Analysis of Scarlatti Sonata in C

What better remedy for a memory lapse than learning a little Scarlatti sonata?

Scarlatti wrote an astonishing 555 keyboard sonatas over the course of his life (1685-1757). Although hugely diverse in character, they have an energy and rhythmic vitality that keeps them fresh and appealing nearly 300 years later. I’ve played four Scarlatti Sonatas to date –  including the wonderful, but challengingly fast, G major K427 – and for me, one of the essential traits that connects the dozens of Scarlatti sonatas I’ve learnt, sightread or listened to is a satisfyingly clear structure, making them relatively easy both to listen to and memorise.

With this in mind, I recently decided to learn the effervescent Sonata in C major K159. Mostly for my own benefit, thought I would write down a little analysis – DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A MUSICOLOGIST! The piece races along in 6/8 Allegro time, with a distinctly  Spanish flare, and follows what became standard sonata form, starting with a clear theme in the tonic (C major), modulating via the dominant (G major) into a development section, then returning to the tonic for the recapitulation. The structure is actually a rounded binary form, which at a basic level can be described as A-B but with repeats is, more revealingly, AA-BA’-BA’. The proportions of the piece are mirrored.

figure-3-equalized-time-comparisons-in-wave-formI found an interesting analysis of the piece in the International Symposium on Performance Science,* which compared the audio traces of numerous recorded performances of the piece (normalised to be the same length). This is quite fascinating for two reasons. First, I think the binary AB structure is quite clear in all of them, and a more detailed look reveals that the full AA-BA’-BA’ structure is also apparent in most. Second, I found the volume differences between the performers quite remarkable! Clearly there are a number of different options for how one might play such a piece on a modern piano, with choices to be made about which elements to highlight and what dynamic range to use.

Delving deeper into the details of the score, the structure inside each of the sections is also very clear. Each section begins with a clear, repeated statement of the theme, followed by development and elongation of that theme, followed by a different figuration, which is then also repeated and elongated to the end of the section. The actual memorisation work, in terms of notes to learn, is therefore substantially less it appears at first glance, as so much of the piece is repetitive.

Harmonically, the first section is initially in C major modulating to its dominant G major; the middle section is a fiery mixture of G major, F minor and C minor; and the final section is entirely in C major. There are several important ‘crux’ moments (identified by Scarlatti scholar Ralph KirkPatrick), pivotal points after the main thematic material approximately half-way through both the A and A’ sections that serve as important melodic, harmonic and structural markers. These need extra care and attention to ensure that you either do or don’t modulate – essential to avoid either going round in a never-ending loop, or finishing abruptly skipping most of the piece!

This is a fun piece to play, and a quick piece to memorise. Deciding how to produce a convincing performance may take me some time, but hopefully it can now be informed by the knowledge of the underlying structure that Scarlatti so carefully created.

*Performing Musical Structure: crux-phi perceptions in Domenico Scarlatti’s sonata K. 380 (PDF Download Available). Available from:’s_sonata_K_380 [accessed Oct 25, 2016]

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Visualisation in memorisation

After my less than auspicious performance a few weeks’ ago, I started thinking about how I could have diagnosed the problem  and prevented the memory lapse before it occurred. Coincidentally, while I was pondering this, the fabulous Cross-Eyed Pianist penned a blog on the value of visualisation in performance, which was exactly what I’d been thinking about.

Visualisation – seeing something in the mind’s eye – is an incredibly useful tool for memorisation, as it provides a memorable pictorial representation of the piece in addition to auditory and analytical ones. There are of course different things one can visualise when trying to create a memorable pictorial representation of a piece:

  • the keys played
  • the look of your hands on the keyboard
  • the score
  • colours or shapes associated with sections of the piece

Phandsonkeysersonally, as a pianist, I find the first two of these particularly useful because if you look at your hands while playing, this is what you will actually see during performance. I try to visualise my fingers and the keys they will play while simultaneously listening to the piece in my head. If you know the piece well, listening mentally is better than listening to a recording as you can easily manipulate the tempo, and slow down to an extreme where it really is possible to hear, see and name every note as it goes past. This requires enormous concentration, but can be done anywhere away from the keyboard – sitting on the train, lying in bed, etc. I also find it useful to do twice, concentrating on each hand separately.

This is incredibly revealing practice. If there is a section where you can hear the notes but cannot see them or name them in your head, then you don’t really know them! When I did this exercise with my ill-fated Haydn sonata, it was immediately apparent where the memory slip occurred – at a small jump where I had simply no idea, away from the keyboard, what notes I should be jumping to! And after that, I was unable to find a mental image to go with the mental sounds for several lines of music. I now know exactly where I need to concentrate my practice of this piece to sort out the memory problem.

I will definitely be incorporating this kind of mental workout into my practice regime before my next performance, no matter how small or apparently insignificant that performance might be.



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Letting things slip…

doh-homer-simpson-dohIt’s been a while since I blogged about music. And a while since I thought actively about memorising. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I suffered an epic memory collapse over the weekend! Time to start blogging again… and what better to place to start than with a bit of post-game analysis…

Thankfully, I was playing at a very friendly and informal gathering. There was no need to be nervous, though of course performing solo classical music in front of people is always a little scary. Importantly, it is categorically different from just playing alone in the comfort of your own home. For starters, the acoustic of the room was different from home, and the piano – a beautiful Steinway D –  was surprisingly quiet from my position at the piano stool with the music stand raised. Plus I managed to sit too low. Such minor things can be quite discombobulating, and pressing on without trying to fix anything predictably meant that my mind kept dwelling on these issues as I played, distracting me from the task at hand.

Despite this, everything was going well, at first. I was playing the first movement of a Haydn Sonata in D major (Hob XVI:24), which is well within my ability and I have been playing from memory since the start of the year. I’ve workshopped it and played it at another informal concert earlier in the year. So it should all have been fine, right? But suddenly, from no where, catastrophe struck! About three-quarters of the way through the exposition section, I had a complete memory blank! I managed (with limited success) to improvise my way through to the development section, only to have the same thing happen again – in exactly the same place – in the recapitulation! Improvising Haydn is obviously rather tricky, though at least I managed to end back in the tonic… But it was a mess.

So what went wrong? Clearly, I did not prepare sufficiently. In fact, I broke the golden rule of how NOT to memorise – just playing through with the score! I find Haydn fairly easy to memorise, and committed the Sonata to memory quickly and easily just through playing. As a result, I didn’t bother to analyse the piece in detail, nor did I ensure that there were plenty of safe starting places throughout (the ultimate safety net for memory slips!). I hadn’t practiced hands separately, or used any of the tricks and tools that the pros suggest. I hadn’t spent time away from the piano mentally rehearsing the piece, I just played it over and over again until motor memory (commonly known as muscle memory) could get me through. The problem with motor memory is that it is notoriously unreliable under stress and, when it fails, there’s nothing your brain can do to help! You need to build other layers of memory – additional musical representations – to rely on, which I have done meticulously in the past, for exams and important concerts, but conspicuously neglected to do in this case.

This was definitely a learning experience for me, and a wake-up call not to get complacent. It also highlights the value of low risk practice performances – as it turns out, life goes on even after a memory lapse, and now I know not to let things slip again…

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By Heart (book review)

ByHeartEarlier this year, I received a copy of “By Heart: the Art of Memorising Music” by harpsichordist and blogger Paul Cienniwa. Published in 2014, this little gem is exactly the kind of book I had been searching for when I started this blog back at the start of 2013!

The book provides some clear guidance as to how to approach the daunting task of memorising a piece, from nothing to performance. Cienniwa’s personal perspective on this topic is fascinating – he  stopped memorising in college, when he switched from piano to harpsichord, and actively decided to start again nearly 20 years later. This experience has resulted some very clear and sensible recommendations for memorisation:

  • Mental practice away from the instrument is hugely valuable, and should account for perhaps as much as half of a musician’s practice time.
  • Create musical landmarks in a piece that can act as personal rehearsal marks. Memorising and practicing starting from any of these ‘chunks’ is crucial for accurate and efficient memorising that is robust to little slips in performance.
  • Use a practice log and timer to plan your work and make most efficient use of time. This includes time spent on different pieces, specific slow practice or memorising goals, as well as time spent at or away from the instrument.
  • Be patient! Memorising a piece securely takes time, and is a fruitless activity if rushed.

The book is very short and can be read in under an hour, which is great for those wishing to get straight into memorising, though I would have like to have read more about the scientific side of memorisation (surprise, surprise!). But that’s not really what the book’s about. Cienniwa touches on different types of memory – tactile, visual and aural – and although he mentions the value of understanding the form and harmonic structure of a piece, cognitive memory is not specifically included on the list. For me, this type of fact-based, logical memory (harmonic progressions, for example) is important for having a mental framework upon which to hang the other types of memory, and for dealing with memory slips. But ultimately it is the layering of different types of memory that is probably most important.

Like me, Cienniwa believes that “if a piece is not memorised, it is not learned.” He takes a hard-line approach to memorisation, stating that “I should be able to write out every memorised piece away from the instrument”. This is really a very high bar to set! I have tried this approach before, but I doubt many memorisers could make this claim for most of the pieces they play from memory. But the idea is laudable, and highlights the point that true memorisation is not just about getting a piece “in the fingers”, but about really knowing every note, every phrase, every dynamic and every section of a piece inside out. Only when this goal is realised can we be confident that a piece is secure enough to perform from memory.

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Respecting the music

Off-limitsAn interesting article over on the Cross-Eyed Pianist blog (sparked by a heated debate amongst some fellow pianists on Facebook!) has got me thinking about whether certain repertoire should be off-limits to amateurs? Are there pieces that are simply too challenging for non-professionals to even attempt?

There are those who believe that, yes, there are indeed pieces that amateurs should leave well alone. Hugely technically challenging pieces – of which there are many in the piano repertoire –  should be respected by those who cannot hope to do them justice. We should all be aware of our limits, and leave the tough stuff to those who can handle it!

I think most musicians probably disagree with this position. Personally I don’t think any repertoire should be off-limits, to anyone. We all need to be aware of our level and personal limitations, but that’s true of professionals and amateurs alike. Many individuals have physical limitations that mean they will never be able to play certain pieces, but that has no effect on their ability to play other repertoire – for example, having small hands is a curse for pianists who wish to play Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, but may actually bean asset in Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart. Finding and expressing the beauty of a piece of music can be both a challenge and a joy for anyone, irrespective of it’s technical demands.

I cannot think of a better way of respecting the music of great composers than by dedicating many hours to playing and memorising it. Listening to recordings and live concerts given by great performers is wonderful too, of course, but undoubtedly a more passive way to experience music than playing it and internalising it yourself. Learning the music, to such a level that you can see the score in the mind’s eye and listen along without the need for external sound, is surely a greater mark of respect than playing it note-perfect in every performance?

In reality, the boundary between amateurs and professional musicians is blurred. Many amateurs are highly skilled, qualified musicians, and many professionals rarely perform in public. At the end of the day, any musician (particularly soloists!) must decide what repertoire they are happy to play in concert in front of strangers, versus that which they prefer to play for their own enjoyment, in the safety of their own home. And here, I believe, is where the most stark difference occurs between amateurs – literally ‘lovers’ of music – and professional performers who must make a living from music. Those of us who have the (dubious!) ‘luxury’ of earning a living outside of performing can afford never to play to a fee-paying public, if we so desire. We may play to friends and family, students and colleagues, or simply to ourselves, without having to conquer performance anxiety and the very real possibility of making fools of ourselves on stage. This choice should certainly not act as a barrier to playing particular repertoire. Professional performers, on the other hand, must make a living from performing and accept that anything less than a polished performance is unlikely to help their career progression or recording sales.

As an amateur pianist, there is no doubt that there are many pieces that I will never be able to play well enough even for my own satisfaction (and wouldn’t dare inflict on anyone else!), and others that I believe I play well enough both for myself and others to enjoy. There’s a balance that I find hard to strike between painstakingly learning more challenging repertoire and playing technically easier repertoire to a higher musical level. The guidance of a teacher to steer any unwary students towards repertoire that will they will find challenging yet satisfying is crucial. But no music should be off-limits and, regardless of one’s ability, it is a privilege to be able to study some of the greatest works that have ever been created by the human mind.

Read Fran Wilson‘s excellent blog on this topic here.

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No one can take it away

The “Lady in Number 6” is a short but truly inspirational film about 109-year old Alice Hertz-Sommer, a concert pianist and the oldest holocaust survivor until her death earlier this year. After a remarkable and long life, this irrepressible lady played piano every day until the end, recalling many of the pieces that literally saved her life. Sommer played over 100 concerts whilst imprisoned in a concentration camp, including all of Chopin’s 24 etudes from memory.

I can’t hope to do justice to such an incredible story in this blog. But the film gives simply the best reason ever for memorising music: “Put as much as you can into your head, because no one can take that away from you.” Can’t argue with that.

Watch this short clip but be prepared to be amazed, inspired and humbled:

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Fabulous Folk

I have just spent a merry few days at the fabulous Cambridge Folk Festival. Although I don’t personally play any folk music, or traditional folk instruments, I love the melodies, wonderful rhythms and a good dance! There was some amazing musical talent on display at the festival, and a veritable panoply of live instruments – fiddle, flute, guitar, pipes, harp, drums, etc – played staggeringly well (as evidenced by the awesome Irish band Lúnasa, pictured below).


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t see a single sheet of notated music at the festival. Every performer in all of the sets I watched played from memory. Indeed, playing folk music from memory is largely expected, and while various ‘fake’ books of folk tunes exist, folk musicians often learn music by ear rather than using a score. Although some of the melodies and rhythms are undoubtedly highly repetitive, there is enormous skill in having (seemingly) hundreds of tunes ‘in the fingers’ as well as the skill to decorate and combine them in exciting new ways.

Learning music by ear removes one of the key memory aids, namely a visual memory of the score. Although singers will usually have the words written down somewhere, and the chords may be notated on a ‘cheat sheet’, the same is not necessarily true of the melody. Musicians must therefore rely more heavily on other types of memory, including motor memory (through repetitious practice) and auditory memory (through listening to the music). Learning to recognise musical intervals and translate them onto the instrument is particularly important when relying heavily on auditory memory. Even if there is no formal score to analyse, it is important to have a good mental map of each piece, such as the structure and harmonic patterns, otherwise it is easy to get lost. As with classical chamber music, visual communication between folk musicians in a band is also important for key and tempo changes.

While I’m hugely impressed by the musical memory of folk musician, both amateur and professional, I remain somewhat baffled as to why it has become so different in the classical world. Although many classical pieces are extremely complex and no doubt harder to memorise than folk tunes, which have often withstood the test of time largely as a result of being memorable, I think part of the reason for the difference is simply expectation. Folk music is usually played without a score, so folk musicians are expected to learn how to memorise from an early stage and have to rely on it. Unlike classical musicians, who are often required to read music and use the score, folk musicians are generally encouraged to join in and play by ear. Regardless of the musical genre, that must be a skill worth learning.


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How to memorise music, in theory and practice

sunflowerThe question of whether anyone can memorise music was a hot topic of conversation at the magical Lot piano course for advanced amateur pianists, which I had the privilege to attend last week. Our insightful teacher Susan Tomes gave two wonderful concerts from memory, and was clear about the importance and usefulness of memorising. Despite some marvelous playing (and epic multi-part sight-reading!), most participants did not play from memory and were clearly nervous about trying; I did play from memory (obviously…) and was very pleased not to have any memory lapses throughout the five pieces I played (though I still made plenty of errors)! I don’t think I would have managed that a few years ago, and the course got me thinking about how to pull together everything I’ve learnt over the last 18 months of this blog.

So, how do we memorise music and what practice strategies help? I’ve settled on just two key points about memorising that I think are really useful, both of which suggest various practice strategies for memorising:

(1) Chunking and chaining

chainlinksflippedWe can only memorise things in small chunks, which then have to be joined together like links in a chain to form a sequence. The size of each chunk depends on the prior knowledge of the individual, so that although some skilled performers might be able to memorise large sections of a piece, others should focus on a phrase or even a bar at a time. The fact that we memorise in chunks suggests various specific practice strategies:

  • Identify patterns (scales, chords, harmonic progressions, repeated motifs, etc.) that can form appropriately sized musical chunks for learning. If you have to memorise each note individually it will take much longer as the chunks will be small and plentiful!
  • Learn musical ‘chunks’ (bars, phrases, sections, etc.) and repeat each individual chunk until it is memorised. Try varying a few things – such as articulation, tempo, voicing, rhythm and even key – to improve detailed memory. Remembering new things is hard work, so take regular breaks, then come back and check your memory.
  • Work on the links between chunks, again looking for musical patterns or familiar signposts to help make the transition from one chunk to the next. Eventually small memorised chunks become long sequences, but beware of the links in the chain. Memory slips often occur at the boundaries between chunks (particularly if they coincide with pages of the score), so practice starting within chunks rather than only from boundaries.

(2) Multiple representations (visual, auditory, motor, cognitive)

LayersMusic can be stored in our memory through various different representations, and if our memory for one representation fails, the others can act as a back-up. Even if your fingers can’t find the notes, your mind should know what they are, and vice versa. Since music is much more than the sum of its parts, these complementary representations also provide a framework for integrating all the tiny details with the bigger picture. Again, the fact that we can form multiple representations suggests several specific practice strategies:

  • Analyse the music, in order to build up a holistic view of the piece from a purely conceptual perspective. Although this sounds daunting to many people, it is actually not that difficult and can be very interesting and informative. Formal analysis is not required, but a basic knowledge of the themes and harmonic progressions that occur through a piece is stunningly useful for memorising and interpreting the music.
  • Study the music away from the instrument, which can include looking at the score (to build up visual memory for the score or to analyse the music), listening to performances (either recorded or inside your head), ‘playing the notes’ on a table, or writing out the score from memory (to find our where your memory is fuzzy). Neuroimaging studies have indicated that thinking about doing something, such as playing or listening to music, activates the same regions of the brain as actually doing it, so the value of mental practice should not be underestimated.
  • Keep practising! Ultimately we need to be able to produce the notes without too much conscious thought, and the best way to build muscle memory is through repetition, repetition, repetition. But make sure to play accurately (don’t practice mistakes!) and always with musicality.


I am a firm believer that anyone can memorise music, although there is no doubt that it will always be more of an uphill struggle for some than others. But even if memorising is difficult, even if it is a burden, there are still good reasons to try. In addition to the mental benefits that come from memorising, it is wonderfully fulfilling to be able to sit down at one’s instrument and simply play without needing the score. More importantly from a performance perspective, some sections of difficult works are essentially unplayable if the performer has to manage the dual challenge of looking at the score as well as the fingers, and of course memorising provides a great solution to unwieldy page turns!

I’m convinced not only that memorising is worth the extra effort, but also that musical memory can be improved through practice, and that the fear of a memory lapse in performance will gradually lessen. Although musical memory may not come naturally to everyone or work reliably without some effort, it will develop and can be practiced. The ideas listed above have helped me understand and improve my musical memory enormously, so perhaps they will help you too. As Gerald Klickstein (author of The Musician’s Way) recently remarked in The Strad, “With intelligent practice… all of us can acquire the knack to step on stage, free of the printed score, and share music from our souls.”

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Memorising Beyond the Notes

notationsMost of the time when we think about memorising music, we think about learning the notes. This is perfectly natural of course – without the notes, of which there can be a great many, there would be no music, no melody, no harmony. However, getting the notes right is only part of the story, and how the notes are played is just as important. Dynamics, tempo, attack, articulation, phrasing, voicing – these extra notations are crucial to making music and can change a mediocre rendition into a brilliantly insightful interpretation. However, memorising these markings can be just as big a task as learning the notes.

Unlike the notes themselves, in general there are two different types of additional notations to memorise: those written on the score as prescribed by the composer, and those decided by the performer who is interpreting the work. Depending on the composer (and the performer!) the relative weight of these two can vary hugely! Baroque composers such as Scarlatti and Bach expected a certain degree of improvisatory freedom from their performers so their scores are typically extremely sparsely notated. In contrast, Twentieth Century composers such as Schoenberg and Ravel wanted as much control over the performer as possible and their scores are often densely marked. Either way, during the course of learning a piece, a performer must learn when to use a variety of:

  • dynamics (i.e. loud, soft, getting louder or softer)
  • tempo (i.e. fast, slow, getting faster or slower)
  • attack (i.e. start of the note, from gradual to sudden)
  • articulation (i.e. continuity of a single note, or transition between multiple notes, e.g. staccato, slurred etc.)
  • phrasing (i.e. shape of a group of notes)
  • voicing (i.e. prominence of an individual note among several when played simultaneously)
  • instrument specific markings (e.g. mute, pedal for pianists, etc.)

