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The Science & Psychology of Music PerformanceCreative Strategies for Teaching and Learning$

Richard Parncutt and Gary McPherson

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780195138108

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195138108.001.0001

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(p.166) (p.167) 11 Memory
The Science & Psychology of Music Performance

Rita Aiello

Aaron Williamon

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Performances from memory involve complex interactions among various methods of memorizing music. This chapter explores systematic and psychological research that has evaluated such combinations and approaches. Overall, the existing literature on how to memorize music for performance is scarce, and what has been written has focused mainly on pianists. Nevertheless, other instrumentalists can relate to this information in terms of their own memory performance strategies. For singers, the interaction of music and text is central in memorizing their repertoire.

Keywords:   performance, memory, singers, memorizing

There is extensive biographical and anecdotal information on the memory of exceptional musicians, but only recently has there been systematic psychological research, and this has mostly focused on pianists. Historical reasons for performing from memory can be traced to Clara Wieck Schumann and Franz Liszt. General theories of expert memory can help us understand how expert musicians memorize music. Auditory, kinesthetic, and visual information contribute to musical memory. Recent psychological research suggests the importance of explicitly analyzing the score. Memory strategies depend on the skill of the performer and the style and difficulty of the music to be memorized. The ability to memorize seems to be enhanced by studying music theory and analysis. Learning to improvise in the style of the music could also be helpful.

During the last century, several pianists and piano pedagogues have written on how to memorize music. Matthay (1913, 1926), Hughes (1915), and Gieseking and Leimer (1932/1972) described three principal ways in which performers can learn music when preparing for a memorized performance: aurally, visually, and kinesthetically. Aural memory (i.e., auditory memory) enables individuals to imagine the sounds of a piece, including anticipation of upcoming events in the score and concurrent evaluations of a performance’s progress. Visual memory consists of images of the written page and other aspects of the playing environment. Pianists and other keyboard players, for instance, may remember positions of the hand and fingers, the look of the chords as they are struck, and the patterns made upon the keyboard as they are played. Kinesthetic memory (i.e., finger, muscular, or tactile memory) enables performers to execute complex motor sequences automatically. For pianists, it is facilitated by extended training of the fingers, wrists, and arms and can exist in two forms: (1) position and movement from note to note and (2) sense of key resistance (Hughes, 1915). All these pianists and teachers stressed that no really intelligent memorizing is possible (p.168) without a knowledge of musical structure, including harmony, counterpoint, and form. They insisted that aural, visual, and kinesthetic memory could not function properly without this knowledge (Gieseking & Leimer, 1932/1972; Hughes, 1915; Matthay, 1913, 1926).

In addition to the study of structure, Gieseking and Leimer emphasized the importance of mental rehearsal when memorizing a piece. They recommended that students learn to memorize pieces by visualizing them through silent reading and prepare for their technical execution through visualization before beginning to play them at the keyboard. The authors illustrated their method with detailed examples from the music of J. S. Bach and Beethoven.

Clearly, performances from memory involve complex interactions among the aforementioned methods of memorizing music. This chapter explores systematic and psychological research that has evaluated such combinations and approaches. Overall, the existing literature on how to memorize music for performance is scarce, and what has been written has focused mainly on pianists. Nevertheless, other instrumentalists can relate to this information in terms of their own memory performance strategies. For singers the interaction of music and text is central in memorizing their repertoire (Ginsborg, 2000). Although space limitation does not allow us to evaluate this interaction adequately, singers could find this chapter useful as a general background.

Why Perform from Memory?

Until the nineteenth century, when musicians played in public they either improvised the music or read from the score. While it would have been preposterous during the time of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart for musicians to perform their music in public from memory, the Romantic period was marked by a trend toward the individuality of the solo performer, and it is in this era that acclaimed pianists such as Clara Wieck Schumann (1819–1896) and Franz Liszt (1811–1886) began to play in concerts without the score (Schonberg, 1963). Since the early twentieth century the majority of solo pianists and violinists have not used the score when giving performances of the standard repertoire. It is widely acceptable, however, for a contemporary work to be performed using the score.

