Thursday, September 20, 2007

Musical Memory: true confessions

Oliver Sacks' fantasic article on amnesia and musical memory in next week's "New Yorker" magazine addresses something that I have always wondered about: playing music from memory.

Clive Wearing, the subject of the article, is able to play and recall pieces of music he knew years ago, even though he is not capable of remembering what he did a few seconds ago. He is able sightread at the piano or the organ, speak and write in several languages, dance, and perform hands-on tasks like making coffee and dressing himself elegantly, because he somehow physically understands what to do.

I have always had a hard time memorizing music. If I were pressed to learn to play a piece from memory, I don't think I could do it, yet if I were to have a modern flute, an instrument I haven't practiced in twenty years, in my hands, I know that I would be able to play a series of about ten orchestral excerpts, a bunch of etudes, and scales, and a bunch of repertoire, including pieces that I won't remember until I have the instrument in my hands and I am prompted by the first two or three notes.

If I have a fiddle in my hands, I can play parts of a handful of pieces that I know from muscle memory and by ear due to 15 years of practice: a page or so of solo Bach, a page or so of a Mozart concerto; but if I were to try to play the Beethoven Sonata I am working on right now (that I practiced carefully not an hour ago), the only way I could call it into my mind would be by visualizing the music on the page. The hard parts--the parts that are hard to both decipher and to physically play--won't make it into my visual memory for at least a month, and I know that I will never be able to play it from memory (though my goal is to be able to simply play the piece).

I can play many of the Bach cello suites by ear on the viola because I used to hear them practiced every day when I was a child. When trying to actually play them from memory, unless I am not paying attention at all and happen to make it further, I pretty much crash and burn after a page or so. Playing a whole suite or even a whole movement of solo Bach from memory is something that I know I will never do. It's a good thing that I have the music.


Lee said...

I find this question of musical memory fascinating and feel I must quiz some of my kids more closely. Jakob, for example, seems to commit whole swatches of music to memory without any trouble. This afternoon he's got a gig playing one of the Bach cello suites (don't know which one) that he told me yesterday he hasn't played in quite a while and needed to practise, but that he'd forgotten to bring the score with him. 'No problem, I still remember it.' But his memory for other stuff is in no way remarkable, even rather poor at times. I really must ask him if he sees the notes on the page, whether it's aural, muscular, or something else altogether ... or a combination!

MJLW said...

I have always found the concept of memorizing music to be an interesting one. As a classically trained pianist and vocalist, I have had to do my fair share of memorizing in my musical career. Similarly to you, I have always had problems memorizing the “hard parts” of Beethoven Sonatas. For example, I had almost the entire length of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique memorized. However, the fast section of the first movement always caused me problems, and even though I rehearsed it countless times, it ended up being the section that I stumbled over when performing the memorized piece in my recital. In contrast, memorizing and performing my vocal pieces has never been a problem unless I entered into the performance with insufficient preparation. The reason for this, I believe, is because of my aural and visual memory.

When learning a vocal piece, my brain makes a strong connection between the notes and the words because the music and the text usually match in emotion and overall feeling. Whether it is the actual physical shape of the music or just the musicality of the piece, there is usually some correlation between the words and the music. This causes my brain to form a strong visual and aural relationship with what I am singing. On the contrary, when learning a lengthy sonata, the brain is processing so much that it is difficult for it to create a visual or aural connection to the notes in the tricky parts. I believe these connections are more difficult to form for the obvious reasons; the actual notes on the page look scrambled and the brain usually hears difficult sections as a whole rather than note by note. Therefore, when trying to perform a difficult section from memory, the brain has a hard time remembering the individual notes.

Lee said...

I had a long phone chat with Jakob, who told me they're actually taught about several methods of memorising music at his (now former) school, but that the 'muscle memory' is considered risky, since the moment there's nervousness or tension, you start to think about the individual notes and can stumble - a bit like thinking about walking, which hinders doing it smoothly. I believe this is called implicit/procedural memory. Instead, the students are trained to visualise the entire score in front of them with all its elements, to study it without the instrument in hand, in fact, but he himself suspects there's at least one other component as well - an aural one, and possibly emotional.

Elaine Fine said...

I wonder if the ease that Jakob and MJLW have might be connected with relative youth? I still have texts in my brain that I learned when I was in my 20s, and music in my fingers that I learned with I was in my teens. Now, as I near 50 (I'm 48), it is hard for me to even remember telephone numbers and passwords!

Maybe it is best to "cram" stuff in when you are young and not spend too much time questioning the way it got there.