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that learning these markings is a separate endeavour from learning the notes – far from it, they should be learnt together. But we should recognise that memorising notations is in itself an important part of learning a piece. As with notes, memorising can occur in multiple ways:

  • Visual – what has the composer marked on each note and in each bar? Can you see it in your mind’s eye away from the score? Where exactly is each marking placed?
  • Auditory – what should each note or group of notes sound like? Can you hear it in your mind’s ear? Can you perceive it clearly when listening to a performance?
  • Motor – do your muscles ‘know’ how to play each note or phrase? Are you producing the sound you want?
  • Cognitive – what is the musical purpose of each notation? How does it fit into the overall structure of the piece? Which notations are fixed by the composer and which can be decided by the performer?

Pianist and writer Susan Tomes recently remarked on her blog that, in her experience, the composer’s markings are often largely ignored by students. I have certainly found that to be true, and although I can often write out from memory the notes of pieces I have memorised, I can rarely remember the dynamic markings, where exactly to begin a change (such as increasing or decreasing the volume or speed), or how notes are grouped into phrases in the score. Part of the reason for this, I would suggest, is not that we disagree with the composer’s markings or actively intend to ignore them, but simply that we do not focus on learning notations. We spend our time learning notes, chord progressions and fingerings. But when creating and communicating a musical interpretation that accurately represents the composer’s intentions as well as those of the performer, as much attention should be given to the information surrounding the notes as the notes themselves.

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Interview with… Jeremy Ng (pianist)

JeremyNgPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My musical journey started with the piano when I was about 7 or 8. At that time, I did not like piano and was forced by my parents to learn it. When I was 13, I joined the school military band playing the flute, and about a year later, I became serious with learning the flute. It was also around this time that I started really picking up interest in piano as well, and music in general. I listened not just to flute music, but also piano and orchestral works. However, I decided that I should focus on one main instrument, and so I just played the piano occasionally for leisure. While in the school symphonic band, I competed and performed in many music festivals. I held the section leader appointment where I led the flute section. I also attained my DipABRSM in Flute Performance when I was about 18, and I was a finalist (junior category) in the 1st Singapore Flute Festival.

When I turned about 21, I started gradually playing more and more piano, as its repertoire spoke to me at a much deeper level. It also allowed me to have greater freedom of expression. I have recently started making piano videos and uploading them to YouTube. Right now I’m 23 and I consider myself an amateur pianist.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
Memorising begins as soon as I start learning a piece of music. Almost every single work I learn is memorised automatically. For flute, it just happens naturally from all the hours put into practising. Or just simply from playing them over and over again, because I enjoyed the pieces I learnt. I don’t have to put in an extra session dedicated just for memorisation. I still perform with the score, but it’s used only as a safety net. Very often, I’m playing for fun at home, an entire work without any score.

For piano, it is the same in that memorisation begins as soon as I start learning a piece. But there is more to it. When I found interest in the piano when I was about 13, I didn’t have a teacher any more, and was free to learn whatever I like. It so happened that all the piano repertoire I loved were actually way out of my reading capabilities, so a lot my “practice” was actually really more of memorising work. I was way too slow at reading music, and never thought of exercising my sight-reading abilities. I regretted that, because today, my sight-reading is horrendous.

It’s only recently that I started to become more conscious of the way I memorise. The reason for making this decision is because, while I became good at memorising, I was fast to forget as well.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
It’s never happened to me. And I think it’s very unlikely to happen for flute, because you don’t play chords, just single notes. It’s too easy. However, I can easily see this happening if I were to perform a solo piano recital. I’ve only performed publicly once in my life on the piano, and there wasn’t any major memory lapse for that one. There was a slight blank-out moment though, but I was fortunate enough to get back on track quickly.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
No, they are all pretty much the same for me. Or at least I haven’t noticed any difference if there is. I get lost in time very often while at the piano, so there might be a possibility that I do take a little longer to memorise certain types of music without even knowing it.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Now that I’m more conscious of my memorising, I do not just rely on the muscle memory I acquire from practising, or from playing a work from start to finish several times out of leisure. At least that’s the case for music that I intend to have memorised for a long period of time.

One of the most important methods I use right now is to ensure I’m able to start from as many different places as possible in the music. Sometimes, even in the middle of awkward passages. Like many amateurs, I used to be able to only play from start to finish. The second method is to make sure I can play with either RH or LH separately. I also often do this in the middle of practising even if the particular passage is easy enough for me to play with hands together immediately. It’s important that I actually see all the keys I’m hitting, and practising hands separately achieves that. The third method I use is to visualise my hands playing the music. I can either do this at the piano, or away from it. I make sure I can visualise my fingers pressing every single key clearly.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
As mentioned above, memorisation begins as soon as I begin practising a new work. But conscious effort at memorising only begins after I’ve mastered a piece.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I guess prevention starts right in the practice room! If I master the 3 methods mentioned above well enough, I should be comfortable enough to get back on track in the event that I still encounter a memory lapse. Also, I might do some improvisation on the fly!

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
The same as the 3 methods above. Nothing really specific. If I had to maintain memory for years, I would simply revisit the piece every few months and repeat the process of the 3 methods. I think this is preferable to playing the piece over and over again every single day, just to ensure you don’t lose memory. This is because every time you lose memory and regain it back, you actually strengthen the memory.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I don’t think I’m experienced enough to answer this. For me, improvisation / composition is inspired simply from listening to lots of music and analyzing lots of scores, but not necessarily having musical ideas specifically memorised. I guess it’s something like writers. When writers read widely, particularly books by great authors, their writing will inevitably improve.


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Analysis of Schubert’s last Piano Sonata

I’ve recently started learning Schubert’s humungous last piano sonata, D960 in Bb major. Written in 1828 just months before his premature death at the tender age of 31, the sonata is a poignant farewell to life with a mixture of joyous melodies and angry outbursts. Heavily influenced by meeting Beethoven, who died just a year earlier, Schubert penned three last piano sonatas around the same time, all published posthumously, of which this is the last and perhaps most serene. Despite languishing in obscurity for decades, all three of these last sonatas are now considered master works.

The sonata has taken me a while to really understand, but it has been well worth the effort! We are taken on an incredible lyrical journey, from an epic first movement, through a heart-breaking second moment, followed by an energetic scherzo and finally a dramatic rondo. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to hear Paul Badura-Skoda playing this piece live in concert last month. With the benefit of a lifetime’s study, he created an incredible sense of intimacy and his interpretation sparkled with insight. Have a listen to one of his many recordings of this piece:

Because the first movement in particular is so long (for a single movement), I decided that taking an analytical approach early on in the learning process would be useful both to increase my understanding of the piece and to help with memorisation. The movement is in classical sonata form, which essentially means that it has three clear sections with certain ‘rules’ linking them:

(1) Exposition – the first subject is presented in the tonic key, followed by a second subject usually in the dominant; the whole exposition is usually marked as repeated
(2) Development – substantial development and modulations of the themes
(3) Recapitulation – a return to the exposition, but ending in the tonic and capped with a coda to finish

MusicalPerformanceFormal analysis can be quite daunting, but having just read In Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding (ed. John Rink, Cambridge University Press, 2002), I was inspired to take Peter Hill’s advice and study the score away from the piano. In the same book, John Rink describes a number of ways to go about analysing a piece for the benefit of performance, which includes identifying formal divisions and creating a tonal plan. Doing a fairly basic analysis is actually quite fun, incredible informative and really not that difficult!I worked from the start of the piece in chunks, trying to identify sections and themes, and recorded just four things about each chunk:

  • bar numbers (for ease of reference)
  • principle key
  • theme (or its derivative)
  • overall dynamic

To analyse the first movement only took about an hour with pencil and paper and at the end of the hour I was much clearer about the musical material in the piece and its organisation. I’ve referred repeatedly to my sheet of A4 throughout memorising this movement, and it has helped create a map of the piece. There is a very clear structure to the piece, with a clear arrangement of thematic material makes, and knowing this makes it easier to focus on potentially tricksy transition points. There are some shocking tonal transitions (from F to C#m between the exposition and development for example!), but nonetheless the same basic thematic material is used both economically and creatively. Particularly useful is the realisation that the Recapitulation is almost identical to the Exposition, except that Theme II and III are transposed up a fourth. The beautifully simple main theme (Theme I) appears nearly a dozen times throughout the movement, from the start to the final coda, providing familiar ‘safe’ territory for listener and performer alike.

Here’s my analysis (which comes with my usual health warning: I’m not a musicologist, so there may be errors, and the definitions of thematic boundaries are my own). I’ve colour-coded it by theme to highlight the structure and give a bit of clarity. Inevitably, a great deal of detail is lost when paring a sonata down to this level, but nonetheless I think it provides a useful frame of reference. Perhaps it will prove helpful to someone else too?




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Spontaneity in Music

StephenHoughOver on the Cross-Eyed Pianist’s blog, the wonderful pianist Stephen Hough said something in his interview that has really resonated with me: “study the score intensely then play as if you’re improvising”.

I’ve written previously about improvisation, or spontaneous composition as some like to call it. Despite being primarily associated with jazz, its routes are firmly grounded in classical music. Baroque performances were filled with opportunities for the performers to demonstrate their skills at extemporisation and ornamentation and some of the great classical pianists such as Bach and Chopin were renowned improvisers. Although it is rare in the modern world, there are still classical musicians who improvise regularly, and even those who are not natural improvisers would do well to practice it, as being able to improvise briefly and persuasively may be the only way out of a tight spot in a concert when a sudden memory lapse strikes!

However, classical improvisation has undoubtedly become a rare treat. Twentieth century composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky were publicly scathing of improvisation and interpretation, and required performers to adhere strictly to the exact instructions of the composer as detailed in the score. Compounded by the development and rise of recorded performances over the last few decades, this sentiment has pervaded classical music to the point where minor interpretive differences between near identical performances are now the focus of musical critique.

However, I don’t think improvising per se is quite what Hough had in mind when he made his comment. Rather, he is referring to the need for musicians to bring a spontaneous quality to their playing, in spite of many hours of hard labour spent doing meticulous and precise practice. Classical musician in particular spend an enormous amount of their time learning repertoire to extremely exacting standards – notes, rhythms, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, harmonies, structure, etc. This involves many hours pouring over a score, listening to recordings, and doing highly repetitive practice to get a piece to a state where it might eventually be ready for public consumption. Nonetheless, we value creativity and originality in our performers, and relish live music for the potential novelty it offers. How then do we add a fresh, improvisatory feel to a piece, as if – like many listeners – we are discovering the magic of the music for the first time?

One of the reasons many people play from memory is that it gives the performer more freedom, both physically and mentally. In 1915, Edwin Hughes wrote that “performing with a bundle of notes obstructs absolute freedom of expression and the most direct psychological connection with the audience”. By releasing ourselves from the tyranny of dots on a page, we can truly listen to the music and find new meaning. We can stretch time, emphasise different sounds, and bring familiar music alive with new ideas.

In Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding*, renowned music psychologist Aaron Williamon wrote that “many performers agree with this view… that performing from memory frees them to create and communicate novel musical interpretations, and allows them to cast aside the unnecessary mental crutch and musical security blanket of the printed page”. In an interesting experiment, in which audiences were asked to rate the expressivity and communication of otherwise identical performances with and without the score, Williamon was able to show that “audiences rate the memorised performances higher than non-memorised” one. In the same volume*, Peter Hill writes that “we need to recognise that practice may blunt our creative intelligence” and we must take steps (such as mental study prior to physical practice, espoused by Hill) to “liberate our musicality”.

Nearly 300 years ago, in his Essay on the Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, CPE Bach wrote that we should “play from the soul, not like a trained bird!” This same sentiment still holds true today – although musicians must invest enormous energy in studying the score and playing the notes as the composer intended, they must also strive for a level of creativity in performance that more closely resembles improvisation. If playing from memory can help achieve that lofty aim, surely all musicians should at least give it a try?

* Musical Performance, A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

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To look or not to look…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a silly question – if you’re not going to look at the score when you play, where should you look? Vocalists typically look out at the audience, as do many instrumental soloists. Pianists (and a few others – cellists, guitarists, etc.) are in a slightly unusual position because they can easily look at their fingers, where all the work is happening, and indeed many do stare at their fingers throughout a recital. But recently I’ve started to wonder if this is really such a good thing. Why do we do it? Apart from large jumps or passages with complicated finger-work, is it really necessary? Surely it must move some of our mental focus away from the quality of the sound and towards the alarming acts of speed and dexterity required?

I always memorise, and I always look at my fingers when I play. Knowing what the hand patterns look like on the keyboard forms a key part of my visual memory of the piece. When I practice away from the keyboard, I can more easily visualise my hands moving over the black and white keys than I can recall the score. When I play in the dark, I focus on what I know my hands look like on the keyboard. I’ve always thought this visual memory useful, providing an extra link between my motor memory and cognitive knowledge of the notes. But is that true? I wonder if focusing on the physical mechanics of sound production and ‘getting all the notes right’ means I am too focused on each individual note or chord, and not sufficiently in tune with the interpretation and phrasing. Would I express the emotional content of the music better if I didn’t focus on my hands to the exclusion of all else, but only glanced down when necessary and concentrated instead on softening my gaze and listening to the sounds?

Ever the experimentalist, I decided to try this out with a new piece – Scarlatti’s wonderful B minor sonata (K.87). The piece is quite fugal in nature, with multiple different voices and very few jumps or large intervals. The hands are often close together but are busily doing different things. Like all of Scarlatti’s astonishing 555 keyboard sonatas, the piece is a single short movement divided into two approximately equal (repeated) halves. Despite its formal Baroque elements and complicated counterpoint, the piece is quite heart-breakingly beautiful. Here’s the wonderful Horowitz playing the piece with his usual aplomb:

This seemed like the perfect piece to investigate playing without staring at my hands. So I’ve spent the last week or so memorising the piece, and can now play it all without looking at my hands no problem (though so far I haven’t tried it in front of anyone else!). I have to say that I love the freedom of playing and really listening to what’s going on, only focusing on my fingers when I know I need to. I feel more connected with the sound, with the shape of the phrases, and feel more able to bring out different voices. However, at the same time, I feel strangely disconnected from my fingers (until a wrong note brings me crashing back to reality!). I don’t visualise my hands when I’m play, and having memorised it this way, I find it almost distracting to look down and watch my hands meandering over the keyboard! Playing with my eyes shut is wonderful, but I’ve been warned previously that we perceive sound differently when we shut our eyes, and I feel even less connected with the physical action of actually playing the notes. Somewhat ironically, I often find myself looking straight ahead towards the score – though on closer inspection, it usually turns out to be the score of a different piece that I’m completely ignoring! It’s actually nice not to look at anything in particular while playing.

I don’t think I would want to dispense with the visual memory of my hands at the keyboard for most pieces or for performances. But I would like to try to incorporate more freedom into my playing – to eliminate the need to focus on my hands and allow me to concentrate more on shaping the sound. Perhaps this is the first step in that direction.

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Memorising music for beginners

a new brainA number of people have mentioned that they would like to try playing from memory, but don’t know where to begin. Why bother, some might ask, when you can just use the score? For me, playing from memory is not about giving bravado performances, but achieving a greater level of intimacy with the music itself. To be able to sit down, turn off the lights, and just play.

There are plenty of benefits of playing from memory, and although memorising music comes naturally to some people, I firmly believe that anyone can learn how to do it. But where to start? Here’s a few ideas if you’re keen to give it a go and memorise a piece you love.

(1) Start small – don’t try to memorise a whole piece all at once! Start with something simple, like a phrase, or a motif or even a few chords. Experiment with articulation, dynamics, tempo and listen to the effect. Try to repeat the short section from memory and only consult the score if you get stuck. Once you’ve got it, add the next short bit, and repeat.

(2) Find the familiar – it’s much easier to remember things we already know, so finding familiar features in the music you are trying to learn will help. Look for scales or recognisable chords. For example, the main theme of Brahms’ beautiful Intermezzo Op.117 No.1 for piano is simply an Eb major descending scale followed by an ascending arpeggio in the right hand. If you can hear the rhythm in your head, you’ve learnt the first few bars already!

(3) Look for patterns – well written music is actually incredible economical with its thematic material, and the composer will have used the same idea multiple times in different ways. So actively looking for repeated or derived motifs throughout the piece will reduce the total amount of new stuff you have to learn. Standard compositional techniques include:

  • repeating, either in the same place or an octave above or below
  • transposing up or down a few tones (which may be associated with modulation)
  • shortening or lengthening (i.e. removing or adding notes)
  • halving or doubling the note lengths
  • augmenting or diminishing  (i.e. increasing or decreasing the intervals between notes)

(4) Notice change – often a thematic change or tonal modulation is signalled by just a single note, a pivot point, which needs to be consciously marked as being important.  Similarly, consecutive notes with a large interval between them may need special cognitive attention, to make sure you know absolutely where you’re going. You might be able to skim over the exact details of a repetitive motif once you can play it, but the identity of a pivotal note needs to stick in your memory like a proverbial sore thumb. 

(5) Try different methods – if you can learn something multiple different ways, you are more likely to be able to remember it. In addition to just playing the section again and again, try singing along, or saying the notes/chords out loud, or shutting your eyes and visualising the score/your hands. Do all of the above both at and away from your instrument. Building multiple sensory representations of a piece in your mind is fundamental to creating a good musical memory.

(6) Annotate your score – personalise your score by writing useful comments on it, particularly all the extra things beyond the notes (articulation, phrasing, dynamics, etc). Many pianists – most notably Stephen Hough in his recent excellent article on practicing – also advocate writing exact fingerings on the score before or while learning a piece. Using the same fingering throughout the learning process helps consolidate the memory, and is something you really don’t want to think about in performance!

(7) Analyse – try to understand the structure piece at a thematic and harmonic level. This doesn’t mean you have to study formal music theory (though of course it will help!), just try to build an understanding of how the piece fits together in your own mind.

(8) Start anywhere – we are probably all guilty of learning pieces from the start to the end, and inevitably overplaying the first few bars. Ideally you need to be able to pick up and start a piece from almost anywhere. So why not try learning it that way? When memorising a long piece, it can be helpful (and motivational) to learn a few separate sections at once, then join them up later. I learnt my first Bach Fugue in 4-bar chunks starting from the end and moving backwards, which was extraordinarily effective.

(9) Repeat – repetition is a crucial part of memorisation for most people, partly just to build the motor memory required. Don’t be tempted to fall back on the score (unless you specifically chose to do so) – like any technical ability, memorisation itself has to be practised.

(10) Take breaks – I find I memorise better if I take regular short breaks between trying to learn chunks of music. This could mean interspersing learning with technical work (if you’re hardcore!), or simply making a cup of tea, but really focussed work is mentally tiring and your brain will need refreshing.

Disclaimer: I am not a piano/music teacher by profession and have never tried to teach anyone to memorise. These are my thoughts, garnered from my own experience and supplemented with plenty of reading. It would be great to see some comments below if any teachers out there have ideas about where to start memorising…

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Playing from the score

VingtRegardsSince starting this blog a year ago, I’ve come to realise that I am a memorising snob! To me, memorising music is the same as learning it. Although there is far, far more to learning and successfully performing a piece of music than just memorising it, personally I can’t do one without the other. If I can’t play a piece without the score, then I simply haven’t learnt it properly yet. Try as I might to expand my repertoire by not memorising, ultimately I am only really musically satisfied with the pieces I’ve memorised properly.

Having witnessed a number of poor performances by score-bound musicians, who apparently didn’t know the music well enough to perform it, I’ve always assumed this simple truth to be universal. What use are dots on a page once you’ve learnt a piece? Moreover, I have long felt that watching soloists play from the score actually detracts from the music, and that I enjoy music far more when it is played from memory. However, after attending a number of fabulous performances by extraordinary musicians using a score , I’ve come to realise that this assertion is totally false.

For example, towards the end of last year, I was lucky enough to attend a fabulous concert of Messiaen’s great Vingt regards sur l’enfent Jésus by pianist Cordelia Williams. The concert itself was held in the cavernous medieval chapel of King’s College Cambridge, where Messiaen’s sublime harmonies resonated throughout the space and transcended our normal musical world. Lasting more than two hours, this astonishing 20-movement piece is an absolute tour de force of 20th century music, presenting enormous physical and emotional challenges to the pianist. Williams briefly introduced each movement to the rapt audience, and played the majority of the piece from memory without reference to the score. Just three movements were played with the aid of the score, all of which were quite chromatic and extremely technically demanding, though the page turner remained on stage throughout the performance following the score (mostly sat away from the piano). This occasional use of the score did not detract at all from my enjoyment of the music itself, and I could hear no difference in the quality and boldness of the playing between movements. The mind boggles as to how anyone can learn this amount of frighteningly difficult music and there was absolutely no question here about the performer not knowing the notes – whether the score acted as a safety net or an aide mémoire I don’t know, but the whole audience (myself included) was simply blown away by this authoritative performance.