Performing from memory can be a difficult and anxiety-provoking task. So why do performers insist on doing it? A number of performers and pedagogues have argued that there are fulfilling musical justifications for this tradition. Some of these arguments have been purely practical in their nature. For example, memorizing music dispenses with cumbersome page turns and enables musicians to monitor visually aspects of their performance such as posture and hand positions. Other arguments have focused on specific musical and communicative advantages to memorizing music, claiming for instance that memorization allows performers to develop more freely their own expressive ideas and to communicate those ideas more effectively to audiences (see Bernstein, 1981; Hallam, 1995; Hughes, 1915; Matthay, 1913, 1926).

(p.169) In an investigation of some of the practical benefits of performing from memory, Williamon (1999b) asked a group of listeners to evaluate videotaped performances of a cellist playing the Preludes from Bach’s Cello Suites nos. I, II, and III. The performances were divided into five conditions that differed in terms of memorization and visual information available to audience members. In some memorized performances, for example, an empty music stand was used, suggesting to the audience that the performer was reading from the score. The study revealed that audiences preferred memorized performances to nonmemorized performances. Moreover, audience members with musical training rated memorized performances higher than nonmusicians in terms of communicative ability, thus suggesting that listeners who were musicians may have been better equipped to pick up subtle communication cues embedded in performances from memory. In addition, the findings are consistent with the notion that enhanced visual communication (e.g., a view of the performer that is not obstructed by a music stand) augments audiences’ experiences at large (Davidson, 1993, 1994).

General Psychological Research on Memory

Classic Studies

Current knowledge and theories of memory rely heavily on the findings and terminology of classic studies by Ebbinghaus and by Bartlett. With himself as the sole subject, Ebbinghaus (1885/1964) learned lists of nonsense syllables (e.g., MIB, DAK, BOK) over a period of several years. From a set of some two thousand of these stimuli, he constructed lists of a dozen or so syllables and would read them aloud in time with the beat of a metronome. After reading a given list, he would attempt to recall the items at various time intervals, measuring the number of times he had to repeat a list until recall was faultless. Not surprisingly, Ebbinghaus found that the longer the list, the more he needed to repeat the trials to reach perfect recall. Moreover, he found that the longer the interval of time between the original learning and its subsequent recall, the greater the amount of forgetting that occurred. This relationship between memory retention and time after learning is known as Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve. It shows a sharp decline in retention for up to 10 hours after the original learning and then a much more gradual decline across following weeks. The immediate practical implication of this for any student is that material should be rehearsed soon after it is newly learned to avoid such rapid forgetting.

Bartlett (1932) became interested in the kinds of information that people remember rather than the number of trials needed to memorize that information. Instead of asking individuals to learn lists of nonsense syllables, Bartlett used meaningful stimuli such as words, objects, and stories and measured the extent to which people’s memories of these changed over time. His method of repeated reproduction, for instance, required participants to read an unusual story from folktale or myth and later recall the story after various periods of time. Bartlett found that recall was often characterized by omissions, simplifications, and transformations, (p.170) thus demonstrating that memory is often vague and incomplete. For the most part, participants’ errors changed the story into more familiar and conventional forms. Bartlett was able to show, therefore, how individuals are able to fill gaps in memory by making logical inferences.

In more recent research, memory has broadly been classified into short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM). STM is, simply put, the type of memory used when retaining information for only a short period of time (e.g., for 10 seconds). The short-term store can be loosely equated with the concepts of attention and consciousness, and has a working memory component that can be used to manipulate information (see Baddeley, 1986). Working memory is essential for such cognitive tasks as speaking or reading (Baddeley, 1979; Fletcher, 1986) and, in the case of music, for sight-reading.

Across a wide variety of conditions, STM is limited to about seven plus or minus two chunks (Miller, 1956), with a chunk being a unit of information that functions as a single meaningful stimulus. For example, Simon (1974) reported that he was unable to recall the following list correctly after just one presentation because it represented nine chunks of information, an amount that typically exceeds STM capacity: Lincoln, Milky, Criminal, Differential, Address, Way, Lawyer, Calculus, Gettysburg. However, when Simon rearranged the words into four chunks of information—Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Milky Way, Criminal Lawyer, Differential Calculus—the words were more easily recalled because the four chunks fit comfortably within STM.

LTM is a more-or-less permanent repository of information. It allows us to retain and recall information over long periods of time. Moreover, it is this store that lies at the heart of the exceptional feats of memory often displayed by skilled musicians and expert performers in other fields as discussed later.

