistication of your memorization techniques, the two techniques explored in the next two articles may help by making a game out of the memorization process.

How sophisticated are your musical chunking tools? Take a piece of music that you are working on right now and use words to describe the first two measures of it accurately enough so that someone else could play it exactly right from only your description. How concise is your description? If you can get it down to about the size of a Tweet (140 characters) or SMS (160 characters), then leave a comment with the composer, work, movement, and your description.

Robert Kelley

About Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is a music theorist, composer, pianist, harpsichordist, and Associate Professor of Music at Lander University, in Greenwood, South Carolina.
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