“The true art of memory is the art of attention.” — Samuel Johnson


A good memory is the single most important skill a musician can have. If you haven’t been blessed with a great memory, don’t worry, it is something that can be improved and enhanced. Memories are like muscles and they can be developed with a little work. Recent science reveals that when a thought occurs or an action is performed, the brain constructs electronic pathways that represent that thought or action. If these pathways are traversed regularly, the pathways literally get thicker and fatter, exactly like a real path in the woods does. The more a path is traveled, the wider it gets from the use. This by itself doesn’t provide us with any new revelations about how to build a good memory. We already knew that if you want to remember something you should repeat it over and over. What it does provide is a new way of thinking about memory: memory is a very real, very physical thing. It is no longer just something that happens mysteriously in some nebulous concept of mind. It is real and it is pliable, and like a muscle it can be changed and molded by how we use it or how we don’t use it.

The Importance of Memory In Music

In today’s world where any fact or figure can be referenced digitally upon a whim, it is too easy to discount the importance of a good memory. Unlike bankers or salesmen however, musicians can’t afford to outsource their memories to computers. We have to remember melodies, chord progressions, key signatures, riffs, phrases, finger positions, scale patterns, rhythmic patterns, lyrics, and the notes several different staves; and we need to recall them instantly as a song progresses in real time. A guitarist or saxophone player can’t consult their smart-phone in the middle of a solo to find what note to play next, or respond to what the drummer or piano player just played. A musician’s memory must be quick, fluid and changeable.

Memory is not a subject that gets enough attention in formal or private music education. Most of the material learned in music schools is based on the concept of music literacy and the ability to read music. Think about it. Why is music written down in the first place? It is written down so we can remember it or to communicate it. Written music is a memory device; but it is also a communications tool. Composers write down music as a way of both remembering it themselves and as a way of sharing it and teaching it to other musicians.

What if we made the development of our memory a top priority in our personal music education? We don’t need to quit reading or writing music. On the contrary, a developed memory improves our sight reading abilities enormously. I contend that improving your memory is the absolute best way to improve yourself as a musician. Improve the memory, and everything else improves in kind. What if you could hear or read the lyrics to a song and from that moment on be able to recall them instantly at any time? What if you could read through a piece of sheet music once and be forever able to remember what you read? Even if you could not physically execute the music without extensive practice, you would have quite an advantage to say the least. What if you could read about the seven modes of the major scale and remember the whole and half step patterns of them all and apply them at will? What if you could memorize the complex chord and key changes to you favorite jazz songs after one or two run times through? What if you could listen to a Bach fugue once or twice or even three times and then remember the entire sequence of notes? Do you think you would begin to feel that you were growing as a musician?

The above examples seem extreme. Only a savant would be capable of such things right? But the fact that some people, savants or not, can do these things is proof that the human mind is capable of these things. We call them special because they are so rare. But they are no more or less human than any one of us. The interesting thing is that most savants didn’t have to work hard, if at all, to acquire this ability. They just somehow discovered that they had this strange talent. I have heard stories of people who have been hit by lightning and suddenly can play classical piano pieces fluently after the fact. Not only do they not know where they got their newfound talent, they wonder where they even got the desire. I recall one story where a person hit by lightning never had an interest in classical music let alone any piano education, yet they were afterward drawn to the piano and to classical music and found they had amazing abilities and aptitude to learn it.

Raising Our Expectations for Memory

In the Ray Bradbury science fiction novel “Fahrenheit 451” firemen, instead of putting out fires as we know them to do, are employed by a corrupt government to seek out and burn every book in the country. People begin hiding books away and memorizing them word for word before they can be burned as a way to preserve the knowledge, wisdom and imagination contained in the books. They begin taking as their own names, the title of the books. Two people meeting on the street might say to each other, “Hello Wizard of Oz” and “Hi Sea Wolf”. The memory of the citizens was one thing that the corrupt government could not take away. Even as the citizens were thrown in jail for their crimes, the stories lived on in their memories and were transfered to others orally for safe keeping.

Can you imagine committing a 400 page novel to memory? “Fahrenheit 451” is a science fiction novel, but it is not an extreme exaggeration. In the days before books or paper (or even papyrus) were invented neither stories nor musical compositions were written down. There was nothing to write them on if you wanted to other than stone or sand or clay. This meant that music and stories were stored in people’s memories. Epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey were passed orally from person to person for hundreds of years before it was technologically possible to write them down, and they are each hundreds of pages in length! The Bradbury science fiction example demonstrates the human desire and potential need for such memory; and the Homer example is a real world, historical event that demonstrates that humans are capable of remembering much more information than our culture currently requires of us.

What does all this mean for us as musicians seeking to improve our memories? It means we can and should raise the bar when it comes to what we are capable of. We have proof that memory can be expanded, built, developed and strengthened just like a muscle or an idea. It means we can be confident that if we open our imaginations to the new possibilities we can find new, or rediscover ancient ways of remembering. When we apply this to music, it also means that there is adventure ahead!