Expert Memory

Several theories have been put forth to explain how experts are able to develop and maintain their sometimes-extraordinary memory abilities. Chase and Simon’s (1973) chunking theory proposes that superior memory abilities are underpinned by a vast knowledge base specific to the activity. Information in this knowledge base is continually collected and stored into chunks that often become associated with specific physical actions and commands.

The skilled memory theory of Chase and Ericsson (1982) was subsequently proposed to address certain shortcomings of chunking theory. Skilled memory theory asserts that remarkable displays of memory result from the creation and efficient use of mechanisms called retrieval structures. These mechanisms can only be acquired under restricted circumstances. First, individuals must be able to store information in LTM rapidly. This requires a large body of relevant knowledge and patterns for the specific type of information involved. Second, the activity must be familiar, so that individuals can anticipate future demands for the retrieval of relevant information. Third, individuals must associate the information to be recalled with appropriate retrieval cues. This association permits the activation of a particular retrieval cue at a later time, and thus partially (p.171) reinstates the conditions of learning so that the desired information can be retrieved from LTM. Only after individuals organize the set of retrieval cues can a retrieval structure be formed, thereby enabling them to “retrieve stored information efficiently without lengthy search” (Ericsson & Staszewski, 1989, p. 239).

Extensive research that supports skilled memory theory has been carried out to study the memory capacities of chess players at various levels of expertise. A close investigation of what master chess players do reveals that they abstract meaningful units from the very same material that less experienced players view as separate, single events. In fact, if chess pieces are placed randomly (i.e., in positions that could not have been reached using permissible moves in a game of chess), both experienced and inexperienced chess players score poorly in remembering the positions on the board (Chase & Simon, 1973). Let us illustrate this point within the context of reading and remembering words (Lindsay & Norman, 1977). In reading and remembering the words Well Tempered Clavier, inexperienced readers might attempt to learn or process 19 separate letters or three words, while musically experienced readers would immediately recognize that what they read is the title of one work by J. S. Bach. However, when reading and remembering Llew Derepmet Reivalc (these are the same three words as Well Tempered Clavier but written in reverse) both experienced and inexperienced readers would be at a similar disadvantage.

As a musical example, while inexperienced pianists might strive to remember all the individual notes that occur in the right and left hands in a certain measure, experienced pianists might easily recognize that those notes constituted a cadential formula in a particular tonality. Their knowledge of harmony, together with their advanced keyboard skills, would enable them to play these notes with ease. Basic examples of such chunks in music include scales and arpeggios. Musicians spend hours practicing these so that they can easily recognize and execute them when sight-reading or committing a piece to memory. This process of chunking allows for rapid categorization of domain-specific patterns and accounts for the speed with which experts recognize the key elements in a problem situation. Skilled memory theory has commonly been accepted as accounting for exceptional memory (Anderson, 1990; Baddeley, 1990; Carpenter & Just, 1989; Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995; Newell, 1990; Schneider & Detweiler, 1987). Although subsequent psychologists (e.g., Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995) have extended skilled memory theory to address some of its limitations, the description of the mechanisms that underlie exceptional feats of memory displayed by skilled performers has remained unaltered. For example, a musician who is performing a composition from memory will rely heavily on a hierarchically organized set of preformed retrieval cues (based perhaps on the music’s formal structure) to ensure that information is retrieved reliably and efficiently. This retrieval structure may form and develop throughout the course of extensive practice of the piece.

A multitude of issues, however, must be addressed before the skilled memory theory, or any theory of general expertise for that matter, can adequately explain the cognitive processes that govern musical memory. Recent research on music performance has begun to address these issues.

(p.172) Music-Psychological Research on Memory

Mnemonics, Mental Representation, and Structure

Musicians use mnemonics extensively. Glancing through any music theory book one sees how frequently musicians use mnemonics to remember the formal structure of a piece. For example, a binary form is outlined as AB, a ternary form ABA, and a theme and variations is A, A′, A″, A‴, and so on. The formal structure of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations can be remembered according to the plan used by the composer: two variations in free style are followed by a canonic variation, and the final variation is a quodlibet.