Clearly it is possible to play a memorised piece or just a section of a concert from the score, and I have many friends who do just that. This ‘safety net’ approach certainly removes some of the performance anxiety about forgetting the notes, and helps to ensure that detailed articulations and phrasings are executed as planned. However, once a piece is properly memorised, I find it quite distracting to use the score and ultimately it degrades my ability to play without it. Although I still don’t think I would wish to perform a solo piece from the score, there is no doubt that some people can and do so with great musicianship.

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Interview with… Roland Robert (violinist, pianist, composer)

RolandRobertsPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a principally a violinist and have performed in various capacities as soloist, chamber and orchestral musician. I studied violin and piano as joint first study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in recent years have been playing the piano more again and have just made a CD with my wife, the violinist Ani Batikian.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I always memorise solo repertoire as I am learning, a habit since childhood. My teacher made me learn everything from memory,  including Kreutzer studies. I mostly perform with music though as these days as I am mainly performing chamber music, sonatas and directing orchestras. I have performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons maybe close to a hundred times but always use the music as I feel the solo part is an integral part of the texture.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
No thankfully. There again if I wasn’t totally prepared or 100% confident of my memory I would take the music on and have it placed discretely nearby. I don’t think there is so much pressure or expectancy these days to perform from memory. If you are playing solo every week then of course everything is much easier than the occasional moment in the spot light.

As far as memorisation I have never really thought about it until recently when I was trying to teach myself jazz piano. As a child, memory just happened. I played the Schumann Piano Concerto and never thought about memory.  As stated somewhere on this blog, jazz musicians have superb memory skills. Here is an excellent resource, a free PDF on visualisation and memory tools for learning jazz.

I have always been aware that there are many elements to memorising music and these must come together in an act of unconscious mastery after the unconscious consciousness stage has been attained.

But how? I think to consciously try to memorise is a non starter, at least for me. It is a process and it is best attained by concentrating on the things that are not memory. The jazz PDF illustrates that mastery of improvisation is linked greatly to how well developed ones ear is. The same applies to classical music, the written down version of jazz. By this I mean, developing pitch sense, hearing harmony and polyphony coupled with ones own ideal internal performance, and linking this with the inner eye.

So the first step is to learn to hear and listen.

The second is embrace the two beliefs below. This is in part achievable by suspending our everyday conscious beliefs of reality.

The first of these is that we are all connected to the hub of a universal consciousness and connecting to this will take us directly to becoming one with what we want to know. In this case, being able to access with ease the piano pieces we are consciously learning. The Chopin Etude in Gb major is already there, we are not having to recreate it everytime we want to play it or play it from memory.

This is something I think good jazz players do naturally, they are recreating from memory. It is a little like driving a car, you are looking behind in the rear view mirror while also checking your speed and looking ahead in the distance anticipating other driver’s moves.

I think some classical musicians have a tendency to get caught up too much in the intellectual side of music instead of letting go and finding the freedom jazzers have. Which leads me to the last prerequisite for masterful memorisation. It is a feel thing. Playing by heart means letting go of left brain consciousness and feeling the music unfold as it goes on its emotional journey.

By way of a curious synchronicity I must relate something which happened recently before I had come across this site. I was trying pianos in a store and unconsciously started playing a Beethoven Sonata, the C major, op.2 no.3 which I have not played since I was 15 years old. I think the trigger was the sound of the Bluthner I was trying, I haven’t played a Bluthner since playing the one I grew up with. After the first page or so my memory got stuck and the harder I tried to consciously remember the chords or notes the more I floundered. I then had a flash back of when I had last performed this piece. Suddenly my mind went to the Arnold Bax room at the Royal Academy of Music circa 1980 and there I was playing for my entrance exam. The emotions of that audition were so strong that they opened the musical memory bank of op.2 no.3 and I proceeded to play the rest of the movement without hesitation. In fact as I was playing part of me was a few bars ahead, a little like the earlier analogy of driving a car. Which reminds me of something that Valentina Lisitsa says on practicing. She says practice to perform as much as possible because performance is where you learn the most. Check out her YouTube channel, she has filmed hours and hours of herself practicing.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
When I was going through a period of conducting orchestras I realised how important it is to be able to conduct without a score. The difference between having a head in a score and being able to engage with the orchestra every moment without a score is huge.  So for an exercise I decided to memorise Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherezade and had to work out how to do this. Firstly I broke the piece down into sections within the movements and practiced singing and conducting without the score. This wasn’t so difficult if the music was playing along in the same vein, but some of the movements have a lot of tempo and time changes and you have to see these coming otherwise it’s too late to go from say conducting 6/8 to 3/4 in an instance. Therefore I created a musical mind map with big beat and tempo changes, which helped a lot. I could then see these coming in my mind’s eye, a little like road signs on the motorway preparing you for the next junction. Of course there are those geniuses who conduct everything from memory. I remember playing all the Stravinsky Ballets with Esa Pekka Salonen and the Philhamonia, he never used a score. Or Abbado conducting a Boulez piece with a time change every bar at breakneck speed. Phenomenal! In Bernstein’s biography he tells the story of being in Fritz Reiner’s conducting class and Reiner shouting out to a fellow student, “what note is the second oboe playing in bar 57?” Reiner expected this level of memorisation from all his students. How about opera singers? They not only learn 3 hour roles, sing in a foreign language, but remember stage directions too. The human brain is capable of much much more than many of us believe.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
For solo works, from the beginning.  Get away from the dots as soon as possible.

At the moment I am preparing the piano part of the Cesar Franck violin sonata and even though I will use the music for the performance as it is a duo, I am memorising it as I learn. I find it difficult to play complex piano parts looking at the music.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
I find that many of my students have difficulties in memorising due to their own belief that they can’t do it and the fear of performing without music is too great even to bother trying.  So much work on confidence building is needed. In the Soviet system you didn’t get your lesson unless you turned up with the piece fully prepared and memorised.

So in conclusion, I think we have to all find our own way to memory mastery by experimenting with all the different techniques available. For those who are newly starting out to memorise just take small steps, a few bars a day. But do it everyday and be persistent and most of all keep the desire strong.


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Chetham’s, school of flying fingers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have just returned from an amazing week at Chetham’s International Piano Summer School in Manchester, UK. This year was my third visit and, as usual, it didn’t disappoint. The summer school is full of hundreds of piano-maniacs, ranging from individuals who only started playing post-retirement, to international concert pianists, and everything in between. The week includes lessons, workshops, lectures and concerts and everyday is packed with musical activity. We all worked hard and played hard, exploring new ideas and forging new friendships through a shared musical passion. To the aspiring amateur, it provides both a heavy dose of inspiration and a lesson in humility.

The role of musical memory came up in various ways throughout the course, most obviously through the relative aptitudes and desires of pianists to play without a score. Amongst the participants, it was hard not to notice that most of the (jaw-droppingly talented) children played from memory, while most of the (heart-poundingly enthusiastic) adults played from scores. Of the dozen or so wonderful professional concerts I attended over the week, the majority were played completely from memory, including a staggering 90-minute recital of all of Brahms’ late piano works (Op.116-119) from Graham Caskie, and an utterly spell-binding all-Chopin programme from Eugen Indjic. Interestingly, two pianists decided to use scores for their entire concerts – Philippe Cassard, comical star of the final Cabaret show, and Artur Pizarro (who actually used an iPad with a foot operated page-turner!). Despite my personal prejudice towards playing from memory, I have to admit that the use of scores did not detract from the music at all; both recitals were full of drama and passion, and both artists produced a quality of sound and lightness of touch that was simply magical. Unusually, there was also a short play by writer Jessica Duchen about Messaien’s haunting Quartet for the End of Time (following by a fabulous concert of the same work) in which, rather surprisingly, both actors read their parts. Although the play was very moving and well acted, I felt this did somewhat detract from the work.

In my own piano lessons with José Feghali, a master of tone quality and atmospheric playing, we specifically discussed memorising strategies. He emphasised the need for memorising entire sections hands separately, and practising them at speed starting from anywhere, before putting the hands together. This method allows a meticulously detailed approach to both learning and practising, which should substantially strengthen memory and the ability to perform under pressure. Although I’ve never been a great fan of learning hands separately, I suspect this might simply be laziness! When asked to play just the left hand of the Scarlatti G major Sonata K.427, which I know very well and regularly play from memory, I was surprised to find myself stumped after just a few bars. In this case, my lack of detailed work on each hand separately showed in a lack of control in busier sections, leading to notes being clipped or missed altogether, something I failed to really notice playing hands together. The situation was much worse in the Chopin Gm Ballade, where I discovered that I didn’t really know many of the notes in sufficient detail to stand up to thorough scrutiny. I was definitely persuaded, and will certainly be incorporating hands separately practise into my piano regime from now on.

The final lecture of the week was given by the indefatigable Murray McLachlan, a formidable pianist and Head of Keyboard Studies at Chetham’s itself, who started the summer school back in 2001. He focused on banishing the inner demons that so often threaten to derail a performance. Sadly, a lack of self-belief and fear of forgetting often contribute to severe performance anxiety in musicians, especially soloists who chose to perform from memory. But as Murray pointed out, nervous energy can also be viewed as an enjoyable and important part of creating an exciting, stimulating and memorable performance. On the topic of memory lapses, and silencing the chatter of internal monologues (typically saying unhelpful things like “You’ve left the oven on!” or, worse  still, “You’ve forgotten the next note!”), he was quite adamant that concentration was the key – being in the moment and focusing on the music, singing the line and dancing the rhythm. He suggests saturating the music with creativity, colours and voicings so that every moment contains a wealth of musical ideas in which the nervous performer can immerse themselves. Both mental and physical preparation are of course essential, including mental practice and visualisation of the performance itself, and a thorough knowledge of the chords and underlying harmonic structure will help any hapless performer get back on track should a complete memory lapse occur. Sage advice indeed.

There were simply too many wonderful moments and individuals to mention all of them here. As always, I learnt an enormous amount, enjoyed myself immensely and have returned full of enthusiasm and musical energy.

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Interview with… Jane Ginsborg (singer and researcher)

Jane GinsborgPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I began as a singer and sang throughout my teenage years. I then went to the University of York to do a music degree, and subsequently took an advanced diploma in singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I largely specialised in 20th century and contemporary music, which offered lots of interesting opportunities – I worked as a soloist for many years with small chamber ensembles and with my own trio (‘Triple Echo’ – voice, clarinet and piano), as well as doing choral work, session work, solo recitals, etc. I could turn up and sight-read anything in any language!

In my mid-30’s I decided to pursue another interest and took a degree in psychology. In my final year at York I had written a dissertation on the psychology of music performance but this pre-dated the development of music psychology as a discipline, at least in the UK. Luckily at the time I was studying psychology I happened to be living near Keele University where the music psychologist John Sloboda was based. I attended a talk he gave on his research and ended up doing a PhD with him looking at how singers memorise music. The jumping-off point for this work was my own experience of trying to memorise the words of songs. I never worried about remembering the melody or an entry – rather I was always terrified that I would forget the words! In general, about a third of my practice sessions were spent warming up and doing technical work, then note-bashing to learn the notes of new pieces, and finally learning words. I wanted to have pieces memorised before I started really thinking about what the words meant, which often meant translating them from different languages (some of which I had to learn for the purpose), as well as how the words were set to music. The key thing was to make sure the words came automatically when singing in public so I didn’t have to think about what came next and could think about the performance.

The end of my PhD really marked the end of my professional career as a singer, and I became an academic: a researcher, lecturer and writer. Although my first post was as a lecturer in developmental psychology, I now hold a Personal Chair at the Royal Northern College of Music (which means I am called Professor) and am Director of the Centre for Music Performance Research there, as well as President of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music and editor of the on-line journal Music Performance Research. My research has continued to grow out of my own experiences as a singer, but I have also gone on to explore musical memory more broadly, among other things, and although I’m no longer a ‘practising’ singer, I still enjoy singing with different-sized vocal groups, and perform as a soloist from time to time.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I memorised all the way through my singing career. The hardest piece I ever memorised was one of the songs in John Cage’s Songbook – the song is fully notated, unaccompanied, constructed from short semi-repetitive phrases, and the text is completely nonsensical comprising just syllables without meaning! Nonetheless, being a memory researcher, I felt duty bound to memorise the piece and perform it from memory!

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
For singers who are competent musicians, there is no point wasting time trying to learn the melody and words separately – the words and melody should be memorised simultaneously. My initial research addressed the interaction of music and words in memory: are they a double load on memory such that you have to remember two things, or do they combine so you only have a single load? We discovered that they are recalled as a single component, and hence if one goes the other is likely to go too. However skilled singers will be able to keep going even if they forget the words by using something else to keep the melody going – if you forget the words you can always sing a long vowel as long as you end it with a clear consonant! – but it is extremely hard to recite the text of a song without the music as they are stored together. Just try writing out the words of your favourite song without singing along to the melody in your head, or while listening to a different piece of music – it’s almost impossible to do! 

In most cases, information has to be meaningful to us for us to remember it. Actors often talk about needing to know their ‘motivation’ for saying each line and sometimes it doesn’t matter if they say the wrong word when they perform as long as it has the right meaning. But musicians have to perform exactly what is written. So a useful strategy for memorising is not to waste a lot of time on the meaning – what you want to express – at the beginning. It’s better to get the donkey work of memorising out of the way early on, so that you can produce both the music and the words almost automatically; then you can start to think about what you want to express in your performance. Of course it is absolutely vital to know the meaning of every word of a song and the way it has been set to music so as to give a convincing, expressive performance. But it is not necessary for memorising.

There are two ways of thinking about memory, although the two ways can be combined: structures (or stores) and processes. There are different kinds of stores for different kinds of information, which is stored for different lengths of time: you can only have a small amount of information in short-term memory and it only lasts up to 90 seconds or so, while the long-term memory has an infinite capacity and lasts for ever, but it can be very difficult to find information that’s been stored there again. Memory processes include encoding, storing and retrieving information; retrieval can involve recognition, a form of pattern-matching, or recall, which is more difficult.

We can distinguish five different kinds of memory:

(1)  Kinaesthetic memory (finger memory for pianists, embouchure lip memory for brass players, body memory or singers, etc.) is created by doing. Musicians often find that they have committed a piece to memory simply by repeating it many times, and although it’s invaluable to be able to able to play or sing ‘on automatic pilot’, as we’ve seen, on its own this procedural memory is the least reliable type of memory. Although remembering individual patterns may be easy, remembering a sequence of patterns can be difficult. Kinaesthetic memory is generally reliable in the middle of a pattern, but difficulties can occur if there is a break between patterns in the sequence – like breaking a link in a chain. Therefore breakdowns often happen at junctions, particularly switches (where almost repeated patterns lead to different parts of a piece).

(2)  Visual memory is created by seeing – the score, fingers, the conductor’s beat, etc. People often know where they are on a score (spatial memory), but very few people have a detailed eidetic (photographic) memory.

(3)  Auditory memory is created by hearing the music in your mind before making the sound. This is particularly crucial for a singer, or any instrumentalist who has to pitch their own note, particularly if they don’t have perfect pitch. Once a piece has been memorised the musician can hear, with the mind’s ear, as it were, where they are going in the piece, and is in a position to run over it again and again in their head.

(4)  Analytical memory is created by analysing the music. This is the first and most important piece of work to be done when memorising. The reason it needs to be done at the start of the process is so as to be able to understand the structure of the piece in terms of its sections, patterns, phrases, repeats, variations etc., so that it can be memorised in small chunks that can be linked together, and then the links themselves memorised. The analysis can be at any level (not necessarily formal harmony and counterpoint!) and the musician’s own understanding of what underlies the architecture of a piece is what really matters. This could relate to keys, melodic patterns, time signatures, etc. The structure of a piece provides a framework for recall. This is likely to be predictable in much classical music (for example, strophic songs consisting of several verses) just as it is in jazz standards or pop songs (intro, verse, chorus etc.) but may be less so in contemporary music.

(5)  Many musicians associate rote memory with kinaesthetic memory: as I said, if you play or sing a piece enough times you will develop a ‘finger’ or other kind of physical, bodily memory for it. But actually you can and should use all the other kinds of memory as you are going through the process of memorising. Your knowledge of the structure of the piece will help you ‘see’ and ‘hear’ which bit comes next in your imagination. Once you’ve got it securely memorised you will be able to run it over and over again in your mind while doing other things – walking, sitting in the car, waiting for a bus, and so on. You’ll be able to think about it and how you are going to perform it wherever you are, and when you are actually playing or singing from memory in public – if one kind of memory fails, you will be able to draw on one of the other types.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
Yes, many times. Memorising is generally easiest for children and gets harder as you get older. I don’t think this is really due to age-related memory loss, but to overload! Older people have so much information already stored in their memories that it can interfere with the encoding and storage of new information and make it hard to retrieve accurately.

I have found that a large proportion of students who want to study music psychology suffer from performance anxiety, largely due to fear of memory lapses, which in turn is often fuelled by having had a memory lapse! Many students have experienced something called ‘blocking’ – the experience of feeling disembodied when playing and suddenly realising that it’s as if they are somewhere on the ceiling looking down at their performance, and not knowing where they are in the music. This is like running on autopilot, and is often caused by a musical training regime that requires too many perfect repetitions of a piece, leading to boredom. While students who don’t practise enough aren’t likely to suffer from this type of memory lapse, many other things can go wrong!

To reiterate: rote learning itself is not unreliable, but being on mental automatic pilot can allow the chain of associations to suddenly break. Being on physical automatic pilot, while at the same time thinking about the music, will keep the performer present in the moment and in control of their memory recall. A really polished performer is listening to the music all the time they’re playing or singing – focusing on the acoustics, intonation, interpretation, effect on the audience, etc. – and can focus their attention on tricky sections or musical junctions as needed. Ultimately, performing is so much more than performing from memory.

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Strategies for Memorising Music

Musical Excellence“Musical Excellence” edited by Aaron Williamon offers a wealth of sage advice for enhancing performance, including Jane Ginsborg’s wonderful chapter on memorising music. The chapter outlines some of the basics about short and long term memory but particularly focuses on strategies that the budding musician could employ to improve their ability to memorise music.

There are a few general recommendations for improving musical memory:

  1. improving memory in general, by understanding memory and having the motivation to improve (I guess this blog puts me nicely into that category!);
  2. slowing age-related deterioration, by doing all the standard things to stay healthy (reducing stress, keeping active, eating well, using your mind, etc.);
  3. enhancing study skills, by studying and analysing the material in detail; and
  4. using mnemonics, such as rhymes or phrases, to associate essentially meaningless information with the material to be remembered.

Ginsborg describes memorised music as a “mental representation” consisting of many layers, ranging from a holistic overview of a piece and its meaning, to detailed knowledge of individual notes and phrases. Importantly, she asserts that “different kinds of memorising strategies can contribute to the formation of mental representations at their different levels and enable attention to be shifted, during practice, from one level to another.”

Sensory information is essential to the most basic level of music memorisation – knowing the notes and how to play them. Auditory, visual and kinaesthetic information can all play an important role in building a mental representation of a piece, and different musicians no doubt use a mixture of sensory data during both encoding (memorising) and recalling (remembering) music. Perhaps the most widely used strategy is to “memorise by rote”, often largely unconsciously, by doing highly repetitious practice. This type of memory is primarily kinaesthetic and can be achieved in many cases by simply practising bars, phrases and sections over and over again. Because this type of memory can be unreliable and is extremely vulnerable to interference, most expert musicians use other strategies in conjunction to secure their memory. Nonetheless, over-learning a piece (to the extent that it can be performed accurately without active thought about what note comes next) allows the musician a certain freedom to focus on communication and interpretation.

Memorising visual information is often particularly useful for musicians working from a notated score, and many people report knowing where they are on the page when playing. In contrast, musicians from outside the Western classical tradition are generally more reliant on memorising by ear, building their memory through listening and imitating what they hear. Aural visualisation – imagining how the music should sound – is one of the most valuable skills a musicians can develop, and being able to ‘hear’ a piece in your ‘inner ear’ enables practising away from the instrument.

