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Being able to read music is a worthwhile skill and notable achievement as a musician, but the art of memorizing music is something that yields additional benefits. Memorizing a piece from beginning to end frees you from sheet music, tablature, chord sheets, or other encumbrances (no more dragging that iPad onstage to jog your memory).
The framework created by memorizing a song can make your playing more fluid and expressive, serve as a springboard to improvisation, and add to your overall confidence onstage.
Auditory memory is a powerful tool. Have you ever had a jingle from a commercial that aired 30 ago years play in your head — from out of nowhere? That’s the strength of auditory memory. Harnessing this power as a technique for memorizing music can be very useful. Repetition, of course, is part of the equation; jingles are often drilled into our heads by hearing a commercial over and over on multiple channels, giving birth to a persistent earworm.
Mindful repetition can effectively build tacit awareness of a musical piece and take advantage of multi-coding — the combining of several different sensory inputs to amplify memory recall. Body movements, auditory inputs, emotions, surroundings, and more come into play to strengthen memory. The term “kinesthetic coding” applies to this: relating music to specific kinesthetic sensations, such as touch when playing an instrument or the feeling when singing a melody.
Studies linking early musical training to changes in brain anatomy and function offer evidence of dramatic effects at both an early age and throughout long-term training. In an article in Psychology Today, Gottfried Schlaug — an expert on music, neuroimaging, and brain plasticity at Harvard Medical School — puts it this way:
Listening to and making music is not only an auditory experience, but it is a multisensory and motor experience. Making music over a long period of time can change brain function and brain structure.
Making long-term memories
Recent studies in neuroplasticity, as described in this TED Talk by Lara Boyd, demonstrate that there are physical and chemical changes in the brain that take place during learning. “Remember that long-term memories take time,” she says. “And what you see in the short term does not reflect learning. It’s these physical changes that are going to support long-term learning and chemical changes that support short-term memories.”
Boyd also emphasizes the value of practice in enhancing neuroplasticity. “Nothing is more effective than practice at helping you learn, and the bottom line is you have to do the work. And, in fact, my research has shown that increased difficulty, increased struggle if you will, during practice actually leads to both more learning and greater structural change in the brain.”
Boyd also notes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning, there is no recipe for learning, and blasts the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a new motor skill. “It’s not that simple,” she says.
Your brain on music
Different areas of the brain are involved in music creation and appreciation. Neuroscientist and musician Alan Harvey described the divisions this way in a TED Talk, “Your Brain on Music:”
When we look at the areas in the brain that are active when we process language or music, there are some areas of overlap, which suggests to many that perhaps language and music evolved from a common precursor — we can call this a musilanguage or a protolanguage. But there are also clear differences, so in most people language is processed on the left side of the brain — the left hemisphere — whereas music has a more right hemisphere bias. Music also activates pathways within a complex structure called the limbic system. The limbic system is buried beneath the surface of the brain; it’s involved in learning and memory and also our emotional responses.
Music also activates a reward center buried deep in our brain, a reward center that is also stimulated by other pleasurable activities, like eating chocolate or having sex, not necessarily in that order. But music does more than just make you feel good, music also activates regions in the front part of the cortex that are also activated when you perform cooperative altruistic acts.
This same TED Talk delves into other aspects of the brain’s processing of music, and though not focused specifically on memorization, offers insights that are valuable to any musician.
Pulled together from various sources, here are some ways to improve your efforts in memorizing music.
Use multi-coding to engage a full range of senses
Engaging multiple senses during your memorization routine makes the musical passages easier to retrieve. Be mindful of how certain passages make you feel. Picture the movements of the notes on the sheet music, crests and troughs, advancing as you play individual sections. Think of your finger movements on the piano keyboard or guitar fretboard as you play. Play the piece in your mind, imagining you have the instrument in hand. Tap into the emotions or visual images that come to mind when you hear the various parts of the music.
Apply chunking to remember long sequences of notes
Breaking lengthy sections of music into short, organized chunks is an effective way to enable faster memorization. Some music coaches recommend starting at the end of a piece and working towards the beginning. In a YouTube segment, Josh Wright details the approach he uses on the piano, designating short sections and working from the ending toward the beginning of the piece.
Build associations with the music as you play it
Sing or hum the music as you play and practice it, creating associations with the rhythm and melodies as you go. Be aware of the physical movements — fingers, hand and arm motions, sensitivity of the pressure on keys or fretboards — throughout the process of playing. Your mind is more likely to recall these associations than the names of individual notes.
Tailor your practice routine to suit you
If you must force yourself to perform practice sessions and the routine makes you consistently uncomfortable, adjust your approach to one that fits your schedule, preferred methods, and inclinations. It may seem like a no-brainer, but being comfortable and relaxed makes memorizing music easier. Tension and resistance to the process impede memorization.
Sharpen mental images by working with larger source material
There is a connection between using larger images (of music, tablature, or lyrics) for memorizing content, favoring a large computer monitor rather than an iPad or phone. This is advice from Dr. Richard Restak, memory expert, neuropsychiatrist, and author of The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind. Apparently, the mind does better recalling an image captured from a large field of vision than from a narrow visual focus.
Retest and persist
Practice and repetition are inescapable elements of memorizing, but the tips and techniques suggested in this article should boost your efficiency. Finding the process that works best for you individually is essential, rather than relying on a brute force approach. Be persistent and retest your recall of the music until it becomes second nature — and it will with time. The neuroplasticity of the brain works in your favor and becomes more capable as you develop new pathways and skills over time.
Much of the current thought and research seems to converge on one point: learning and memorizing music is a very individual process that’s different for each of us. Experiment with different methods and see what works best for you.