Music psychologists have used the terms internal and mental representation to describe the cognitive mechanisms used by musicians. Clarke (1988) asserted that performers retrieve and execute compositions using internal representations. He proposed that to play from memory performers must understand a piece at many different levels, from a complete overall hierarchical memory of the entire piece down to the smallest detail. However, given that it would be impossible for anyone to access the memory of an entire piece at any one time during performance, it is likely that a performer will activate his or her memory of a piece one section at a time, shifting between sections as the performance progresses. As a general rule, “the depth to which the generative structure is activated is directly related to the structural significance of phrase boundaries lying close to, or at, the player’s current musical location” (p. 5). In the middle of a deeply embedded musical phrase, for instance, a performer may primarily be concerned with the detailed structure of connections within the phrase itself. Therefore, only a region of low-level generative connections would be active, rather than high-level structural information. Conversely, at a phrase boundary a performer may need to know how the previous and subsequent phrases relate to one another and to the overall structure of the piece. At such a moment, “a small area of low-level structural connections may be active, sufficient to specify the immediate succession of events to be played, together with a section of the higher levels of generative structure specifying larger-scale relationships” (p. 4). Therefore when learning a piece, performers must strive to develop their memory of the overall structure of the composition, and of the way phrases and sections follow and relate to one another.

Lehmann and Ericsson (1995) have provided evidence that internal representations are not only formed and used during performance but can be manipulated. They measured general memorization ability by counting the number of trials required to perform two note-perfect renditions of excerpts from Schubert’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 137. The researchers found significant correlations between memorization ability and ability with other musical tasks (i.e., playing faster and slower than the notated tempo, playing right and left hands individually, and transposing into other keys). They suggested that these abilities are mediated by an underlying mental representation that permits encoded information to be reproduced and manipulated accurately.

Chaffin and Imreh (1994, 1996a, 1996b, 1997) systematically observed the practice of Imreh, a concert pianist, to determine whether she formed an internal (p.173) representation when memorizing J. S. Bach’s Italian Concerto (Presto) and whether that representation was hierarchically ordered. They examined the pianist’s videotaped practice on the piece and her concurrent and retrospective commentary on her practice. In doing so, they confirmed Ericsson and Kintsch’s (1995) prediction that skilled performers use hierarchically ordered retrieval schemes to recall encoded information. Chaffin and Imreh found—through their direct observations of practice and the pianist’s commentary—that she organized her practice and subsequent retrieval of the Presto according to its formal structure (i.e., Italian rondo form); in her practice she started and stopped more frequently at structural boundaries than in the middle of sections, and she compared the various repetitions of the A and B themes. The pianist’s knowledge of the movement’s formal structure allowed her to remember when repetitions occurred and the subtle changes between each successive occurrence.

Chaffin and Imreh’s research is the first to demonstrate that principles of expert memory (see Chase & Ericsson, 1982; Ericsson & Oliver, 1989) apply to concert soloists. Several issues remain to be resolved with respect to how these cognitive mechanisms relate to musical skill. In particular, how does the formation and use of such structures change as musicians acquire greater levels of overall competence? How do retrieval structures change across the practice process as musicians progressively learn a given composition for performance?

A recent paper by Williamon and Valentine (in press) addressed these questions by examining the practice of 22 pianists—spread across four levels of skill—as they prepared an assigned composition for a memorized performance. In general, the results indicate that the pianists segmented their assigned composition into meaningful sections and reported using those sections in both practice and performance. Empirical examinations of the pianists’ practice confirmed their reports in that they, like the concert soloist in Chaffin and Imreh’s study, used the music’s structure to guide their practice in preparing for the required memorized performance. Despite individual differences in the pianists’ identification of structure, the findings held true for all participants. Furthermore, they were greatest for those at higher levels of skill, they increased over the practice process, and their use correlated positively with assessments of performance quality (as judged by expert evaluators). Therefore, the identification and continued use of meaningful structure in practice—regardless of what that structure may be—seems to be an ability that develops with musical competence.

In investigating how experienced pianists and intermediate piano students reported memorizing the same pieces from the piano repertoire, Aiello (2001) found that experienced pianists were more able than the piano students to describe how they memorized piano compositions in terms of the musical structure and reported more often than the piano students that they had memorized the music using some aspects of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic memory. The piano students had difficulties explaining how they had memorized the pieces at all and reported that they relied mostly on rote memory. Experienced pianists tend to conceptualize a composition into independent but linked sections that create a coherent (i.e., meaningful) musical structure, and they organize their practice to start and stop at the beginnings of sections rather than at any point (p.174) within the piece. Novice pianists, instead, are more likely to approach a composition as an amorphous whole or as a series of independent notes (Gruson, 1988).