A more holistic understanding of the music and its organisation also requires analysis and conceptual thinking. Developing a conceptual musical representation requires understanding not only each individual piece, but also familiarity with the musical language and culture in which it was written. Ginsborg states that “the use of conceptual memory is the crucial overarching strategy that no musician can do without”. Regardless of training, expertise or musical genre, fundamentally a musician must know where they are in a piece and how the structure of the work fits together. Oftentimes clear structural boundaries exist within the architecture of a piece (chorus and verse, for example), which create natural chunks to organise practice and facilitate memorisation.

Ginsborg ends the chapter by addressing a problem unique to singers – remembering both music and words. Drawing on her own research in this area, she tackles the question of whether it is better to learn the words and music independently or simultaneously, suggesting that learning the two together is a more effective strategy than learning them separately. Although I’m no singer, I know from experience that artificially coupling music and words can also be very useful for learning a specific set of words, or a musical phrase or rhythm (presumably by exploiting their interaction while creating multiple different but interdependent memory retrieval cues).

The view of memorising music as a process of building up related layers of different representations is one that appeals to me enormously. Not only does it explain how we memorise music, but it also offers a number of different approaches for improving memorisation – analytical, visual, aural and kinaesthetic – all of which have a role to play.

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Interview with… Gordon Ogilvie (pianist)

Gordon OgilviePlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
As a scientist at the University of Cambridge, I am involved in both research in theoretical astrophysics and teaching in mathematics. Music is also a very important part of my life. I have studied the piano with Heli Ignatius-Fleet for many years, have participated in various masterclasses and summer schools, and am currently preparing for a diploma recital. I also enjoy piano duets as well as choral and solo singing, at a more modest level.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
Although I am not a natural performer, I do play to small audiences from time to time, and usually do so from memory. In most cases I would regard memorisation as an integral part of learning a piece thoroughly for performance. It has the obvious practical advantages of eliminating page turns and freeing the performer’s gaze from being tied to the score. As I usually practise on an upright piano, I find that reading the score from the differently placed music desk on a grand piano can be slightly disturbing. On the other hand there are pieces that are impractical for me to memorise securely, and for those I would play from the score.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Thankfully not a complete breakdown, but I find that minor lapses occur quite frequently when performing. They seem to involve a sense of disorientation, brought about by a heightened psychological and physiological state or an unfamiliar instrument, and typically lead to a fumbling through a bar or two before the track is regained.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find Bach’s fugues particularly difficult to memorise, for several reasons. Even if the parts have been studied separately, it is difficult to attend simultaneously to three or more independent voices, and I probably rely too heavily on muscular memory. In a dense contrapuntal texture there may be few points of safety, as a subject entry in one voice might be accompanied by three other voices in full flow. The imitative style may also lead to confusion between similar passages. On the other hand, music of the classical and romantic periods is usually much easier to memorise.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I expect there are many layers at work at a subconscious level, including a visual memory of a particular edition. I find that a basic memorisation usually emerges from repetitive practice, initially with and later without the score, and it can be tested by playing to other people or on different instruments. An analytical understanding of the score, especially of its harmonic and formal structure, is invaluable for greater security in memorisation, as well as for interpretation. Trying to recall the music without reference to the score or keyboard can be a useful and challenging exercise. Lately I have experimented with entering pieces into a music notation programme and perhaps rearranging the music, to gain greater familiarity with the score.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
I don’t usually take active steps to memorise a piece until I have established a secure fingering and basic technical control. In some cases, though, memorising a difficult passage is essential to overcoming its technical demands.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I try to maintain an appropriate mental focus and counteract the effects of adrenalin. Some ability to improvise seems to be necessary to cope with memory lapses. Believing that the audience want you to play well can be helpful, although this may not apply to all performances!

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I don’t think I could play many pieces reliably from memory that I had not practiced within the last month or so. Even after a week without practice, I find that the muscular memory decays and things are more likely to go wrong. This may be partly because musical performance requires fluent recall at a certain minimum speed. On the other hand, I think I can retain for several years a fairly detailed aural image of pieces I have previously performed.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I imagine that those gifted in improvisation have an excellent musical memory.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
No; I don’t have any experience of teaching music. The scientific research that occupies me daily requires an interesting mixture of mathematical precision and physical intuition that may have a parallel in the world of classical music, where extreme accuracy and attention to detail must be combined with a broad musical understanding. However, there is nothing in my work quite like the act of musical performance. Although mathematics ultimately requires perfect accuracy, it can be done at whatever pace the brain can work at; errors can be recognized and corrected, and memory is much less important than technique.


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Earworms – commonplace musical memories

earwormtitleWe’ve all had the initially enjoyable then endlessly irritating experience of a tune being stuck in the head. Typically, a fragment of a half-remembered melody gets repeatedly hummed and whistled over and over again throughout the day. Sometimes this earworm is caused by hearing a piece, and can easily be displaced by listening to something else; but sometimes the earworm seems to come almost from nowhere, and eventually disappears again just as mysteriously.

Last week, I thoroughly enjoyed having Rodgers and Hammerstein’s catchy musical number My Favourite Things floating around my head, no doubt caused by listening to Stephen Hough’s mind-bogglingly difficult but extraordinarily effective piano arrangement (which I am rather ambitiously considering learning…). But why do some pieces of music ‘stick’ while others disappear immediately?

Earworms are a special type of involuntary musical imagery based primarily on sound. Variously dubbed as “sticky music” (Sacks, 2007), a “cognitive itch” (Kellaris, 2008) or “stuck song syndrome” (Levitin, 2006), earworms are a form of persistent musical memory [Halpern & Bartlett, Music Perception, 28 (2012): 425]. The fact that almost all of us experience earworms indicates not only that we are all capable of musical memory, but also that some music is naturally easily to memorise.  We are easily able to recall an earworm and hear it inside our heads, and actually find it rather difficult to stop listening over and over again!

A group of UK researchers from Goldsmith’s, University of London have started an Earwormery in collaboration with the BBC 6music to investigate the phenomenon further, by asking the public to tell them about tunes that get stuck in their heads. Published survey data suggest that the experience of earworms is extremely commonplace, particularly amongst those who consider music to be important [Beaman & Williams, BJ Psych 101 (2010): 637-53]. Most earworms are caused by familiar songs rather than instrumental music, and tend to have a simple melody with repetitive lyrics. Interestingly, “earworms are both frequent and idiosyncratic, with little overlap between individuals and little recurrence within individuals”.

Fortunately earworms are unlikely to last more than 24 hours and are usually not unpleasant experiences. Unfortunately, research suggests that “active attempts to block or eliminate the earworm are less successful than passive acceptance”. So next time you have an earworm, you may as well enjoy it while it lasts!

Further reading:

ICMPC 2012 (International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition) – website of a symposium delivered in July 2012 dedicated to the science of Earworms

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Interview with… Charlotte Tomlinson (pianist)

charlottetomlinsonI have worked as a chamber musician and duo partner for my entire career to date and therefore I have not needed to play from memory in a concert. Music has been given to me anything from months before the concert to hours before, meaning that the demands I have had lay instead in being able to learn music fast and thoroughly.

Learning music fast and thoroughly is a particular skill, and for me to do this effectively has required a certain way of learning that I equate with memorising. In fact, I would say that the only difference is that I know I don’t have to play from memory in the concert, and that takes a certain amount of pressure off.

So what is it about this approach that is similar to memorising? I would say that it is the delving deep into a piece of music, getting to know that music as well as possible from every single angle. This is essential for a memorised performance otherwise the memory will fail. But it also needs to be essential for any performance, and even more so if there is limited time to learn it!

My approach to learning a piece of music is this: I start by sight reading it through and getting an overall sense. Then I will look and listen to how it all fits together, singing and playing the various different parts, whether they belong to the piano or the instrument/s I am playing with. I make sure I understand the musical structure of the piece and what it means musically and expressively before anything else. Sometimes I will take the score away from the piano, and spend time looking, observing and listening in my head.

Once I have the big picture, I go into the details. I take roughly four bars at a time, repeating them and making sure I know them extremely well, usually under tempo and with fingering, notes, articulation and dynamics all in place. Then I test those four bars from memory, reminding myself at the same time where this fits in the music as a whole. Once I know that I know them, I then shut my eyes to double check. The lack of visual stimulus concentrates the mind wonderfully, and I find I am really sensing where my fingers are, getting to know the physical moves from the inside out. I also find that having my eyes closed helps me focus on the sound and what I want to do expressively with music.

The next step is to work in this way with the next small section of four bars or so, followed by time to connect this section and the first four bars and see whether I really know it. I then do this for the whole piece, checking at every stage how embedded it is in my mind and fingers. Then I revisit the big picture, seeing how my increased knowledge of the details informs my overall understanding of the piece.

Obviously if I have to learn music fast, I don’t always have the luxury to go into such immense detail so I might jump stages and go almost immediately to the ‘eyes shut’ stage. To play music from memory on the concert platform, I would take this approach but just give lots more time and lots more repetition. I would also then check my knowledge of the music from a structural, physical and aural perspective, knowing that if one method were to fail, another would kick in and take over.

This aside, I would say that this method of learning music could either be called ‘memorising’ or is at least very similar to the process of memorising. But of course music has to be learnt with the same thoroughness that memorising demands – anything less will show up on the concert platform!

Book: Music from the Inside Out – a musicians guide to freeing performance


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Interview with… Jenni Parkinson (percussionist)

JenniParkinsonPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a creative music leader, performer and teacher, specialising in marimba and percussion. My work centres on music as a means of communication, self-expression and escapism. I am co-founder and Director of Soundcastle, a London-based arts collective who create new music through diverse collaborations. I also perform classical and contemporary repertoire as part of percussion duo Meridian, and play regularly with Joy to Filth Ratio, a collective that writes and performs dance music on orchestral acoustic instruments, blending typically electronic genres with virtuoso classical performance.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
There was a point a few years ago when I made a decision to only perform without a score, which was when I first started playing professionally in a percussion duo. We had both memorised a few things before, but not as a matter of course. We decided to start performing only from memory for a few different reasons. Firstly, when playing marimba, you simply cannot turn pages as your hands are full of beaters! I went through a phase of photocopying reams of music, but that’s a complete hassle. Secondly, there is a visual aspect to performing – people like to see your hands moving, and the music stand gets in the way. I think memorising helps with communication too, both between performers and with the audience.

I actually find reading from music quite uncomfortable now. As a musician, I don’t want to have music in front of me. Ever. It’s about communication and the level of engagement you have with the music. The score feels like a third wheel – it should be just you and the instrument. The music should come from inside. It feels more personal to me to play from memory.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
I don’t think I’ve ever had any major memory lapses during solo performances, but I used to get very nervous so didn’t play from memory for fear of forgetting. Now it doesn’t worry me. My percussion duo partner and I had a simultaneous memory lapse once when one of us took a wrong turn playing Bach, and couldn’t get back to where we supposed to be. Fortunately we were playing background music so we faded out and tried again, but still couldn’t get past that point. In the end we had to try something different!

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I think it is more about style that particular composers. Minimalism is really hard to memorise (and we play a lot of it on marimba!) and I find rhythm sticks less well than melody. Take Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimba for marimba duo, for example. Every bar is the same but slightly different, and is repeated a different number of times. It’s a nightmare! You are chasing each other throughout, so we learnt it together. Somehow I’ve memorised how may times to play each repeat – I think this must have been using visual memory, as I colour-coded all the bars depending on how many times they had to be repeated before I tried to memorise it. That piece was really hard to memorise, but I think it’s stuck forever now!

I find music with functional harmony relatively easy to learn, although there isn’t much for percussion. Take Schubert, for example; the chords are well known and the progression is predictable. It’s the same with pop music. Bach is an interesting case though – I have to be careful not to memorise it wrong, and have to pay particular attention to repeats with different endings so as not to take a wrong turning and miss out a few pages! The phrases don’t end neatly in Bach because of the counterpoint, so it’s harder to break into chunks for memorising. Sometimes the melodies switch between different people too, which makes it hard to memorise alone.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I have quite a good memory for music and don’t find memorising things too difficult, particularly at an advanced level – by the time you’ve mastered something technically, you’ve played it so many times it is memorised. When I was a student, I practiced my final recital so much that I knew the pieces by memory, but I still played with the music just so I knew it was there. Just in case. Now I use a variety of methods for memorising. I have quite a strong visual memory – I know where I am on the score when I’m playing. I also analyse the harmony and structure. When there are tricky bits that aren’t going well, I break it down and repeat small chunks over and over again. Learning drumming pieces can be hard due to the lack of harmony. In theses cases, I take 4 bar chunks and play them over and over again, first with the score, then without, until that chunk is memorised. Muscle memory and memory for shapes are really important too, so drums always have to be in the same place.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
There was a phase, when my duo first started, when we had to try and memorise lots of things we already knew, which we had learnt to play previously with the music. This was a case of playing without the music and seeing what had stuck, then working on memorising the bits that hadn’t. However, once we decided to perform only without the score, I started learning new pieces in a different way – memorising and learning at the same time. I would look at 8 bars, work out how to play it, then play without the music and repeat until I knew it. I think this method is faster and you get used to not staring at a piece of music all the time.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I don’t do much solo playing anymore, and I usually played with the score when I did! When playing in an ensemble, you can rely on other players to some extent to get you back on track if you get lost. I know memory lapses will happen if you think and worry about them.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
Not consciously. Normally I find it is possible to resurrect a piece with some practice. The gist of the piece is usually there, and how it should sound, but specific notes, harmonies and hand movements fade.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I tend to compose music with a strong skeleton, but with an element of freedom. I have the general shape of the piece in my mind, and idea of the harmony and rhythmic texture I want, and then improvise around this.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
I teach beginner piano, mainly to children, and I do teach memorisation as I think it is really important early on. However, it’s an interesting balance, because often I have to teach them not to memorise as some children memorise too soon and cannot read music! At the very beginning I don’t teach notation until a few months in, but work on shapes, note patterns and playing by ear. In the creative projects I do with Soundcastle, we usually don’t write anything down. We record everything instead, to capture improvised ideas, many of which are never notated. Then we have to learn from recordings instead of from a score. This works well when composing as a group, and the ideas stick easily in the memory because you’ve created them.

Forthcoming events:


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Mental practice and a holiday from playing

Many musicians worry about how to keep repertoire fresh and accurate when practising simply isn’t possible. I haven ‘t touched the piano for a week, and although my recent holiday in the mountains was undoubtedly restorative for the mind and soul, it was not so good for the fingers. Even the great pianist and composer Paderewski famously once said: “If I do not practice for a day, I know it. If I do not practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I do not practice for three days, my audience knows it.” In my experience, the best option is to replace regular physical practice sessions with mental ones. Rehearsing a piece inside your head requires deep concentration but is extremely rewarding and can cement memorisation.

Despite the obvious absence of a piano on a hiking holiday, I managed to squeeze in some mental practice of my favourite new piece, Scarlatti’s wonderful G major sonata K.427. This short, life-affirming piece sparkles with syncopated rhythms and driving semi-quavers. The real challenge is to stop my fingers running away from me (egged on by the daring ‘presto quanto sia possibile’ marking at the top)! Here’s Walter Gieseking playing the Scarlatti sonata faster than seems humanly possible…

I found this piece extremely easy and quick to memorise, perhaps because the musical building blocks are very familiar to someone trained in classical Western music. Like all of Scarlatti’s astonishing 555 keyboard sonatas, the piece is a single short movement divided into two approximately equal (repeated) halves. Written around the mid-1750’s, the structure of piece is an early form of the more developed sonata style of the classical era. Motifs are presented, developed, repeated and modulated using what has now become standard functional tonality.

Because the piece is well memorised, I can sit and ‘play’ it through in my head without the aid of a score or recording. I find I’m able to change the tempo at will, alter the dynamics or articulations and rerun sections, and even practise hands separately. Interestingly, I discovered that my memory for the top (right-hand) part is almost entirely aural – I hear it in my head; in contrast, my memory for the bottom (left-hand) part is almost entirely visual – I see either the keyboard or the score in my head, and have to really focus to ‘hear’ the notes clearly. In this case, I think I have even managed to make artistic decisions about how to shape different phrases in my head – something that can get forgotten in the mad dash of attempting to execute all the right notes in the right order at a real keyboard.

Hopefully, once my well-rested fingers are warmed up, I’ll be able to replicate the music I hear in my head at the keyboard.

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Interview with… GéNIA (pianist)

GeniaPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a pianist, composer, educator and founder of the Piano-Yoga® method.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I learn very fast and always try to play without the score because it gives me a lot of freedom. Without the score, my senses are connected to my hearing and tactile sensations. I find the score a drag as it kills the music! The score can be very limiting, and is not always a good representation of what the composer intended. I would rather play without the score and make a few mistakes, than play perfectly with the score. Having said all that, these days I do use the score sometimes for contemporary music, if I need to play at a short notice or if I know that I won’t play the piece again soon.

I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old, and I’ve always played from memory. In Russia, where I grew up, no one plays with the score. When I was a child, I had a phenomenal memory and would remember everything straight away – I wouldn’t even have understood the question of whether to play from memory or not! I think if you play a piece from memory, you have to really know it, in your mind and in your fingers. If you rely on the score, your memory for the piece may be quite superficial.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
I remember my first memory lapse, but it wasn’t really major. I was a student at the time in my early 20’s, and my teacher and I had had a disagreement the night before a major performance of the Medtner Sonata. During the performance, I somehow looked into the audience and saw my teacher, which made me think of the previous night and brought on a memory lapse! I don’t think anyone really noticed, but I was shocked – before this I hadn’t really realised that memory lapses were even an issue!

Are there any particular types of music pieces, composers or genres that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find Chopin particularly hard to memorise. It’s often very similar musical material, but with incredibly small differences between repeats in a piece. I have to actively force the memorisation process for Chopin, by separating it into sections and learning each section separately. Some people have difficulty learning contemporary music, but I have quite a mathematical brain which easily remembers patterns and structures, so I don’t usually have any problems with it.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
When I was 8 years old, a friend asked me how I memorised pieces. At the time I thought this was a silly question – I don’t do anything, the music is just there! She replied that this was very dangerous, because ‘if you’re ever feeling unwell there’s nothing to rely upon’. Fifteen years later I realised what she meant! As we get older, our lives get much busier (and the music usually gets harder too!) and our brains can easily get overloaded. So now I find I need a strategy for memorising.

I usually work to tight deadlines, so have to learn new repertoire very efficiently. I use one simple strategy for memorising music: take a phrase, play it through hands separately from the score until each hand plays it perfectly three times in a row – with phrasing, emotional impact, fingering, notes, everything. For contrapuntal music, decide beforehand which voice(s) will be dominant, and play each of them through separately in a similar way. Then put the hands together until you’ve played it again perfectly three times in a row. By the end of this, you’ve played the phrase at least nine times and by then it’s stuck in your head! Then you can try playing it without the score. If there are any errors, go back to the score to correct any points you didn’t get right. But you have to get it perfect from the start, as if it was your final product – with emotion.

When playing from memory, I recall two aspects of the music most strongly – sound and tactile memory. About 10 years ago, I started incorporating music theory and analysis into my preparation too. I try to trace backwards to the composition process, to understand chord progressions and the structure of a piece. As a child, I sometimes used visual memory (of the score), but I don’t use it anymore – the score is just a distraction! In fact, I don’t really use visual memory at all. When I do mental rehearsal, I feel the music in my fingers and hear it in my mind, but I don’t visualise anything.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
I’ve been influenced by two teachers in particular. The first demanded that I only bring memorised pieces to lessons, and refused to work on a piece unless I could play it completely from memory. The second would work on a piece with me until it was almost perfect, and then tell me to memorise it (though by then it was already memorised)! I regard learning a new piece as a three stage process: synthesis (playing the piece through to get an overall idea of it); analysis (detailed work); and synthesis again (putting it all together). I start memorising just over half way through this process, in the middle of the analysis phase. I think it’s a bad idea to memorise straight away, before you understand the music. When you are just starting to know a piece, you need to work with the score so you don’t learn the wrong notes!

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
Everyone has memory lapses. My advice is to improvise and keep the piece flowing with the same rhythm, the same key and the same emotion. Never take your hands off  the keys! Obviously you need to know the piece very well to reduce the chance of memory lapses. You can’t just jump from playing with the score into performing from memory, it needs practice. Practicing performing from memory in front of people, and in different places, is also very important.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
If you learn a piece properly in the first place, and perform it in public at least 3-5 times, it seldom disappears and will come back in a few days with some work.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Although I improvise and compose, I don’t really connect these activities with memory. Obviously collective memory is used unconsciously, but I’m not aware of using memory when creating new music.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
There is a very clear differentiation between students. Some people don’t need to be taught to memorise, they just do it naturally. For example, most Europeans play from memory as that’s what they’re used to. I don’t try to teach them to memorise, as they already have their own method that works. But other people – particularly English adult amateurs who have never played from memory and want to learn – I teach them the strategy that I use (described above).

