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The Four Types of Memory for Music

Memorizing music was very difficult for me until I learned this approach to the process. Here they are:





You should memorize them! There are only four. Let’s use a mnemonic- the first letter of each forms an acronym: A MAP. Let’s think of it as a memory map.

How does this work? First we need to know what each one really means and then we will see how each works separately and in tandem with the others.

Auditory memory is everything having to do with sound. We could have called it sound memory, but then we wouldn’t have A MAP.

How to: To use and develop your auditory memory you should listen carefully to great recordings of the music you are learning. Listen carefully to every aspect of sound pitch, timbre, texture, density, tone quality, harmony, rhythm, articulation. Do you hear the change of harmony that happens in the second clarinet? Do you hear how the harmony is different in when the theme is repeated. Listen to music by Faure’; you’ll hear it. In your practicing pay careful attention to how you sound. You should also sing. You don’t need to be a great singer, just use your voice to create the pitches and rhythms of the notes you need to learn. Be creative: can you sing the bass line while playing the melody or vice versa? (This is great way to practice unaccompanied Bach) Can you sing the viola part? Sing inside: do you really hear the music in your mind?

Muscle memory is everything having to do with how we move and feel our movements including feeling our way around the instrument. Fortunately… ,or unfortunately, muscle memory is very powerful. It’s like having a superpower that can be used for good or for evil. It all depends on how you train it. If standing too close to the music stand has caused you to practice crooked bowing 50,000 times- you have done that to yourself. If playing on a violin that is too big has done it- feel free to blame your teacher and parents.

How to: What you should do with this superpower: Find a teacher who can guide you. Train the movements that achieve the very best technical and musical results (easy and beautiful). Do this until you can’t get it wrong. Keep doing this. Practice is focused, mindful repetition. Apply the same movements to the next piece.

Analytical memory: it occurred to me some years ago that anything you can put into words qualifies as analytical memory. There will be a quiz on this. A student named Bradley had trouble coming up with the term analytical and coined ‘brainular’. I like it. Here are some examples:

How to:


Twinkle is in three parts; bread, peanut butter & jelly, and bread. Why is the middle part (which is one thing) made of peanut butter & jelly? ( which is two things) Because, while the melody notes are the same, the harmony is slightly different in the jelly part.

This minuet is 32 measures long. It is evenly divided; the first half and the second are each 16 measures. There is no trio, so it is a Baroque minuet, not a classical Minuet and Trio.

Other possibilities:

Go Tell Aunt Rhody has an alternating bowing pattern: the first measure starts down bow and the second starts up bow. The pattern continues until the end.

Bruch violin concerto #2. 1st movement, m. 35 E maj chord, G# dim. 7 ascending arp, A min. chord, C dim. 7 ascending arp. M. 36 is the same one octave higher with different versions of the same chords.

Suzuki book one Etude: thinking of the potato story helps to easily remember each section and how many times to play the repeated fragments.

So you can see- anything that you can put into words that helps your memory. Use your imagination. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about Western Buffalos- or Eastern.

Photographic memory is the least important, unless you are one of the rare people who actually are good at this. If you are, great! You won’t need to work at it much, will you? Better put your energy into the other three, though. Redundant backup systems are so useful when you need them, and just having them gives you so much more confidence. Photographic memory is seeing the music in your mind as if you are reading the notes from the page.

How to: Let’s take the Schirmer edition of the Mozart Violin Concerto Number in G. Notice how you read from a page:

Sometimes you see the whole or most of the page. You are aware of where the solo part begins on the bottom two lines after the tutti. On the flip side of the page is part that starts with the big rising G major arpeggio and the half step sixteenth note figure that works its’ way back down. Just past the middle of the page is that sort of singing/ horn call- (the lyrical second theme?) and the cadence in D major (dominant of G). The page is the one where the dramatic D minor part begins.... You get the idea, a memory of page layout and where certain features or land marks are on the page. Like the underlined part. It catches your eye. You may have even read it before you started the paragraph.

Sometimes you read each and every note one after the other, from left to right with only a peripheral perception of the rest of the page because you are really committing to memory the one measure just the way you read it. My conducting teacher in graduate school said he would work on that while on plane trips.

This visual memory can also apply to what you see while you play: what a straight bow looks like, the position of your violin when you shift, judging the position of your head by how it looks relative to the violin- anything that helps.

Synergize your memory skills.

How to: This might just happen very naturally while you practice or you may want to very specifically and intentionally do it on purpose. (I know that’s redundant, but it’s emphatically so). While you’re sitting there staring at the shape of the notes in measure 142 how about we check to be sure we’re hearing the notes in tune, in the right key, and with a beautiful singing violin sound. Then maybe focus on feeling how you vibrate the D# more than the first E and warm up the vibrato on the next E while your other fingers pose very gracefully over the A string in a beautiful hand frame ( a concept, therefore analytical memory). Any way you can combine two or more types of memory either naturally ( just happens) or intentionally will help you.

The Sum Summary and a Warning:

If you can achieve 100% memory of each of the four types of memory, the sum is, by my reckoning, 400% memory. That’s 100% plus 300% in backup systems. Then factor in the synergy coefficient, a healthful diet, plenty of good sleep and proper exercise and the result is… Way better that a bunch of mindless repetitions plus hope divided by worry. Try it out and make notes on how you use it and the ideas you add to it. Warning: Use with caution. This system may have the natural side effect of helping you memorize your schoolwork or win a huge amount of money on Jeopardy. If so, do send your thank you note and check directly to me.

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