Three interview studies have demonstrated the extent to which professional musicians employ the analysis of the score when memorizing. Hallam (1997) interviewed 22 freelance professional orchestral musicians and 55 novice string players. She found that the strategies adopted by the professional musicians to memorize a composition were related in part to the difficulty of the piece. When memorizing a short, simple piece, some of them felt confident in relying on automated processes, but to memorize longer, more complex works such as a concerto, all of them tended to adopted a more analytic approach. However, the inexperienced musicians reported memorizing by using only repetition and automated process. None of them reported analyzing the music to memorize it. Similarly, Aiello (1999) examined the methods used by professional pianists to memorize piano pieces. They all emphasized that analyzing the score carefully and having a clear idea of the musical structure were the most important and reliable aids to memorization. When concert pianists were asked to give suggestions on how to memorize Bach’s Prelude in C Major from Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier, they all recommended analyzing the chord progression upon which this piece is based (Aiello, 2000a, 2000b).

In sum, the data of Chaffin and Imreh (1994, 1996a, 1996b, 1997), Chaffin, Imreh, and Crawford (2002), Williamon and Valentine (in press), Williamon (1999a), Hallam (1995, 1997), and Aiello (1999, 2000a, 2000b), alongside the theoretical proposals of Chase and Ericsson (1982) suggest that for experienced performers studying the structure of a given composition in detail will provide the most secure foundation for memorizing a work.

Music educators and music theorists have long stressed to performers the importance of studying the structure of musical compositions. Cook (1989), for example, has argued that

the ability to set aside details and see large-scale connections appropriate to the particular musical context, which is what analysis encourages, is an essential part of the musician’s way of perceiving musical sound. For the performer, it is obvious that analysis has a role to play in the memorization of extended scores, and to some extent in the judgment of large-scale dynamic and rhythmic relationships (p. 232).

The Role of Musical Style

When playing from memory, performers draw on not only their knowledge of the composition they are performing but their general knowledge of the musical style in which the piece is written. The style of a composition seems to influence how performers approach memorizing the music. When memorizing a contemporary work, some concert pianists report relying even more on their analytic memory to recall the unique patterns of the composition. Others, instead, depend more on kinesthetic memory because they find that they have to repeat the piece more to have it in their fingers. The pianist Seymour Bernstein articulated a number of difficulties that can be found when memorizing contemporary (p.175) and serial music and concluded that unless composers incorporate into their writing logical motivic developments, performers are forced to invent their own melodic associations or, indeed, to rely exclusively on their automatic pilot (Bernstein, 1981, p. 258).

Atonal pieces tend to be based on patterns and sonorities that are unique to the piece itself more so than tonal compositions. Not surprisingly, the research with concert pianists shows that they find atonal compositions more difficult to memorize than tonal music (Aiello, 1999; Miklaszewski, 1995). These findings are in agreement with the remarks made by the acclaimed pianists Claude Frank and Rudolf Firkusny during interviews many years ago. Claude Frank noted, “I do not memorize music easily that I do not hear thoroughly. For example, some contemporary music. I can force myself to memorize, but it’s hard work, and I tend to forget easily” (Marcus, 1979, p. 59). And Rudolf Firkusny commented, “When you are memorizing complex modern works, the harmonies are more complicated and anything but what you expected. Then you need much more concentration” (Noyle, 1987, p. 84). As psychological research has shown, the more a sequence of items is presented in an unpredictable order, the more difficult it will be for a subject to remember it (Chase & Simon, 1973; Simon, 1974).

Different Kinds of Memory

The information that we process when hearing music, reading a score, and playing an instrument creates memories. But are auditory memory, visual memory, and kinesthetic memory equally valuable in helping us to perform without the score? Which of these memories should we concentrate on to be sure to achieve our goal? The systematic psychological data on this question are scarce. Although most professional pianists report creating dependable memory strategies by relying mainly on the analysis of the musical structure, some also describe using aspects of auditory, visual, or kinesthetic memory to memorize. Others reveal using combinations of these types of memories (Marcus, 1979; Noyle, 1987). Research in cognitive psychology would support the notion that the more ways in which musical information is encoded, the more associations and connections will be formed to that information and, therefore, the more likely an individual is to remember it.