I now combine piano with yoga practice and meditation too. When you work on a piece of music you need to be present in what you’re doing. If you’re emotionally involved then usually your mind will be involved too. Meditation really helps with concentration, and can bring focused energy into practising.

Forthcoming events:


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Pianists on Playing (book review)

PIanists_on_playingCompiled by Linda Noyle, “Pianists on Playing” is a collection of interviews from the 1980’s with twelve international concert pianists. The pianists, who are all giants of the classical piano world, include household names like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jorge Bolet. Each pianist was asked the same series of questions about the “craft of the pianist”, including how they memorise music. Although the book organises the interviews into separate chapters, I’ll take a different approach and give an overview of what was said specifically in relation to memorising.

Perhaps the most unifying concept mentioned by all twelve pianists is the importance of mental practice. Rudolf Firkušný talks of practising away from the keyboard, sometimes even before the learning the score. John Browning recalls a particularly demanding former teacher who advocated being able to call out every note away from the keyboard – “to call out every note… every dynamic, every phrasing, and every finger, so that I can go away from the keyboard and in my mind I can do through the entire work as if I were writing it down from memory.” Leon Fleisher advises “with a new piece, one should sit down, probably in a chair away from the piano, and learn it, look at it, take it apart, try to understand all its elements as much as possible. Sing to yourself. Sing the various components.” The importance of analysing the harmonic structure is also highlighted by the majority of interviewees and Misha Dichter talks about “break[ing] a piece up into its smallest components… that fit into a larger structure”.

However, memorising is clearly also very individual. Some pianists learn at the piano, and some away from it; some use mostly visual memory, and some use entirely aural memory. Dichter says that “I don’t trust myself playing anything in public unless there are certain discernable layers of understanding that I’ve done through with the piece”. Mechanical motor memory is obviously important but most describe it as unreliable. Interestingly, Fleisher suggests looking away from the keyboard to help with memorising – not only to hear more clearly, but also to separate oneself from the “sensory activity” of the fingers moving.

Perhaps surprisingly, although all twelve pianists perform from memory, several confess that they have no idea how they memorise music – and that they don’t want to know! There are also a few references to memory slips, and John Browning reassuringly says that “every performer, no matter how secure, always thinks about memory slips!” Janina Fialkowska describes the “terror of forgetting”, which sounds rather familiar to me! But all of them emphasise that musicality should never become a slave to accuracy.

Although several of the pianists describe themselves as fast learners, Bolet’s tale of memorising Liszt’s notorious Mephisto Waltz in just an hour and fifteen minutes is perhaps the most astonishing. The speed of the process clearly surprised even him, and when asked how long it would take him to learn the piece he originally estimated a luxurious six hours! It’s clear from Bolet’s description that intense concentration is the key: “I sat down and really concentrated on every single note. I went slowly and methodically repeating a lot of passages.”

Outside of the specific arena of memorising, the book is brimming with sage advice on piano playing and music making. One quote in particular from Dichter speaks volumes about the intensity and devotion with which these piano legends approach everything about their craft: “In practising, never daydream. Never use the piano as a vehicle for simply moving the fingers and passing time. If you have only one moment when you’re not aware of what you’re doing, mysically or technically (and usually both), you’re wasting your time.”

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Music and Memory (book review)

Music&MemoryInitially envisaged as a text to accompany an undergraduate musical composition classes, Bob Snyder‘s “Music and Memory” gives a fascinating overview of the basics of both cognitive psychology and musical structure. Perhaps most interesting of all is his unifying perspective – that “cognitive structure creates constraints on possibilities for musical structure”. Under this model, understanding memory is not simply of passing interest to the musician, but of fundamental importance to understanding music itself.

The book does not concern itself with different types of sensory memory (visual, auditory, motor, etc.) but instead focusses on the interdependence between music and memory. Snyder states that for “music that has communication as its goal, the structure of the music must take into consideration the structure of memory.” At the heart of the book is the premise that there the three difference types of memory (sensory, short term, and long term) can be mapped onto three different levels of musical organisation (notes, melody/rhythm, and form), which occur over roughly equivalent timescales.

The first level of memory – so called echoic or sensory memory – operates on the a timescale of under a second and relates to raw sensory data. For auditory information, vibrations are converted by the inner ear to nerve impulses that represent the amplitude (volume) and frequency (pitch) of the original soundwaves. Basic categorisation of this information occurs before the brain gets involved, and sounds that occur less than a sixteenth of a second apart are perceived as a single event. At this fleeting level, all we can perceive musically are the basic building blocks of notes – pitch, loudness and timbre.

The second level of memory – short term memory (a component of working memory) – operates on a timescale of a few seconds (3-5 sec on average) and allows a number of events to be grouped and held in the consciousness at the same time. Musically this correlates to melodic or rhythmic phrases, and thus the capacity of working memory places a natural limit on the length of musical phrases. Acoustical groupings are determined either by temporal proximity, aural similarity or continuity of movement, i.e. notes that are played in fast succession, sound similar or move in the same pitch direction tend to get grouped together. While in working memory, short chunks of information can be pondered simultaneously and compared with information previously stored in long term memory. The timescale can be increased by rehearsal, i.e. repeating the same material to make it more familiar and facilitate permanent memorisation. Because of the importance of the interaction with long term memory to allow comprehension, what we already know plays a major role in determining what we see and hear. In musical term this means that our ability to appreciate new music is primarily dependent on experience, rather than any inherent property of musical genre; familiar music is easier to understand, and therefore to enjoy.

The third level of memory – long term memory – operates on a timescale of fractions of minutes through to many years, and generally involves chemical or structural changes in the brain. Musically, this correlates to large-scale form, i.e. sections of music, which is not perceived immediately but only in retrospect.  “In listening to a whole piece of music, we are only able to consciously understand the relationship between different parts of the piece by having events come back into awareness from long term memory.” Most of the contents of long term memory is unconscious, so reconstruction of large-scale patterns takes much more effort than basic pattern recognition and may require repeated listenings.


The book also highlights the importance of musical categories and boundaries, which are really just constructs of the way our memory allows us to perceive sounds. Snyder describes interpretation as the “management of nuance” – variation within the boundaries of musical categories. A single piece played by multiple different performers is still perceived as being the same piece – with the same notes, phrases and sections – but with different dynamic emphasis, rhythmic accuracy and pitch deviation.

All of this has profound implications for composition as well as performance – such as natural limitations on phrase length and the importance of repetition and structure. Snyder goes as far as to categorise all music into two groups based on their memorability:

  1. Music that attempts to exploit memory, which contains chunks of similar material separated by clear boundaries and organised into an overarching hierarchical structure that can be efficiently learned. Functional tonality provides ample opportunities for establishing high-level musical architectures, and much of Western classical and popular music falls into this category.
  2. Music that attempts to sabotage memory, which flouts all or some of the structural principles outlined above, making both anticipation and recollection much more difficult. This includes both information-rich music (e.g. atonal music) and information-poor music (e.g. highly repetitive or slow music), such as contemporary Western experimental music and some religious chants.
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Interview with… Claudio Barile (flutist)

ClaudioBarilePlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am principal flute and soloist of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic and have held positions in many other orchestras during my career. I am also an active chamber musician and have given many solo concerts around the world, as well as doing masterclasses.

On playing the flute from memory…
I don’t know many wind instrumentalists like me who like to memorise pieces. But I do! I think the flute might be harder to play from memory than other wind instruments, because the others instrumentalists can see theirs hands, which provides a very good reference for the memory. With the flute, if you open your eyes, you see the public!

On memorising…
I am going to write some significant things for me about memory. I always need to know where I am going to put my fingers and my ears – there must be a connection between these, like a wire or a cable. Melodic intervals and the score are also very important and harmonic memory helps me to play with more expression.

When I am without the flute, I need to be able to remember where the notes occur. In order to be sure about everything I am going to play, I start to say the name of each note in the correct place without the flute. What is very important for me is the rhythm, or in other words, where and in which place I am going to put the notes. For example, am I going to play four quarters? three quarters? how long is each note? how long is each pause? etc. When I am practicing, no expression is necessary in order keep the mind’s attention on this issue: memorising the music, and all of the map around the flute part if I am going to play with piano or orchestra. What I do by memory without the flute is to remember what my fingers have to do in opposite hands, i.e. what the right hand has to do using the left, and vice versa. In fact, I’m practicing all the time, while I’m walking or at the gym! I memorise with the score in front of me without the flute – on the sofa or in bed!

Numbers also help me a lot – that is, rhythms. If you change the time signature of the bar, even if you are playing in four quarters, or one note or half notes alone, you must take care about rhythm because of the length of each note! That is geometry, like chess players use. They can remember many of the plays in the past through numbers. And numbers never lie.


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Keeping repertoire alive

If playing music is a big part of your life, it’s likely that at some point you’ll be asked to play in front of people – friends, family, colleagues. While some people relish the opportunity, and ultimately make a career out of performing, others struggle with the sudden terror generated by this apparently innocuous request. In such situations, many of us can feel immediately out of our depth, and start making excuses –  “Oh, I haven’t got my music!” or “I’m just between exams right now and don’t have a thing to play!” If only we all had a few suitable pieces tucked away, ready to be aired at a moment’s notice without causing any stress.

One of the things that frustrates me most is how quickly seemingly well memorised pieces seem to fade from memory. It seems such a waste. After all those loving hours of practice culminating in triumphant performances, familiar pieces all too frequently fall by the wayside in favour of learning exciting new repertoire. Ideally we would all have a piece or two up our sleeves that we can play comfortably, whenever and wherever.

Which begs the question of how to keep memorised repertoire alive. Although most of us can probably hash through a few bits and pieces without any practise, keeping a piece at performance standard requires regular work. Like DIY, there’s always something that needs fixing. For most of us, every well memorised piece is probably lying dormant somewhere in the memory, so the challenge is simply getting at it. In particular, playing the whole piece from start to finish – rather than recalling just a few over-practised chunks – requires regular work to keep the retrieval cues in long term memory active, so that we can quickly access the memory of the entire piece. I’m certain for most pieces this work could be primarily mental rather than physical (although tricky technical bits probably require time at the instrument).

While it would undoubtedly be wonderful to have an enormous repertoire permanently at my fingertips, the reality is that I like learning new things, only have finite time, and no one is paying me to give umpteen performances of anything! So I’ve recently decided to start small, and try and keep just two pieces permanently in a state of readiness, to be performed at the drop of a hat. One is Brahms’ glorious Intermezzo in A, Op.118 No.2 that I played for my ATCL a few years ago; and the other is Chopin’s sublime Nocturne in Db, Op.27 No.2 that I played for my LTCL last year. Both are well within my range, and lack any technical pyrotechnics whilst pleasing most audiences. I have played the Brahms on-and-off for years, and often bring it out as my stock piece upon request; I find the contrapuntal melodies endlessly fascinating, and regularly alter my interpretation to breathe new life into the piece. In the Chopin, I constantly strive to achieve long lyrical melodies in the right hand that float over a peaceful harmonic sea of broken chords in the left, and to strike a balance between heart-wrenching drama and the essentially ethereal nature of the piece. This me playing the Chopin Nocturne last year…

I’m trying to play these pieces every week or so, and occasionally use them as a musical warm-up in place of my usual technical one. I can still play both pieces from memory, but with frequent panicky moments where everything threatens to fall apart. I’ve found the only way out of this is to focus on the sound and the harmonic structure – if I know in my mind where I’m going, everything works out fine; in contrast, if I just play and hope that my fingers will ‘remember’, disaster can strike at any moment! I want to get (back) to situation where I can sit and think my way through each piece, really knowing every note, harmony, dynamic and phrase. This strategy has the added benefit that I can never be without the pieces and can practise and enjoy the music in my head whenever I like.

Although I’m busily working on lots of new repertoire, hopefully I’ll be able to add more favourites to my permanent repertoire list in due course…

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Interview with… Hayley Hind (music therapist)

play-pianoPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a music therapist working with adults with learning disabilities, a piano teacher, pianist, accompanist and, as of recently, part-time PhD student. I study the piano with Heli Ignatius-Fleet and singing with Julia Caddick. I also sing with the Cambridge University Music Society Chorus and am a beginner cellist.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I was fortunate enough to have a very inspirational first piano teacher who encouraged me to memorise music from very early on. It is something I try to encourage in my own pupils from beginners upwards too. If it becomes a natural part of performing I think it becomes less anxiety-provoking, and not an impossible obstacle to be overcome. For me, playing without music offers greater spontaneity and a more intimate and immediate emotional connection to the music. I have a regular duet partner and we have experimented with performing both with and without the score. It is very liberating to perform a duet without a score but is not without additional anxieties. It relies on a good deal of trust in the musicality (and memory) of the other player, but can also be very exciting and enriching. It is interesting that accompanists rarely play without a score, although I think one has a different level of engagement as you are constantly attending to the soloist as well as your own playing.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
I recall a fateful wrong turn during a performance of the Rachmaninoff D major Prelude during an end of year recital whilst at college. I had struggled with the last section of this piece (which I still can’t reliably do from memory) and went round the same passage several times before bringing it to some sort of approximate conclusion. I think I had relied too much upon muscular memory only, and had not sufficiently applied myself to a detailed understanding of the structure of the piece, which might have stood me in greater stead.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I think the pieces that present the greatest challenges in memorisation are those that have dangerously similar repeated material but with very subtle differences occurring at different points within a piece. The secondo part of the 2nd movement of the Poulenc Sonata for Four Hands is a good example of this. It is, in many ways, not a complex part, but the material has very similar patterns in the right hand with subtle changes that can take the piece in an altogether different direction if misremembered. Bach Fugues are also a mighty challenge owing to their contrapuntal nature and the immense difficulty of trying to visualise the music on the page and mentalise the structure. I find that I can get so far by relying on muscular memory and trying to let my fingers play without really mentally engaging and thinking about what I am doing, but the moment I start to think about what comes next I risk collapse. I think that a thorough sense of the structure, the different appearances of the subject, countersubject etc, and being able to bring out (or sing) one part whilst playing the others are likely to result in a more successful memorisation.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I find that a certain amount of memorising happens quite naturally, as a result of the repetitive practicing involved in learning a new piece. If there are similar passages or developments within a piece that could easily become confused, I will often practice these simultaneously in an effort to ingrain the differences rather than the similarities. I find I do try to visualise the music on the page as I like to have a visual sense of the score in my mind. This means that I can work on memorising away from the piano too which I think is very valuable.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
From the beginning of learning a piece. I find that even quite early on I will hopefully have internalised enough of it that the memorisation is taking shape. It’s a fluid process, I think, and sometimes passages that have hitherto been secure can suddenly become unstable, alerting me to the need to practice it in a different way: sometimes it may need repetition; sometimes a different fingering can assist in the memorising by making a passage suddenly feel more fluent and therefore easier to remember.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I think anxiety and memorisation are intrinsically linked for me. I am far more likely to have a memory lapse when playing in front of an audience than when playing at home. I think if I feel well prepared then I try to focus on what I can do to feel as relaxed and comfortable about the performing as possible. I tend not to play the piece on the day that I will be performing it, but try to visualise it and conduct it in my head instead.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I think this is a really interesting question. I am surprised by how much can stay in the memory often years after a piece has been worked on. It seems that the fingers and brain are capable of remembering patterns in particular contexts for a very long time, although I cannot claim to have any scientific understanding of why this is so. I think if I know a piece well enough to start at any given point in the piece and continue from memory then it is likely to hold in my memory for some considerable time.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
As a music therapist, improvising is a large part of my work. Almost all musical encounters between patient and therapist involve improvised music, during which the therapist seeks to understand and interpret the patient’s music as an expression of his/her inner emotional world. This then determines the musical response the therapist offers to the patient. If we consider that a non-verbal or mentally disordered patient may not have had a positive experience of feeling validated or acknowledged, as music therapists we may try to offer some kind of musical acknowledgement, something that supports and strengthens the patient’s sense of worth. This could mean listening for patterns in the patient’s music and using their material as a basis for our music response. In doing this I am conscious of using a great number of memorised, stored and familiar musical structures alongside musical material generated by the patient in the moment. That is not to say that I am playing actual known pieces but there is a sort of musical library in my head from where different ideas come.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
I always encourage pupils to memorise music from the very beginning and generally find that children, especially, enjoy it and are largely uninhibited about making mistakes or having lapses. Depending on the age and stage of student I may only give them a few bars or a line to memorise whilst continuing to work on the whole piece (with score) alongside the memorising. Often they find that by the time I ask them to memorise the next few bars they can already do it. More recently, I have found myself teaching some older people (up to and including beginner pianists in their 80’s!) for whom day-to-day memory is becoming challenging. It is interesting to note that some of those that have played before can still remember pieces learnt in childhood yet may struggle to memorise a current piece.

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Guide to Memorizing Music (book review)

Guide-GoodrichWhen I came across a little “Guide to Memorizing Music” – written by Alfred John Goodrich in 1906 – I assumed it would contain more-or-less the same advice as similarly short book from the same era “How to Memorise Music” by Charles Frederick Kenyon that I reviewed previously. But in fact the books could not be more different. Goodrich’s guide contains almost nothing about different sorts of memory – auditory, visual, motor, etc – but instead focuses exclusively on analysis as the key to forming secure musical memory.

Right from the start, Goodrich warns against the “customary mechanical process of memorizing by rote – i.e. playing the notes and repeating them until they are remembered”. He contends that the secret to rapid mastery of a piece of music is “apprehending the design” through detailed analysis, which he divides into:

  1. Melody (or motif), particularly the pattern of intervals between notes
  2. Harmony (major and minor) and cadences
  3. Unrelated tones (e.g. suspension, embellishments, passing notes, etc)
  4. Chromatic sequences
  5. Modulation
  6. Chord sequences
  7. Inversions (of both chords and motifs)
  8. Imitation and canon
  9. Form

Quite a hefty list for a little book. Make no mistake, this is a serious work covering elements of music theory, and sadly the jovial tone of Kenyon’s contemporaneous little manual is entirely absent. Each and every aspect of the music should be patiently examined before attempting to play it to understand how the composer constructed the piece. To demonstrate the point, Goodrich takes the reader on a journey of excruciating detail as he analyses every nook and cranny of numerous examples. Although surprisingly scant reference is made to memorisation directly, the importance of forming a “musical image” and “hearing mentally” appears frequently throughout the book.

Despite its dryness, the book provides a fascinating insight for those unaccustomed to deep musical analysis, and does truly offer a do-it-yourself guide for this method of working. After my recent success learning Rautavaara’s fabulous Partita away from the instrument, I can attest that the method definitely works and, as Goodrich promises, offers enormous economies of time. The analysis doesn’t have to be academic or formal, but it does need to be detailed and thorough. My only reservation about this approach is that appears to ignore emotion, which is at the heart of music but lies beyond a well organised catalogue of notes. Surely imagery and expressivity must play a role not only in memorising, but also comprehending the original intention of the composer.

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Interview with… Graham Fitch (pianist)

GrahamFitchPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a pianist and teacher, also an adjudicator and writer. I teach privately in London, my studio comprising gifted youngsters, tertiary level piano students and adult amateurs. I give workshops and classes in the UK and overseas, and also write a blog on practicing piano.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
Absolutely, yes. I’ve been memorising music and playing from memory for my entire career, and will continue to do so even though there is now a trend to relax this obligation. I think any serious pianist starting out wouldn’t last 5 minutes if they took the score on-stage! Once you’re established, it’s another story, but even great pianists like Richter and Myra Hess, who famously played from the score towards the end of their careers, played from memory when they were younger.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Nothing too major, but every pianist, including the greats, has had some sort of memory lapse. I know people who have and who had to leave the stage to fetch the score, which must be a very traumatic experience. I think anyone who has ever played piano from memory in public has had moments when they are afraid they will forget the notes, which causes a brief panic and momentary lapse from which they can usually recover.

I think the single biggest fear when performing from memory is having a sudden memory loss. As a result, memorising is also the biggest single expenditure of energy during practice and preparing for a concert – enormous amounts of time and energy need to be devoted to memorising or bolstering memory, so that one can be as confident as possible in the performance. Although you might well ask why people bother performing from memory in that case, with some pieces you have no choice. For some of the big virtuoso works, like the Liszt piano sonata for example, you really need all eyes on deck! In such cases, I would find it more cumbersome to use the score, even with a page turner, than to go through the process of memorising.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
Any music that’s written in a different language from what you’re comfortable with is tricky to memorise. I’m very happy memorising Bach and contrapuntal music, for example, as I’m very familiar with them. I learn each line individually; I play them separately, sometimes transposed into different keys, or with one finger, and then play all the possible combinations of two voices. That way you really know the notes! I find contemporary, atonal or very multi-layered music hard to memorise though, as I don’t really play this genre much. However, I don’t think this is an intrinsic problem with the music, just one of familiarity.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you memorise?
I think the most important thing is to use active memorisation rather than passive remembering. A lot of time people don’t take active steps to memorise, but just try to remember as they go along. Simply playing with the score over and over, until eventually you find you can play without it, is not the best way to memorise and won’t stand up in a stressful performance situation!