Memory Technique

Once upon a time there was a Greek goddess named “Mnemosyne” (pronounced nem-o-seen). She was the goddess of remembrance. The people worshiped her because they saw that the ability to remember brought them great confidence, power, and fortune. They may also have noticed how a lack of memory often brought great misfortune and strife. As the years passed, people began inventing new ways to remember things in order to attain such power and good fortune and avoid misfortune and strife. They soon began calling these techniques “mnemonic devices”.

Mnemonic Devices

A mnemonic device then is simply a technique for enhancing or stimulating memory. There are many ways to create mnemonic devices. Some have been passed down for generations, others we make up on the spot when we need to remember what we need to pick up at the grocery store, or the names of your neighbors seven cats.

Two popular music related examples are the ways we are taught to remember the names of the lines and spaces on the musical staff. The G Clef , which is used for instruments such as guitar, violin, and the right hand side of the piano, consists of four spaces and five lines. We remember the spaces by the convenient fact that, from bottom to top, the letters assigned to the spaces spell the word FACE. We remember the names of the lines on the staff with a slightly different technique. Since they don’t spell out a word, we assign a word that begins with each letter and create a memorable sentence: Every Good Boy Does Fine. The first letter of every word describes the name of each line of the staff. EGBDF.

These are good examples of mnemonic techniques that use the familiarity of language as the central device for remembering. But there are other ways. The ancient Greeks are said to have used a visual technique where they imagined objects representing things they wanted to remember placed in a room they were very familiar with. The more bizarre the placement of the object the better. When they wanted to recall the data, they would simply imagine themselves walking through the room, observing the items they needed to recall. The familiarity of the room and the strangeness of the placement of the items somehow burns the information into memory much better than does rote memorization.

Types of Memory

We may be able to apply mnemonic techniques to some of our fact or list based memorization tasks but a memory of the music itself is not much like remembering lists of items. Musical memory has more to do with muscle memory or the visual patterns of our fingers on our instruments or the recalling of a series of actual sounds, melodies and chord progressions.

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory is built on frequent and consistent repetition of movement that results when we produce notes on our instrument or sing. This type of memory is developed over time. Muscle memory is the most reliable kind of memory because its retrieval seems to be completely automatic. It is like simply turning on a machine in your mind that recalls the notes and triggers the synapses in you brain. These synapses in turn trigger the muscles and tendons required to play the notes. The muscle memory contains not just the notes but all of the information about rhythm, tempo and dynamics as well.

Visual Patterns

Much of what we remember about how to play a piece of music is not so much related to the sound of the notes themselves or to automatic muscle memory, but comes from the visual recollection of the patterns our fingers form on the instrument. For example, piano players will remember the general “shape” of a piece by the forms their hands take over this or that section of the music. The chords and arpeggios take on a visual pattern that can be conjured up in the mind and recalled. The same is true for guitar players who memorize chords, scales and melodies by relating them to geometrical shapes on the guitar’s fretboard. When we practice visualization techniques we are using these sight based patterns as our link to remembering the music and triggering the muscle memory, not necessarily the sound of the music itself.

Sound Based Memory

Memory based on the actual sound of the music is what we are trying to access when we ask someone to “hum a few bars” so we can recall a song. We have probably all experienced moments when even though you knew a particular song extremely well, just hearing or thinking about the songs name was not enough to trigger memories of how to play it. All it would take is for someone to sing the opening notes and the entire tune would immediately came flooding back instantly.

Attention: Let The Music Remember You

It seems the best way to retain music in memory is to use all these various ways in combination. When we practice we put them to use both consciously and subconsciously. When we practice we are paying attention to the music and that attention is the key to memory.

Think about a piece of music that you have memorized extremely well and ask yourself how it is that you came to remember it so well. The first thing that comes to your mind is that you “just know it”. It is this feeling of “just knowing” that is what we are aiming for in our remembering. But think a bit more about it. Most likely you didn’t actively try to remember it, and you probably didn’t use any sort of trick or gimmick to force your memory. You probably practiced it a lot because you loved the music and spent lots of “quality time” with it. You simply had given the song so much attention it has become part of who you are. You remember it not just with your mind but in your fingers and toes and heart and soul. You couldn’t forget that song if you tried.

This tells us that a good memory is not achieved with gimmicks for recalling things that you carelessly stuff into dusty pigeon holes in your brain. Good memory is earned by putting your attention on the music long enough and consistently enough that is seeps into your physical body aswell as your spiritual essence. The best way to learn music is to love it and attend to it. If you do this, the music will take on a life of its own and you won’t have to worry about remembering it, it will remember you!

This article is taken from a chapter of my eBook “Choosing Notes”.

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