In their methods for memorizing piano music Matthay (1913, 1926) and Gieseking and Leimer (1932/1972) emphasized the importance of auditory and visual memory above kinesthetic memory. Gieseking and Leimer explained: “The fingers are the servitors of the brain, they perform the action the brain commands. If, therefore, by means of a well-trained ear, it is clear to the brain how to execute correctly, the fingers will do their work correctly” (p. 20). In fact, kinesthetic memory seems to be the one that is most questioned by concert pianists. André Watts noted, “I’m very mistrustful of tactile memory. I think it’s the first that goes” (Noyle, 1987, p. 147). Watts’s comments are in agreement with Leon Fleisher’s opinion: “I think probably the least reliable, in terms of public performance, is finger memory, because it’s the finger that deserts one first” (Noyle, 1987, p. 97). Kinesthetic memory may be the most helpful to enable children to (p.176) perform without the score, and is also what adult music students and inexperienced musicians report relying on to memorize (Aiello, 2000a, 2001; Hallam, 1997). Concert pianists, however, report depending on it only when playing fast virtuoso passages, because at a very fast tempo the automated response is occurring faster than the performer can think about it (Aiello, 1999).

Implications for Performers and Teachers

By and large, detailed discussions on how to memorize music tend not to be an integral part of the music lesson. Most piano teachers do not spend much time discussing how to memorize the repertoire they assign to their students. Many piano students simply memorize by rote even after they have achieved quite a good level of technical proficiency. Often students do not question at all how they memorize. And piano teachers, seeing that the students have memorized the assigned piece, do not question how the goal was obtained (Aiello, 1999, 2000a, in preparation).

If the students’ instrumental technique is more advanced than their theoretical understanding of what they are memorizing, how can they memorize by applying reflection and analysis? Rote learning can bring immediate results. For example, children trained in the Suzuki method can perform pieces from memory after just a few months of music training. And this is certainly a very rewarding and valuable musical experience for the child.

But there comes a time when the benefits of rote learning may fall short of the desired outcome because rote learning does not require a rich, profound understanding of the material (Aiello, 1999, in preparation; Hallam, 1997; chapter 7 in this volume). For memory to become reliable and long-lasting, a deeper understanding is essential. Therefore, we strongly recommend an active dialogue between the teacher and the student on the memory strategies being used by the student and how they may be improved. Students should be encouraged to question how they memorize so that they can better understand how memory works. Taking into account the students’ learning styles, teachers can help them achieve this goal.

While many professional musicians use the analysis of the music structure as their primary basis for memorizing a piece, it is not unusual for some students to start memorizing a composition without having analyzed the overall plan of the piece. Students will benefit from studying a composition’s structure as the basis for developing their memory strategies (Aiello, 1999, in preparation; Chaffin & Imreh, 1997; Gieseking & Leimer, 1932/1972; Hallam, 1995, 1997; Marcus, 1979; Matthay, 1913, 1926). They should come to value the importance of describing and analyzing all the theoretical aspects of the pieces to be memorized. When asked to discuss the music they practice and perform from memory, some students reveal that they have not fully integrated into their piano playing what they learned in music classes other than their piano lessons. It seems as if some students tend to compartmentalize what they learn in theory classes, analysis classes, and their piano lessons into separate domains, not seeing that there (p.177) is a common denominator to musical knowledge. Those students who do not fully integrate the various components of their musical knowledge fail to make the inherent connection between music performance and music theory, the same connection, in fact, that has been shown to be an integral part of how concert soloists memorize successfully (Aiello, 1999, 2000b). On the one hand, this is a sad commentary on education at large. On the other hand, it is encouraging to know that, as teachers, we can improve our students’ abilities to memorize by helping them integrate what they have learned from various sources. The instrumental teacher can help students understand that there really is a relationship between performance and theory. Some students may benefit from hearing their instrumental teachers give very explicit explanations about the musical structure of the piece they play and analyzing the piece along with the teacher during the instrumental lesson.