When I learn a new piece, I go through it with a fine tooth-comb at the very start and analyse it to find elements of structure to memorise. The analysis doesn’t necessarily have to be formal, but it’s important to understand and learn both the small-scale patterns of phrases and harmonies, and the large-scale structure and form of a piece. Memorising is like having a map that you know very well. You should be able to retrieve the mental map of a piece of music, and know where you are in a piece, very quickly. Glenn Gould once wrote that “the only really successful way of learning a work, regardless of its period, is to do so quite away from the instrument – in other words, to study it in purely analytical terms first.”

Muscular memory, which is easily and quickly formed at the keyboard, needs to be backed up by other forms of memory – particularly aural and analytic. It’s best if all these forms of memory are built in to the initial learning processes for greater security in performance, and not left until after the notes are learned by drilling the fingers from the score for several weeks. I have developed several tools for memorising piano music to achieve this:

  • single finger practice;
  • playing just a skeleton (a few select parts) of the music;
  • swapping hands, e.g. playing the left hand part with the right hand and vice versa;
  • transposing into different keys;
  • stopping and starting anywhere in the score;
  • dividing the music into tracks (or chunks) and practice starting at any track;
  • visualisation and imagining yourself actually playing the piece.

You can read more about my views on the ‘Analytic Memory’ and some of the ‘Tools for Memorising’ on my blog.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
Right from the start, even before I start really practising. When memorising, I remove the score from the piano desk as soon as possible and place it on a chair behind me. The reflexes for performance need to be established and having the score on the desk gives false comfort (plus one can peek without even realising it)!

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I’ve written quite a bit about this on my blog – have a look at ‘Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills’. I think the analogy with tightrope walking is useful here. The tightrope is on the ground during practice, but about half a mile above the ground in front of an audience! So the mind tells you to panic, as there is no security net. Everything feels different – your muscles, your pulse, your hormones. Sometimes even a little stumble can lead to huge crisis in confidence, and if the performer can’t manage to regain confidence, they will wobble and fall off.

When this happens to me, I try to get my mind onto something else completely unrelated. It happened once on a piece I knew back-to-front, when I had to execute a big jump in the right hand that I have never really consciously thought about before. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a thought flashed through my brain: “What’s the next note?”. When this happened, I remember looking at the floor and picturing an elephant, which allowed me to execute the jump with no problem at all! You have to do anything to stop your conscious, judgmental mind interfering with the automatic pilot during a performance. When performing, one must fully live the music, not think about the exact details of each note. I think this is a left-brain, right-brain difference. During practice, the left brain is primarily involved – judging, thinking, evaluating, analysing. But when performing, you need to use the right brain –  visceral emotion, intuition, imagination. You need to get into a state of flow, where you can react almost unconsciously. Entertaining doubt is the biggest problem, so the conscious judging mind has to go somewhere else.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I go through exactly the same processes I used originally to memorise the music, e.g. transposition, playing each voice alone and in combination, etc. But keeping any piece in the memory requires regular work and constant practice for maintenance. Any serious pianist is never going to say I’ve learnt than now and can take it off the shelf.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I’ve no idea really, as I don’t compose or improvise (other than improvising embellishments and ornaments in Baroque music, where there is already a framework in place). I would imagine everyone who has ever written anything must draw on a vast archive of music from the past.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
Yes, though most people aren’t taught to memorise and don’t know how to. I always work on this with my students. For example, I ask them to play just the left hand from memory – which they usually can’t do! – then ask them to play the left hand part using two hands, or just one finger. Sometimes I ask students to start with just one hand, and when I give a signal, they have to come in with other hand, or both hands. Most of this is aimed at removing reliance on muscle memory, which in my experience is a false friend; it comes quickly but it deserts us quickly too. Any form of brain work is essential to bolster muscle memory of the notes. I also teach students to learn by analysing the pattern of a short passage of music. For example, in Bach’s F major Invention, we might talk about skipping up (jumping a third, a fifth, then an octave), then stepping back down (via a series of repeating loops). The details can be refined later, but this approach introduces imagery as well as an understanding of the structure. The student can then remember the pattern of music as well as the visual pattern on the keyboard.


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Thinking Fast and Slow (book review)

KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow’ is an intellectual tour de force describing a life-time’s work in psychology that ultimately won its author Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. Although its immediate relevance to musical memory isn’t obvious, I was encouraged to read it as a result of an excellent review of the book at music@monkton.

This extraordinary book contains a wealth of wisdom on human behaviour. Central to the book is the concept that we all have two ways of processing information: ‘System 1’ is fast, effortless and intuitive, and ‘System 2’ is slow, effortful and deductive. We use System 1 automatically to quickly draw conclusions without really trying – for example: driving a car on an empty road; detecting anger in someone’s voice or in their facial expression; and answering simple questions like 2+2. In contrast, the slower acting System 2 requires attention and mental effort – for example, filling out a tax form; searching a crowd for women with white hair; and answering difficult questions like 17×24. (Try the last one. You can do it, but it takes a bit of time while your working memory juggles different intermediate numbers.)

Over several decades of work, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky constructed a series of ingenious experiments to explore when we use each of these systems, and reached some rather disconcerting conclusions. Although many of us equate ourselves with the rational System 2, in fact we rely on System 1 far more than we realise. System 2 is quite lazy, and if we can possibly jump to conclusions without it, we do. Oftentimes this is the sensible thing to do and intuition gives us the right answer, but in many cases it results in serious errors of judgement. For example, we are particularly good at using cultural stereotypes to judge someone, and particularly bad at using statistical facts to adjust our expectations. As the New York Times review points out, “All of us, and especially experts, are prone to an exaggerated sense of how well we understand the world.”

So what does this all have to do with music? I think both these systems are important when we learn and perform music. When practising and memorising a piece, System 2 should be slowly cogitating, considering how the notes all fit together and critically listening to the product. We have to hold multiple notes, chords, phrases and rhythms in our head all at once, coupled with rich information about volume, contour, timbre and emotional content. Yes, it’s hard work. But once we have actively processed the information we are more easily able to recall it in future. For a more detailed example of System 2’s role in learning music, read music@monkton’s blogpost “What is 17×24? Fantastic thinking!

And yet, when we perform a piece in its entirety, we cannot possibly consider all the information about every note as the piece unfolds in real-time. There is simply too much to think about. So we revert to the fast and intuitive System 1. Once the hard slog of memorising is done, we become so familiar with a piece that we just know it. Everyone who memorises music must have had the experience of playing on autopilot, where the fingers keep going even though the mind has wandered off. Expert intuition takes over, and lazy old System 2 can take a break. And we need it to. Although we should remain mindful of where we are in a piece, we also need to dissociate from the detailed information about each note and focus instead on the whole. Only then can we can respond intuitively to the performance situation and connect with the emotional content of the music.

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Interview with… Kazu Suwa (guitarist)

KazuSuwaPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My name is Kazu Suwa, I am a Japanese classical guitarist and teacher based in London, UK. I studied classical guitar in both Japan and Spain. I have performed in Japan, Spain and the UK. I am currently preparing to release a CD featuring Spanish and Latin American composers, including Frederic Mompou, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, Moreno Torroba, Agustín Barrios, and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I have always performed from memory for solo works and concertos with a chamber orchestra. I have played with scores for ensemble works (duet, trio, and quartet; with a voice, choir, cello, and piano).

Classical music has preserved its culture via visual means (notation) from almost the beginning of its history. This visual representation of music also enables composers to organise more complex works with the expectation that the composition will be played exactly as represented on paper. It is inevitable that performers refer to the score due to the high emphasis in classical music on complexity. In fact, I personally don’t see anything wrong with referring to the score, if this prevents a memory lapse and increases the chances of a better performance.

I play with the score for ensemble works because referring to the score gives me a more holistic view of the music, whereby I can observe the role and interaction of each of the parts. As a soloist, I choose to always perform by memory, as it brings me closer to the artistic quality of the composition. Further, the process of memorising the music involves an incredibly intense analysis of each of the details and constituent parts in the music, which would not otherwise happen if I were playing straight from the score. With all this effort of study behind me, I am able, when performing, to concentrate more on bringing out the spontaneous quality in the music. As a student, I was required to play solo and concerto works from memory, so memorising music has always been a habit for me from the very early moments of my musical instruction.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
I never forget a note, but have trouble remembering names and faces! That aside, sometimes I’ve experienced some difficulties keeping my concentration very tight during a performance because there are always so many distractions (e.g. the instability of the tuning, the venue’s acoustic, the condition of my guitar and fingernails, even my disposition at the time). These kinds of distractions make me conscious of my environment and what is happening around me. If I can’t bring my attention back to the music, then these distractions can interfere with my procedural memory and result in slips.

It seems as if the more conscious you are the more you are at risk of inhibiting your procedural memory. This leads me to think that it is important to know everything in the pieces I play (e.g. keys, time, notes, harmony, rhythm, repetition, and structure), as it gives me greater confidence in the pieces and lessens any disruption to procedural memory.

Traditionally, soloists used to take quite long time to start to play at a recital. I can imagine a scene where a soloist picks up his/her handkerchief slowly and wipes his/her fingers, his/her face and then the instrument with it. He/She closes his/her eyes and meditates for a while and then; eventually, he/she decides to play the first note. Nowadays, soloists fly onto the stage and begin to play straight away. I’ve seen many pianists starting to play almost before sitting down; this may be in order to block out their consciousness and make the most of their procedural memory.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
Generally, I find it difficult to memorise music that I dislike! That said, I find all the pieces where I have a level of personal engagement with the creative process (whether that be through composition or arrangement) a lot easier to memorise.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I use a mixture of different methods to memorise: auditory, visual, procedural memorisation techniques and theoretical analysis. For some reason, I discovered that memorising the exact position of notes on a particular score (on the paper itself) improves my level of confidence. The negative side to this is that you have to stick to the same score (the same layout)!

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
Usually, I start to work on memorisation after having spent some time practising with the score. Occasionally, I start to memorise straight away as soon as I pick up a new piece.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I’m convinced that it’s very important to train psychological skills, as concentration is the key for successful performances. I think the skill of keeping your concentration on the music is in fact, the same time as the skill of being able to intentionally distract your consciousness. If a memory lapse actually happens, the only thing that occurs to me is to carry on.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I’m not aware of any technique to maintain my memory for long time apart from studying constantly.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I have never seen anything that is born out of nothing. Looking back at history, anything new has always been a re-interpretation or new combination of existing materials. I think musical memory is the essential foundation for not only both improvisation and composition but also any kind of creative process within music.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
Yes, I have. Unfortunately, I may have used up my quota of words on this occasion, so maybe next time! Separately, I’d like to take this opportunity to raise a few related questions on this blog:

  • Are you aware of any study that deals with the differences between left-handed and  right handed in the memorisation of music? If so, how?
  • Do you name notes while playing? If so, is there any difference in quality of memorisation depending on the languages (English, Italian, and German) used to name notes?


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Memorising a piece away from the instrument

I did something amazing this weekend – I memorised a new piece. And I did it mostly at my kitchen table.

RautavaaraThe new piece in question is a short three-movement work by contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Originally written in the mid-1950’s for solo guitar, Partita has two rather frenetic outer movements and a slow, more ethereal inner movement. I would hesitate to describe the piece as atonal, but it’s certainly not tonal either! (Which is one of the reasons I wanted to learn it – to expand and modernise my piano repertoire.) Familiar harmonic fingerprints are regularly disrupted by unexpected modulations, giving the piece a slightly haunting quality. The catchy chromatic motif that unifies the piece provides a clear anchor point for the listener, but has numerous rhythmic incarnations across the three movements as well as several transient key centres.

I’ve heard numerous stories of performers learning music away from their instrument – Angela Hewitt memorises Bach on planes and trains, for example. Various people have also talked about the importance of analysis and mental rehearsal in their interviews on this blog. So I decided to try learning an unfamiliar piece primarily away from the keyboard. Usually, I’m guilty of essentially reading a piece over and over again until somehow I seem to know it. This is both an inefficient and ineffective way of memorising music. Instead, I sat away from the piano and analysed each short movement of the Partita before taking it to the keyboard to try. Sitting at my kitchen table, I was rapidly able to identify repeated patterns and learn how the piece was constructed – something that would take me a long time to discover just playing the piece. Some of the writing is not particularly pianistic, and I suspect it’s easier for guitar! I did a little pretend playing with my fingers on the table, and quite a lot of singing of the melody. But mostly this was just detailed cognitive work, actively trying to understand and learn each note, each chord, every  interval and every phrase.

I memorised a movement a day for three days, spending just under an hour per movement. And today (day 4) I can play the whole of it from memory. Not up to speed mind you – I have no motor memory for this piece yet. But my brain knows what the notes are and, more importantly, how they’re connected. Amazingly, I’m already able to manage extremely vivid mental rehearsal of the piece – knowing, seeing and hearing the notes in my mind – and hence can practice in secret on the bus or in a particularly tiresome meeting. I’m quite certain I couldn’t have made such fast progress without really analysing the work before learning to play it. Granted this is just a short piece, so it’s hardly an earth-shattering feat of memorisation. But nonetheless it has been somewhat of a revelation to me, and I have to say I’m well chuffed!

Have a listen to the piece on Spotify…

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Why do nerves make us forget?

We all know the symptoms of nerves – cold sweaty palms, shallow fast breathing, uncontrollably shaky limbs, the frequent and urgent need to go to the toilet, and a heart that’s beating double time while attempting to escape through the wall of your chest. Although people vary in their ability to control their nerves, most people suffer from some kind of performance anxiety when playing music in front of an audience.

One of the biggest contributors to performance nerves when playing from memory is the fear of forgetting. And not without good reason since, somewhat ironically, one of the biggest disasters that can befall a nervous musician is that they do indeed forget the music. Without warning, a piece you’ve played for years, know inside-out and can play perfectly at home, suddenly disappears from your memory without a trace. Boom! Why does this happen?

When stress occurs, the body reacts by secreting stress hormones from the adrenal glands situated above the kidneys into the blood stream. Adrenalin is usually cast as the villan, due to its role in the so-called fight-or-flight response: it increases your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure to make sure you’ve got plenty of oxygen supplying your muscles; it shuts off blood supply to your limbs so they don’t bleed too much if they are wounded and to prioritise large muscles; it makes you want to empty your stomach and bowels so you’re not wasting energy on digestion and are ready to run; and it causes electrical impulses to be sent to your muscles causing contractions to get them ready for action. All of which is very useful if you actually needed to fight or fly, but not so helpful when you want to stay put and give a moving musical performance!

There are actually two main classes of hormones released as a result of stress: catecholamines (including adrenaline) and glucocorticoids (the most important of which is cortisol). Although they may be secreted together, these classes are made from totally different starting materials (tyrosine or cholesterol respectively), come from different parts of the adrenal gland, and have different functions. One of the main roles of  cortisol is to increase blood sugar levels to keep your muscles well fuelled. Levels of cortisol usually follow a natural 24-hour circadian rhythm: elevated in the morning (making us more alert) and declining during the day and into the evening.


There have been lots of studies on the effect of stress on cognition and memory, reviewed by Lupien and colleagues [1], which mostly cast cortisol in the starring role. Unlike adrenalin, because of its fatty nature cortisol can easily cross the blood–brain barrier and bind specific receptors in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory – the hippocampus, amygdala and frontal lobes. Once there, the hormone affects levels of neurotransmitters released and taken up by specific synapses in the brain [2].  The effect of cortisol on memory is dose-dependent – it has positive effects at low-medium levels but negative effects at high levels. (Note that although adrenaline cannot readily access the brain, it can still have an impact on memory via its actions on the nervous system, and through a vicious feedback loop where being nervous makes you more nervous about being nervous!)

One of the first studies to focus on the effect of acute stress on memory retrieval in humans was undertaken by Kirschbaum and colleagues in 1996, who investigated the effect on word-list and spacial memory [3]. The first thing they did was measure the effect of giving people an oral dose of cortisol (or placebo) on memory. Individuals who received cortisol treatment showed impaired performance in declarative memory tasks – like recalling a list of words – but not procedural memory for skills . This result was confirmed by a later study, in which performance in a word-recall test for a list of words learnt the previous day was significantly reduced as a result of cortisol treatment [4]. Although there was little effect on immediate recall or word recognition, there is some additional evidence that cortisol reduces working memory capacity [5].

Kirschbaum and colleagues also investigated the effect of natural acute stress on memory, by asking participants to perform a public speaking task and mental arithmetic in front of an audience before doing their word-recall test [3]. This had the effect of raising levels of natural cortisol and also significantly impaired memory performance. Again, this finding has been reproduced in a more recent study, which showed not only that long-term memory retrieval is significantly impaired after an acute psychosocial stressor, but also that emotionally arousing words are more affected than neutral words [6].

So it seems that although adrenalin causes most of the physical symptoms associated with performance nerves, its friend cortisol is actually responsible for most of the cognitive problems. High levels of cortisol significantly impairs retrieval of emotionally-laden information from explicit long term memory, but luckily procedural memory is relatively unaffected. This makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective, particularly for self-defence – don’t think, act! It also fits well with the experience described by several musicians in their interviews of acute memory lapses in performance being caused by trying to actively remember details. Although we can’t stop* the effects of these powerful hormones, knowing that procedural memory is unaffected by performance nerves could be hugely useful in preventing memory lapses during performance. Perhaps nervous performers should trust their preparation and go with the flow.

AddendumSome performers turn to drugs to help with the pressure of performance nerves. In particular, beta-blockers are widely though controversially used to reduce performance anxiety. They work by preventing adrenalin from binding its main receptor, which stops it having any effect. As you can see from the chemical structures (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) adrenalin and cortisol are very different in shape, and they bind completely different receptors in the body. This means that beta-blockers do not block cortisol receptors, and therefore have no direct impact on the effects of cortisol. So even if beta-blockers help control your adrenalin-pumped body, they don’t have much to offer your cortisol-drenched mind…


[1] Lupien, S.J., et al., The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition, Brain and Cognition 65 (2007); 209–237

[2] Sandi, C., Glucocorticoids act on glutamatergic pathways to affect memory processes, Trends in Neurosciences 34 (2011); 165-76

[3] Kirschbaum, C., et al., Stress- and treatment-induced elevations of cortisol levels associated with impaired declarative memory in healthy adults, Life Sciences 58 (1996); 1475-83

[4] de Quervain, D. J.-F., et al. Acute cortisone administration impairs retrieval of long-term declarative memory in humans, Nature Neuroscience 3 (2000); 313-4

[5] Lupien, S.J., et al., Working Memory Is More Sensitive Than Declarative Memory to the Acute Effects of Corticosteroids: A Dose-Response Study in Humans, Behavioral Neuroscience 113 (1999); 420-30

[6] Kuhlmann, S., et al. Impaired Memory Retrieval after Psychosocial Stress in Healthy Young Men, The Journal of Neuroscience 25 (2005) 2977–82


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Interview with… Paul Roberts (pianist)

PaulRobertsPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I am a concert pianist, writer and teacher, and I have made a speciality of the lecture-recital. This means I have had to learn to switch to different parts of my brain several times during the course of a presentation, the part which speaks and the part that makes music, which has interesting consequences for memorisation. Sometimes I perform from memory, sometimes I don’t. I have never found playing from memory easy – it takes me a long time with a piece to feel assured. I have mostly learnt to cope with the added pressure of memorisation. I find speaking to an audience quite the reverse, no pressure at all.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
Yes I memorise from the start. For me the process of learning a new score is the same process as memorisation, though this is certainly not to say that once the memorisation is complete – safe to play in public – I believe the score is ‘learnt’. It takes many, many public performances for me to feel I am in total control physically and imaginatively, and the learning process never ceases. So I see memorisation as one stage of learning, and performance another. For me public performance is the most concentrated and exhilarating learning process of all: if one can attain the necessary relaxation and confidence this is where the imaginative insights truly happen. And every performance of the same piece is a fresh start. (But public performance is also where the limitations of one’s physical and mental powers are exposed, so in no time one’s sense of exhilaration can be replaced by fright.)