In addition, teachers might encourage their students to develop their auditory memory, explaining that above all, music is sound. Gieseking and Leimer placed training the musical ear as a foundation of their method and wrote, “Listening to one self is the most important factor of the whole of music study” (p. 10). Matthay, too, emphasized the fundamental value of developing the ear when learning to memorize. He warned: “There is nothing more fatal for our musical sense, than to allow ourselves—by the hour—to hear musical sounds without listening to them” (1913, p. 5). He explained how effective listening implies pre-listening all the time as to what the sounds should be. Whether the music to be performed is heard inwardly from memory, or is read from the score, or is heard externally, students must be aware that all playing always involves the ear (Priest, 1989; chapter 7 in this volume).

Furthermore, learning how to improvise can be helpful for memorizing music because improvisation requires having internalized the characteristics of a particular musical style to the point of being able to create a novel piece spontaneously. While in the past keyboard performers were expected to know how to improvise well, today relatively few classically trained piano students are expected to develop advanced improvisatory skills (Gellrich & Parncutt, 1998; chapter 7 in this volume). In interviews conducted with seven concert pianists, six of them considered their improvisatory skills to be helpful in the process of memorization; interestingly, even the pianist who reported that she did not know how to improvise thought that improvisation could be helpful for others (Aiello, 1999). The relationship between improvisatory skills and memorization skills could be researched further and could be addressed more frequently within the context of the piano lesson. In sum, students may be taught that memory is based on knowledge, on information that has been internalized meaningfully, and on the connections that are made between different aspects of what one knows and senses.

But where can a piano teacher start when students are not aware of the various types of memories that they could develop and are not able to integrate effectively the various components of their musical knowledge? A way to encourage a student become more cognizant of memory strategies could be for the teacher to ask: “What specific suggestions would you give to a technically proficient fellow student to help him or her memorize this piece?” In her teaching, (p.178) Aiello has found that asking this question helps students become more aware of what strategies they use when memorizing a piece. This question can make them channel their own memorization strategies into specific instructions that must be explicit enough for a fellow piano student to understand and to follow. Based on the teaching experience of the first author of this chapter, the following suggestions have been found to be helpful in teaching students how to memorize.

Suggestions Based on the Analysis of the Piece

  • Describe and analyze the piece in terms of its macrostructure (the overall form) and microstructure (movements, sections, major themes, sequences, characteristic intervals, modulations, key areas, rhythmic patterns, dynamics, phrasing, etc.) (see Matthay 1913, 1926; Gieseking & Leimer, 1932/1972).

  • Learn the landmarks of the piece. Describe where they occur in the piece and why. What leads to them? What occurs after them?

  • Describe in detail how the various sections of each movement (or of the piece) are linked together.

  • Highlight and describe the melodic and rhythmic patterns in the piece. Explain what they contribute to the music.

  • Use markers of different colors to highlight the various themes or voices and their recurrences in the piece. Describe what you did and why.

  • Discuss in detail the harmonic structure of the piece (modulations, key regions).

  • Mark the closures and the points of tension and resolution in the piece. Describe them.

  • Describe the gestures and the dynamics of the piece and how they are related to the overall structure of the composition.

  • Based on the analysis and the characteristics of the piece, describe what strategies would be best for memorizing this particular piece. Explain why.

  • Memorize in sections. Use the formal structure of the piece to create logical sections.

Suggestions Based on the Performance of the Piece

  • Practice each hand separately, and describe what each hand is supposed to play.

  • Rehearse the piece mentally. Practice away from the piano visualizing the score, visualizing the keyboard, and most of all hearing the music in your mind (Gieseking & Leimer, 1932/1972).

  • Sing the various themes or voices. Sing one voice while playing another; sing the melody while playing the accompaniment.

  • Play at a slow tempo, reflecting upon the structure and the various patterns in the piece.

  • Move to the rhythm, the tempo, and the gestures of the music.

  • Learn to improvise in the style of the music to be memorized. Through the development of improvisatory skills students can acquire additional means of encoding information based on the characteristics of a particular musical style. The knowledge and the instrumental dexterity required (p.179) ise according to a given style can help students in developing their memory strategies and in overcoming a memory lapse during a performance. Overall, knowing how to improvise in the style of a memorized piece can contribute to a musician’s knowledge and therefore can add to a performer’s sense of confidence.

These suggestions may be of more use to some performers than to others. Furthermore, some teachers may realize that only some of these strategies may be suited for a particular student, given his or her learning style. Regardless, we want to stress that by learning to reflect on how they memorize and by acquiring multiple systems to remember a piece students may gain a deeper understanding of how their memories work. Teachers can be the catalysts in this important educational process.


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