I don’t feel, however, that once memorisation is complete one need divest oneself of the score in public. I understand all the arguments about how playing without the score can be liberating. But in my experience the score can be liberating too, if the inside preparation, both technical and imaginative, is complete. The eye can be a superb partner of the ear – while the ear listens and responds to the present moment (simultaneously providing reassuring information about what has just past), the eye divines what lies ahead. It is extraordinary how the brain deals with these different processes, which are of course the fundamental ingredients of performance, of making music in real time.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Yes. I lived. It was at the end of an arduous tour in America. We can usually get out of memory scrapes – it’s uncomfortable for a while, but one settles down again – but this time, early on in Liszt’s sublime Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, I simply threw in the towel. I knew I had no choice. I stopped. I explained my dilemma to the startled audience. I said my experience, and above all theirs, would be so much more pleasurable if I began again with the score in front of me. The audience, large and attentive, clapped not out of politeness but with immense sympathy. I went off to fetch the score. The stage manager brought on the music desk. A page turner appeared. We all started again. My fear and exhaustion gave way to complete relaxation and I found Liszt again. It’s now a central piece in my repertoire and I always play it from the score. I use the score nowadays if I fear this kind of stress. In some repertoire I have no memory fear. In other repertoire I do, so I use the score – but not if I haven’t memorised the piece first.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
My brain will not cope with fugues unless I have my eye there too. My eye sees the counterpoint in all its complexity and translates it into sound for my brain. This causes a logistical problem when I am performing Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin – five of the pieces give me no memory problems, the fugue screws me up. The French pianist Marguerite Long, who gave the first performance in 1919, had the same difficulty with this fugue and thereafter refused to perform Le Tombeau in public (I believe Myra Hess dreaded this fugue too). This seems to me to be a foolish sacrifice at the shrine of memorisation. If it’s too much to sort out all the paraphernalia of music desks and page turners for one short piece, then use the score for the lot. What is the audience there for, to listen to sublime music or to marvel at a feat of memory?

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Harmonically, muscularly, photographically, writing it down, recalling it away from the instrument – all these methods in different proportions depending on the particular piece being memorised. I don’t use visualisation very much, although there are two aspects: photographic memory of the score – which I don’t have at all but which I know many pianists do – and visualisation of the keyboard, which I do sometimes use and have found enormously useful. So I visualise where I’m putting my fingers while trying to hear as much as possible in my head. It is a difficult process to concentrate on but the more one does it the easier it becomes. But in the final issue, as I have been saying, if memorisation becomes the main hurdle, then forget it, as it were. In the end memory is to do with confidence, so in the end the problem with memory, when there is one, is psychological. And when it gets to that stage and fear sets in, then in the name of all the gods of music use the score.

Upcoming presentations (2013):

  • May 4, Wigmore Hall, ‘Capturing the Elusive Image’, a lecture-recital on musical Impressionism
  • May 31, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, ‘Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets‘, a workshop with post-graduate pianists
  • July 8-10, Portland, Oregon, USA, ‘Paul Roberts in Portland – Performance and Communication‘, a festival of master classes and a lecture recital ‘Liszt, Love and Petrarch – the pianist as narrator

Full details of these, as well as recordings, books and various piano courses at:

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Mindfulness and music

MeditationThe idea that we could all benefit from meditation in our busy, stressful lives is relatively commonplace. It’s claimed that meditation can improve concentration, promote relaxation, invigorate and energise us, and increase our overall well-being. Which all sounds great. But to the uninitiated, there is a bewildering assortment of different meditation practices, some religious and some secular, which can make choosing between them a challenge. One form of meditation practice – mindfulness – has recently come under the critical gaze of scientific study, and as a result is now promoted by numerous medical centres for its health benefits, and some enlightened educational establishments for its cognitive gains.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, refers to a particular type of meditation practice that cultivates “a moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness“. We have probably all experienced driving home on autopilot, or mindlessly eating dinner while watching TV, without really noticing anything about the roads or the food along the way – the exact opposite of mindfulness. We are essentially absent in our own lives, failing to notice the experiences as they occur. Put simply, mindfulness is a way of paying attention. For example, focusing on just the breath (on each of the separate sensations in your nose, throat, lungs, ribs, diaphragm, shoulders, etc.) is a powerful method for tuning into the present experience of the body while maintaining a relaxed state of mind, and is one of the central meditations in mindfulness practice.

Perhaps surprisingly for something so apparently simple, there is now considerable evidence that mindfulness practice can help with both physical and mental health. It can reduce persistent pain, alleviate stress, anxiety and depression, and help manage chronic disease [1]. There is also growing evidence that mindfulness meditation improves cognition and memory. Zeidan and colleagues [2] found that even “brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning” and enhanced sustained attention. Neuroimaging studies indicate that MBSR is associated with increased grey matter in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotional regulation, and self-referential processing [3].

How does mindfulness apply to music? Although to date there has been little formal study of mindfulness and music, the two are natural partners. Musicians spend unusually large amounts of time alone practising, in a state of what pianist-composer Rolf Hind calls “solitary absorption”. Mindfulness can make practice more effective by improving mental focus. There should be no mindless practice! The BulletProofMusician has a great blog about mindful practising, which highlights particularly its efficiency gains. People have also reported that mindfulness meditation heightens “their listening experience by increasing their ability to focus on the music without distraction” [4]. As Hind observes in his article in the Guardian, “you would be surprised what an ecstatic cacophony emerges from your mind when there’s nothing around to distract it”. Mindfulness can also help reduce performance anxiety, both before going on stage and during the performance itself, by giving the performer a way of managing their nerves. Given his own experience with meditation, Hind introduced a custom designed MBSR-based course to music students at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which was very positively received.

It seems likely that mindfulness is also directly relevant to musical memory, both for encoding and retrieval of information from long term memory as well as improving working memory. Retrieval cues – snippets of information that allow access to memory – form part of a standard explanation for recall of information from long term memory and have explicitly been linked to expert musical memory. They can be likened to a kind of mental Google for memories. And like searching in Google, some cues are better search terms than others. Importantly, more accessible memories have a higher activation level, and retrieval is less effective if cues are not attended to. For a cue to be effective it should be purposely encoded at the same time as the memory itself. Therefore, mindful practising that purposely focuses on specific retrieval cues will ensure that the cues are consciously formed and reinforced.

A few years ago, in an attempt to control overwhelming performance anxiety prior to undertaking my first piano diploma, I attended a 12-week MBSR course. Although I can’t claim to be a complete convert – I don’t meditate daily, though I probably should – I definitely benefited from the course and now always integrate short meditation sessions into my practice during the run-up to a concert. I’ve found that after meditating, I’m much more alert while playing; I’m able to notice when my mind wanders and bring it back quickly. As my teacher was fond of saying, if you have a mind, it will wander because that’s what minds do. And if a wandering mind can undermine a practice session, it can completely derail a performance! A sudden thought of “what shall I have for dinner?”, or “I must remember to call the dentist”, or (worst of all) “I can’t remember the next note” can be frighteningly disorientating. Constant micro-judgements about how to play each note, or how to shape each phrase, are crucial during practice but destabilise our ability to actually make music during a performance. Control of attentional focus is perhaps the major benefit of mindfulness in music, and is the key to conquering musical memory and delivering a great performance.


[1] Ludwig, D.S. & Kabat-Zinn, J., Mindfulness in Medicine,  JAMA 300 (2008); 1350-2

[2] Zeidan, F., Johnson, S.K., et al., Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: evidence of brief mental training, Consciousness and Cognition 19 (2010); 597-605

[3] Hölzel, B.M., et al., Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191 (2011); 36–43

[4] Diaz, F., Mindfulness, attention, and flow during music listening: An empirical investigation, Psychology of Music 41 (2012); 42-58

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Interview with… Parker Tichko (jazz bassist)

ParkerTichkoPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I currently manage the Auditory Cognition and Development Lab at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (led by Dr Erin Hannon), a psychology lab that studies how infant, children, and adults learn about speech and music.

In comparison to my musical peers, I fell into music quite late. I became interested in music during adolescence and studied jazz bass formally in high school. Currently, I (try to) compose contemporary classical music and produce electronic music that is reminiscent of 80s synth-pop.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
The majority of my bass training centered on improvising and memorising the eminent catalog of jazz standards. As a bassist, it is common practice to learn the harmonic changes of a standard (i.e. chord progressions) and spontaneously create a bassline that highlights these changes instead of playing a notated, predetermined bassline. If a jazz composition does center on a main melodic theme or motif, the bass player might play it in unison with another lead instrument. I actively memorise both the chord changes and the themes of standards because it offers me a greater degree of flexibility as a musician and performer: I can seamlessly join a jazz session with no score.

When I do play piano music, I memorise the score completely and perform without it. Analogous to how I approach jazz music, I tend to conceptual others music genres (e.g. classical piano music) as large, harmonic structures. Note: I elaborate on this later…

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
During a bass performance, one that requires me to play a written part, the form of memory lapse that I commonly experience relates to the recall of rhythms. Often, I am able to recollect the notes of a melody or bassline (say, the bassline to the jazz standard Red Clay) and the fingering on the fretboard but I cannot remember note durations or rests between notes – in essence, I cannot remember the rhythm of the melody. I find this fascinating. I theorize that, for me, this might illustrate a disconnection between pitch and rhythm in my memory or it might suggest that my motor memory might dictate only location-specific information (e.g. the placement of fingers on the fretboard) but not temporal information (e.g. how long my fingers should remain on the frets).

For classical piano performance, I am more likely to experience a memory lapse in the middle of a piece rather than the beginning or end. I would predict this trend follows the Serial Position Effect: it is easier to remember items from a list that are positioned near the beginning or end. I suppose a musical work could be defined as a “list,” a long sequence of notes or a list of music-related events.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
In my experience, classical piano music is harder to memorise in comparison to jazz, rock, and other forms of popular music. I have always attributed this difficulty to the complexity of classical music (sorry jazz lovers!): classical piano music is less-repetitious (the brain likes repetition), utilizes larger structures, and requires more technical skill to perform than jazz /rock bass.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Drawing from my jazz bass background, I tend to conceptualize any piece of music in its harmonic framework (if the piece uses western harmony, of course!). For instance, on piano, if the piece requires the performer to finger the notes C-E-G I remember this section simply as an arpeggio of a C-major chord. This “chunking,” I believe, helps with memorisation.

For bass performance, I do visualize my fingers on the fretboard. However, I tend to do this as part of rehearsal, particularly when I am not playing the piece but thinking through it. Sometimes, I might even tap my left-hand’s fingers along an imaginary fretboard.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
I start memorising as soon as I approach a new piece. As a proficient bass player, I am no longer concerned with the physical constraints imposed by the instrument: I do not need to contemplate finger positioning, plucking, and synchronizing my left and right hands. I imagine for a novice bassist, a great deal of cognitive energy is exhausted on attending to the technical demands of a new piece. I would not be surprised if this impairs a novice’s ability to memorise the more “musical” aspects of a composition.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
I theorize that my memory for music leans to a more analog model of memory. I find it difficult to start playing a piece in a “digital” sense — on demand, beginning at any point of the composition. Often, I need to start playing several measures back, usually at the beginning of a music phrase, in order conjure up the desired section from my memory. I use this trick often to deal with memory lapses.

As unscientific as this sounds, most memory lapses occur when I begin to “over-think” the performance. If I attend to the technical elements of the performance (finger positioning, pedaling, etc.), I am prone to forget the passage of music that comes up next. For prevention, I do not contemplate how the music should be played, in a technical manner. Rather, I think about the piece from the perspective of the listener – does this performance sound musical?

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
In a word, repetition. I have found that I will inevitability forget a piece of music over long stretches of time. Popular music has been easier to retain but there is less to memorise than a classical piece of music.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Music memory is essential for composition. When a compelling melody arises from improvisation or from sitting at the keyboard, I try to record or notate it immediately. I have found that when I fail to do this and then attempt to remember the melody, I have trouble remembering the rhythm. This is analogous to my experience with performance memory lapse – in essence, I forget how to “perform” this melody I have written and can only recall the notes of the melody; not the rhythms.

I think that composers utilize implicit music knowledge (e.g. tonality) and an unconscious understanding of the piece they are working on, to forge a composition. To illustrate this idea, I would wage that most composers find it natural and easy to predict where a melody should progress to and consequently resolve. This process is similar to the mundane experience of finishing someone else’s sentence – the brain is anticipating, without our awareness, and based on previous exposure to and experience with a specific language, the brain can accurately fill in the blanks. My hunch is that a similar experience is quite common for composers. I am not implying that there is no conscious, deliberate, or analytic decisions to be made throughout the compositional process. In fact, for me composition is a tug-of-war between implicit and explicit knowledge – a deliberate manipulation of musical ideas which arise naturally.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
Sadly, I have not. And admittedly, I am not acquainted with the literature on music & memory.


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This is Your Brain on Music (book review)

BrainOnMusicWhen I first came across Daniel Levitin’s book “This is Your Brain on Music I assumed it would tell me everything I needed to know about musical memory from a neuroscience perspective. But – fortunately for the future of this blog – it didn’t! The book is subtitled “Understanding a Human Obsession” which I think is quite a nice summary of the flavour of the writing. More than anything else, the book extols the importance of music in our lives and highlights the relative ease with which everyone remembers and enjoys music. We are all expert listeners, even if some of us lack expertise in performance. Few people in the modern world go through a single day without listening to music of some kind. We’re addicted. We use it to change or augment our moods, to relax or invigorate ourselves, and to accompany our daily lives. The fact that numerous regions on both sides of the brain are involved in processing music undoubtedly contributes to making it such a holistic and satisfying experience.

A  whole chapter of the book is devoted to musical memory in relation to tune recognition. The remarkable thing about musical memory, I now realise, is how naturally good we are at it. In general, we’re actually quite bad at remembering detailed information. Our memories are notoriously malleable and even minor interventions can drastically alter the accuracy of recall– a problem that plagues eye-witness testimonials. And yet we are able to recognise hundreds or thousands of tunes without having consciously studied them, and recall is unaffected by altering the pitch or tempo. The fact that tunes are still recognisable after substantial alteration (think of cover albums) indicates that the relationship between notes, not just absolute information about each note, is encoded in our memory. However, when asked to sing a familiar song, most people apparently sing at close to the original recorded pitch and tempo, indicating that we do also encode absolute information in long term memory.

Levitin makes an interesting comparison between our memory and a tape-recorder. Although we do seem to preserve music very accurately in our memory, suggesting a ‘record-keeping’ mechanism, there are a few interesting differences. Firstly, when listen mentally to a piece, we can easily change the tempo (to dash through an uninteresting verse, for instance) without affecting the pitch – something tape recorders are singularly useless at doing. In our minds, pitch and tempo are encoded separately. Moreover, unlike a tape recorder, we are not agnostic to the start and stop points; the information is hierarchically encoded, and even someone with no formal musical training is more likely to recall music from important structural boundaries. Tantalizingly, Leveitin states that there is no known limit to long term memory; the barrier to recalling everything we have ever known is not one of storage but of finding and activating the appropriate retrieval cues.

The book only briefly looks at musical memory in the context of performance, comparing it with other forms of expert memory. The importance of building hierarchical structures based on existing mental schema is highlighted, and the usefulness of chunking is also emphasized – I’ve covered both of these topics in detail previously. But one interesting aspect that Levetin focuses on is that despite our astonishingly accurate musical memories, most of us turn to music not to marvel at a pleasingly well organised series of notes, but for an emotional experience. We don’t worry about each individual note, but are transported by the whole experience to a different time and place, a different mood, another world. When playing from memory, we shouldn’t focus on the detail, but on the experience. “A musician needs his brain state to match the emotional state he is trying to express.” The ability to draw an audience into a performance, and imbue the music with emotion and meaning, is special kind of ability that goes far beyond musical memory, while at the same time being intimately associated with it. But gratifyingly, as Levitin boldly declares,  “without memory there would be no music”.

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Interview with… Genevieve Lang (harpist)

GenLangPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
Freelance harpist, mostly in the orchestral world, but increasingly less so with the desire to pursue more autonomous means of performing.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
Very rarely. It’s not often required of me these days, though I used to memorise everything for my performance exams at university.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
No, not really. Little lapses would happen but were easily surmountable by just keeping on going!

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find slow music harder to memorise. I think it’s because the connection between notes can sometimes allow for a lot of space and time for the mind to wander. I also find certain musical structures more taxing to memorise – rondo, for example, because oftentimes the differences between repeated sections are tiny but important.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
I primarily use a visual memory, with a combination of picturing my fingers on the strings, the shapes of my hands, and then actually ‘seeing’ the notes on the page. I have a very strong photographic memory which can be troublesome sometimes if the music I’m playing from looks different from the music with which I learnt the piece.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
Usually once I’ve got a handle on the patterns and dynamics. It’s not a process that I try to incorporate from the beginning because I view it quite separately to technique, which is more important to pay attention to in the beginning.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
Keep calm and carry on! In preparation for any recital, I would always perform the program several times over to different audiences and find out at what point something might go wrong. That would allow me to develop a contingency plan for every tricky corner.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
Not really. Sadly, I pretty much have to re-memorise anything that I’ve ever had from memory previously. It doesn’t stick that long!

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Hmm… Interesting question. I guess memory would allow one to pay homage to another composer if one were improvising or composing. I’m not proficient in either creative outlet!

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, what are the techniques and challenges, and how do people differ in their ability to memorise and recall music?
Everybody’s brains work differently, and I’m sure there are tricks to it. Perhaps my teachers weren’t able to work out how to teach me, and thus I’m not sure now how to help a student towards being able to memorise. I have students who are able to commit things to memory, but never actually taught them how to! I think of it as a very personal thing which people can, and must, find their way to.


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Different pieces, different challenges

I’ve been learning two new piano pieces so far this year – Chopin’s epic first ballade in G minor Op23 (which I’ve already written about) and Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Prelude in D major Op23 No4. Although both pieces are on the Trinity College London piano licentiate diploma syllabus – and  so are ostensibly the same standard – they are very different beasts to tame. The former is a mammoth tour de force, comprising 15 pages and lasting around 10 minutes; it has multiple themes, several modulations, and an excessive number of notes that have to be played at a terrifying speed. The latter, in comparison, is a slow melancholic piece comprising just 4 pages and lasting around 5 minutes; it has essentially just a single main theme, contains no substantial modulations and actually has relatively few notes (well, for Rachmaninoff anyhow). So why did the Chopin take me less than a month to memorise, but memorising the Rachmaninoff is still a struggle after nearly 3 months?

Let me be clear: neither piece is easy! But memorising the Chopin actually turned out to the be ‘easier’ bit of the job. Sadly, actually playing it well is going to be a long uphill struggle, due to the overwhelming technical demands of the piece (exacerbated by my small hands, which can only span an octave :-().  In contrast, although I hesitate to say it, the Rachmaninoff is a technically much easier piece, and for me the memorising has been the hard bit. So I’m left wondering why. Is this an intrinsic difference between the pieces, the composers’ style, or the way I’ve practised the pieces? On reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the key factor in this case is an intrinsic structural difference between the two pieces, which led me to approach them quite differently.

The long Chopin ballade comes in ready-made bite-sized chunks, so right from the start I chopped it into short sections and learnt them independently. Both the length and the musical narrative of the piece itself lends itself inherently to this chunking approach. Moreover, because there are plenty of repeated motifs and a clear separation between melodic line and harmonic accompaniment, chunking is an exceptionally efficient method for memorising multiple sections.

In contrast, although the short Rachmaninoff does have clear sections (with an overall structure of AA’BA’’), the flow between sections is very fluid and lyrical so it feels natural to think of it all as a single musical concept, rather than independent chunks. The melody is repeated, but often buried in a highly contrapuntal texture, so there is very little true repetition of motifs, and making the melodic line really sing out is challenging. As a result, I was much lazier and simply played the piece over and over again from the start – the musical equivalent of eating your cake before it’s baked!  In addition, there are lots of large intervals and slightly awkward jumps where one hand crosses the other, which I find inhibits the formation of strong motor memory.

There’s plenty of evidence that chunking is the key to improving storage, encoding and retrieval of information from long term memory, so I should have chopped the Rachmaninoff up into artificial chunks and learnt them independently just like the Chopin. This is a classic mistake, which ultimately just wastes time! But sometimes I like to indulge myself and play through pieces simply because it’s enjoyable. Being an amateur pianist means I play for the love of playing and don’t have the pressure of concert or recording deadlines that require professionals to be more efficient. Nonetheless, I suspect I would actually have got more pleasure from being able to play the piece from memory at an earlier stage.

You can listen to the Chopin on my previous post about that piece, and I recommend you treat yourself and listen to Sviatoslav Richter’s masterful interpretation of the Rachmaninnoff (my own renditions aren’t quite ready for public consumption yet!):

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Can you write out a score from memory?

I’ve recently read several contradictory statements about whether a musician can or should be able to write out the score of a piece they are playing from memory. On the one hand, neuroscientist Ray Dolan asserts in Alan Rusbridger’s book ‘Play it Again’ that musicians are unlikely to be able to recall a memorised piece and literally sit down with a pen and paper and conjure it up note by note. On the other hand, pianist Charles Kenyon states quite categorically in his book ‘How to Memorise Music‘ that musicians should be able to write a piece out entirely from memory, and this is crucial for a memorised performance. I would imagine both opinions are commonplace, but which are we to believe?

I decided to test whether I could write a score out from memory, by trying to write down the first few pages of JS Bach’s Fugue in A minor (BWV 944) from memory, which I learnt about a year ago. Quite a few people have highlighted Bach fugues as being particularly difficult to memorise, which is one of the reasons I chose this piece, plus the fact that I can still play it fairly reliably from memory. Written around 1714, in Bach’s early years, the piece comprises a short fantasia followed by one of Bach’s longest and most developed fugues outside the set contained in the Well Tempered Clavier. The furiously driven fugue (which starts about 50 seconds into the recording, at the big dynamic dip) is a whirlwind of continuous, unbroken semi-quaver motion, punctuated with cadences, modulations, and layers of counterpoint which build from the original theme. Here’s me playing the whole thing:

When I finally sat down to attempt to write out the first few pages, I expected to be in for a mind-numbingly dull couple of hours. In fact, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable few hours totally absorbed in the intricate details of this wonderful music. It was a fascinating, though cognitively taxing, experience that I might even consider repeating again as I learn new pieces. Although there were a few bars where I got completely stuck, I was mostly able to recall the notes relatively easily. And when I later went through and checked my score, I was quite pleased to find that most of what I’d written down was correct.

More interesting than the specifics of this exercise, though, are the observations I made while doing it:

  • I couldn’t remember the notes without singing! Auditory memory was absolutely essential to writing the score out. I’m not usually a singer, though I have been told frequently how useful it is for pianists. And although I don’t have perfect pitch (which I’m sure would have helped!), when I checked I was less than a semitone off-key.
  • I couldn’t remember the notes without ‘playing’ on the table! Motor memory was very helpful for writing the score out. Sometimes I ‘played’  hands separately, sometimes hands together, and sometimes while singing another part on top! Although writing the notes down forces you to consider each stave individually, sometimes my memory required both parts to be present.
  • My memory was best at structural boundaries. Repeats of the first fugue subject were easiest to remember, and acted as landmarks on my mental map of the piece. The bars that I simply couldn’t remember tended to be located towards the end of musical chunks, leading up to the next structural boundary. 
  • Most of my mistakes were chromatic and I found accidentals particularly hard to remember. I’m not sure if this is universally true, or a problem specific to me. But when I do get thrown off course playing from memory, I’ve recently noticed that it’s often due to uncertainty around note recall specifically relating to whether a particular note is sharp/flat or not (i.e. white or black notes on the piano keyboard). 
  • Despite relying quite heavily on visual memory when I play, I found that I didn’t use visual memory of either the score or my hands at all. I was really surprised by this, and it makes me question whether visual memory is really useful for music. I certainly don’t have a photographic memory (presumably this would have been a rather facile task if I did!), and the published score actually looks quite different from my written one. 

Has anyone else tried this? It’s honestly a lot less boring than it sounds, and I’d love to know if others have made the same sorts of observations…

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Interview with… Madelaine Jones (pianist)

MadelaineJonesPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My name is Madelaine Jones, and I am a pianist and writer based in London. I am currently studying piano and improvisation at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London with Penelope Roskell and Douglas Finch respectively, and I write regularly for Bachtrack and frequently guest post on The Cross-Eyed Pianist Blog and ­Zeitschichten.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I make a concerted effort to try and memorise all solo repertoire, and to a large degree I perform from memory, though not always. I think it’s a very useful skill to have, because the process of memorisation in itself means getting inside the score in an intensive way that can sometimes be neglected if we’re still looking at dots on a page. Also, playing from memory allows a visual and artistic freedom that having the score in front of you can sometimes restrict. However, I do think it’s important to remember that the most important thing about performance is rendering the intentions within the music itself, and if you feel you will play something better with a score, you should do so and not be restricted by pride or tradition. I started memorising fairly late in my musical development – I had passed my Grade 8 before I ever memorised my first piece, so it’s not a skill I took to naturally, but it’s definitely a useful one to acquire and I’m glad I persevered with it despite some struggles along the way.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
The most terrifying memory lapse I can recall was during a performance of the famous Rachmaninoff C# Minor Prelude: I reached the fff passage at the end, lifted my hands to play the chords and my mind went completely, hopelessly blank. There’s nothing you can do but keep going in those situations, so I hazarded a guess at the chords for a couple of bars in what I knew to be the correct rhythm (some very interesting reharmonisations appeared as a result…!) and managed to get the thread of it again by three bars later. It’s the most incapacitating feeling to know that something you’ve played hundreds of times has simply flown out of your fingers when you need it most, but these things do occasionally happen and the best you can do is prepare yourself for them and keep going at all costs.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find Classical (meaning the era as opposed to the sweeping term) music the most easy to memorise, as the harmonies are conventional but the textures are fairly uncomplicated. Baroque music may be just as harmonically conventional, but it tends to be more difficult to get a grip on at times given the independent nature of the lines in contrapuntal music. And given that Romantic music is a little harmonically richer, it can be trickier at times to unpick what is going on, but it really does depend on the piece.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
I memorise using a wide range of techniques, because I personally believe that the key to memorising something successfully is knowing it inside-out and back-to-front in every possible way: the more different types of knowledge you can accumulate about the piece, the better. So I tend to like learning separate voices and practising hands separately from memory (particularly useful in contrapuntal music), analysing the harmony and structure of the piece, and slow deliberate placing of chords to avoid relying solely on muscle memory. It’s important that the brain is always engaged during memory practice – while the fingers will do all the automatic work, it’s your mind that will save you when the slips happen by piecing the puzzle back together and finding where you should be.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
From the beginning, of course! There’s absolutely no point in learning a piece and then memorising it, because it becomes an ‘added extra’ as opposed to an inherent part of the process and feels unnatural as a result. By starting the memorisation process from the first time you play, you turn the sounds you produce into a piece of music instead of simply the reproduction of a set of instructions. Of course, I don’t mean that I necessarily know the music by heart right away, but it’s important to consider how you’re approaching the learning process from the start. If a piece is well-memorised, you should feel comfortable and secure in knowing everything you possibly could about it (no one person’s memory is completely safe, but you can explore every facet of a piece in an attempt to bridge any momentary gaps that occur during performance). So by learning small snippets of the music from memory right away, or picking apart the harmony as you go to aid memorisation from the beginning, you build a secure knowledge of the piece over a longer period of time and feel much more comfortable in performing it eventually.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
The only way to deal with a memory lapse is to learn to fake your way out of it, simply put. We can optimise the memorisation process to a great degree, but beyond a certain point, what you are actually doing is ensuring you know enough about the piece to keep a handle on things if the odd note does slip from under you under pressure. Memorisation is the musical equivalent of ice-skating: you may be able to minimise slipping, but ultimately, it’s not completely unavoidable, and you’re far better learning to fall gracefully and pick yourself right back up again smoothly rather than just standing stock still in fear of going over in the first place!

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I will admit this is not something in which I have a great amount of experience. Being such a late-starter in the memory stakes, I haven’t actually played and re-played many pieces of repertoire over a long period of time, but those that I have, I have found it most useful to treat as if I were learning a new piece from scratch when I return to it. The learning process needs to be just as thorough the second time and complacency is not an option to keep memory at its peak – but obviously it’s quicker the second time you learn something because you’ve already done it before.

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Creativity is merely presenting pre-existing ideas in a new light or rearranging and combining them. There is no such thing as conjuring music out of thin air, and everything we improvise or compose, we draw on other sources to do so. So the more music we can digest, absorb into our minds and our fingers, the more tools we have at our disposal. It could be something harmonic like a particularly arresting chord sequence, a melodic fragment or interval we find intriguing perhaps, or even a structural framework, but everything we take in, we can rearrange and output again. Why do writers read so much? Because it improves their writing. The same can be said for musicians and their exposure to others’ music.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, what are the techniques and challenges, and how do people differ in their ability to memorise and recall music?
I have tried to teach memorisation before, and on the whole, I’ve found that children/beginners are actually very keen to memorise, but need teaching how to do it in a thorough way in order to not to grow scared of it as they progress. Most younger players will happily bumble through every piece they’ve ever played off the top of their head, but they are relying solely on finger memory, which is never a good thing. I try to encourage understanding about the music in terms of analysis – while a beginner certainly isn’t going to sit and label dominant sevenths, knowing that this particular bit is the scale we learnt earlier, or this is an arpeggio, or this is a sequence and so there’s a pattern to it etc. helps to engage the mind as well as the fingers, and as they progress, this can be stepped up to include all the musical understanding they have acquired over time.


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Chunking for improved memory

Grouping bits of information into memorable chunks is a well known technique for improving memory recall. Numerous classic studies such as George Miller’s “magical number seven, plus or minus two”[1] (which according to Google scholar has been cited over 16,000 times!) have shown that the probability of recall is greater when a chunking strategy is used. We can only hold a small number of discrete items in this working memory at a time (i.e. 7 + 2), but more information can be stored by chunking – combining a number of items into a single chunk based on prior knowledge.

For example, try remembering the following 15 letters:

Now try them again:

And just one last time:

Same letters, different order. Remembering the second is much easier than the first because there are 5 chunks instead of 15; remembering the third is even easier as there’s just one chunk. The bigger the chunk, the more information you can memorise. Learning consists of building bigger and bigger chunks to encode more and more information.

This makes a lots of sense when it comes to memorising music. Chords, scales, arpeggios and familiar melodies can each be remembered and recalled quickly as a single chunk once someone is familiar with these basic musical building blocks. Individuals with a broad musical knowledge of melody and rhythm, and a deep understanding of form and harmony, are likely to be better chunkers. But the principle applies even at the most basic level – anyone with minimal musical training would find the second example below much easier to memorise than the first, though they contain the same 8 notes, because it’s just a familiar C major scale:


Chunking also goes some way to explaining why sequence is often critical for recall [2], and hence many people need to go back to the start of a piece or section when they get stuck. For example, try singing the third line of ‘Happy Birthday’ (one of the best known tunes in the world) without racing through from the beginning. Difficult, isn’t it? If a piece is simply remembered as a single linear chunk, when a link in the chain breaks, subsequent elements in the sequence become inaccessible, so recall starting from the middle is difficult. An expert musician can minimise this problem by building a hierarchical structure of retrieval cues, allowing them to access smaller units of music from their long term memory. Practising starting from anywhere helps embed these cues throughout the piece rather than just at structural boundaries, which removes the dependence on sequence for recall.

The activity of chunking can be divided into two sub-types: goal-oriented, which occurs as a result of deliberate conscious control, and perceptual, which occurs automatically and continuously during perception [3]. We automatically group musical themes into chunks when we listen, and we actively dissect music into chunks for analysis. Moreover, specifically practicing chunks of various sizes is enormously effective, starting from just a few notes and working up to an entire section. Whether it’s grouping notes together or chopping long sections into smaller units, there’s no doubt that chunking plays an absolutely critical role in musical memory.


[1] Miller, G.A., The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information, Psychological review 63 (1956); 81-97

[2] Dowling, W.J., Rhythmic groups and subjective chunks in memory for melodies, Perception & Psychophysics 14 (1973); 37-40

[3] Gobet, F., Lane, P.C.R., et al. Chunking mechanisms in human learning, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5 (2001); 236-243

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Anxiety and Musical Performance (book review)

There’s a big difference between playing from memory and performing from memory. I’ve previously compared playing from memory with a high-wire act, but just how high is the tight-rope? The Cross-Eyed Pianist has an excellent blog post on this topic. When playing from memory at home, whether for practice or pleasure, the tight-rope is essentially lying on the ground, and there’s no fear of falling off. But in front of an audience, the rope may become “dauntingly vertiginous” and fear of falling can spiral out of control.

Much has been written on the complex art of musical performance, and it’s not something I specifically want to focus on in this blog except in relation to memory. Dale Reubart‘s book “Anxiety and Musical Performance: On Playing Piano from Memory” (1985) has some interesting insights on this topic. He asserts that the most essential ingredient for a successful memorised performance is the ability to concentrate, to maintain focussed attention.

But concentrate on what? Reubart separates the many activities involved in playing piano into different layers, and suggests that performers should “concentrate only on those facets of performance which he considers essential while observing subconscious functions without conscious intervention”. Specifically technique, note identification and fingering should all be excluded from conscious focus, not least because there are simply too many physical actions occurring in real-time to monitor consciously. ‘Haptic’, kinaesthetic, or motor memory alone is not trustworthy and does not provide a “faithful mirror of musical reality.” In contrast, the performer should focus on ‘auditory’ memory – hearing the music in the inner ear, and listening to the actual sounds produced. Conscious focus during performance should be directed towards musical values and the musical Gestalt, including one’s location within the overall structure of a piece. Should an error suddenly occur, the conscious mind can quickly refocus on the detailed information required. Far from being ‘lost in the music’ as many listeners perceive, the performer is acutely conscious of their musical goals, but only passively aware of detailed matters of execution.


My more successful public performances have certainly occurred when I’ve managed to silence the little daemon on my shoulder who constantly tries to knock me off balance by asking distracting questions like ‘what’s the next note?’ and ‘should I use the third or fourth finger now?’. Such questions are rarely consciously posed during practice (though perhaps they should be…) and are certainly far too detailed to be addressed in real-time during a performance. Knowing the notes is a pre-requisite to performing from memory. But questioning note-recall is a surefire way to wobble and fall off the tight-rope! As Neubart quotes, “Imagine the result, not the cause. Listen with all your concentration.” Afterall, we’re trying to make music, not an academic compendium of notes. And music is ultimately an auditory phenomenon.

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Interview with… Joy Lisney (cellist)

JoyLisneyPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
My name is Joy Lisney, I am 20 years old and studying Music at Clare College, Cambridge. At the same time, I am sustaining an international career as a cellist performing a wide range of repertoire from Bach, through the 19th and 20th centuries and right up to the most contemporary music. In 2012 I gave the premiere of ‘JOY’, a piece written for me by the Dutch composer Jan Vriend, in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. 2013 will include performances of Vriend’s magnum opus Anatomy of Passion (2001) and a new suite of dances for solo cello which I commissioned earlier this year, programmed alongside Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and more! I spend my spare time cooking, reading and training for triathlon.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why?
I perform without the score for many different types of repertoire, from concertos to solo and duo recitals. I find that performing from memory removes a potential barrier between myself and the audience, enabling me to communicate the music more directly. Having said that, there are some pieces for which I do have the score on stage, on a low unobtrusive music stand, but even in these cases I rarely look at it for guidance. In longer sonatas the presence of the score can be a point of reference in the overreaching architecture of the music. Furthermore, when one is playing in a duo, the two musicians constantly suggest new ideas to one another and as the composer varies the roles of the two instruments each player has sections which are less memorable than others.

Nevertheless, duo playing can become incredibly liberating if both performers can play from memory. The absence of a pianist’s page-turner, and the purity of two people creating music together with no ‘props’ can have dynamic results! My pianist James Lisney and I are lucky to be able to dedicate plenty of time to rehearsing and moulding every performance together and in the coming few years we are planning a cycle of all five Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano, from memory.

When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
I started the cello aged five under the guidance of the Suzuki Method, which advocates learning music primarily by ear and performing from memory. This separates the challenge of learning to decipher manuscript from the physical and aural act of playing the instrument and thus allows the child to focus on developing a good technique and trust in his or her own ear from an early stage. Therefore, I cannot separate learning the cello from memorising! From my point of view, memorising music for the cello is as natural as a child learning nursery rhymes – they would certainly not be reading from a score!

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
When I was nine years old, I was performing a piece which had a long repeated section. I was so carried away I accidentally went round three times instead of twice! Luckily, I had a very expert and alert pianist who followed my deviations without missing a beat: my dad!

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
Music that is very repetitive is often much more difficult to memorise than music that is constantly varied and new. This is especially true when there are tiny details which vary during the repetitions as is often found in Schubert. I find that the best way to get this music right is to practise summoning and fixing a strong picture of the whole piece in my mind.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use?
As memorization was ingrained in my perception of music at such an early age, it is natural to me to memorise music as I learn to play it. As one practices something over and over again, one cannot help but to remember how it goes! Of course, there are exceptions, especially in complex, contemporary music which may not be appear quite so intuitive. In these cases, once I can play the music I begin to practice sections from a piece without using the score. If the piece is very complex I may start with only a few bars and then gradually I build another small section on top of that until the end. At the early stages of memorisation of this kind, I rely in part on a photographic memory of the score itself, but eventually even the most complex music is ingrained into my brain and body.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
There are certain ‘danger points’ for memory lapses – primarily in pieces which return to the same or similar material multiple times. To reduce the chances of a memory lapse I spend time very consciously running through the music in my head, often in silence. This makes it feel much easier and more natural when I play the instrument again. There is, however, always the chance for a memory lapse, and often where you least expect it! As with any error you make on stage, the best thing to do is to carry on and most importantly not to dwell on it during the rest of the performance. In chamber music there will always be a moment or two of uncertainty as your colleague(s) register your mistake, but together you must make the necessary adaptations as quickly and subtly as possible.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
When I return to a piece after a long break, it often takes only a short time before my memory for the music returns. If you can internalise the music deeply the first time you learn it, I find that the memory returns much more quickly when you take it out again. A more superficial memory of a piece however will, like hastily learned latin verbs, desert your brain completely!

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
Short-term memory is immediately crucial to improvisation and composition for obvious reasons! Notes exist almost exclusively in relation to what has preceded them. A long-term memory which allows you to ‘look back’ over the entire piece you are improvising is also very important in creating a coherent structure and a teleological sense of momentum which prevents the music from rambling. On a completely different level, the subconscious memory we all have of hours and hours of music we have heard in our lifetimes, which is the fuel from which the imagination is ignited. Throughout the history of music even the most avant garde composers have been unable to avoid influence from their forebears. Many have even quoted existing music accidentally, from the great composers to the seven year old who ‘composed’ a collage of Schubert piano sonatas (me!).

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, what are the techniques and challenges, and how do people differ in their ability to memorise and recall music?
I have given cello lessons to many children from complete beginners to post-grade 8 teenagers. It is always clear with the latter whether they were initially taught to memorise their pieces as they learnt the cello. If a child is always expected to memorise, they will do so, because that is the ‘normal’ protocol when learning a piece. If not, memorisation can seem to be a mysterious phenomenon, out of reach for all but the most talented individuals. I find that people do not differ significantly in their ability to memorise music (although there are of course exceptions in either direction) but rather, they differ in their faith in the value of memorisation.

Website (coming soon):
Management contact:

Upcoming concerts:
19th April – Studio Music (
18th May – Haslemere Music Festival
25th June – Fairfield Hall, Croydon
6th and 13th July – Fenstanton ‘Fringe in the Fen’ Festival

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Performing your own work is nerve-racking

This weekend I performed in a small concert for adult amateur pianists. Despite the shared terror of performing in front of our peers, more than half the group played from memory and there were some fabulous performances.

Being in the musical no-man’s land that exists after a major exam but before any new repertoire is properly learnt, I decided to play one of my own compositions. The piece – called ‘In Lands Beyond the Sea’ – was written for the marriage of two friends, and I played it at their wedding a few moths ago. The title is a quote from one of Wordsworth’s most lyrical poems, and the initial theme is a setting of the first verse:

I travelled among unknown men,
In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
What love I bore to thee.

Both the bride and groom also have individual themes, derived from numbers that are personal to them, which are interwoven throughout the piece. It’s an energetic piece, a ode to vivaciousness, in roughly rondo form. Have a listen:

When I play the piece at home, it’s infused with rich memories. I have an intricate knowledge of the formal structure of the piece, the harmonic landscape and the melodic themes and developments. I know all the twists and turns, the decisions made and the paths not taken. As the individual themes develop, I think of my friends and it makes me smile. It’s fair to say I have absolutely no problem playing this piece from memory!

And yet put me in front of a small friendly audience and all those layers of memory disintegrate into adrenalin fuelled amnesia. My heart gallops, my mind races, and the music seems to get lost in amongst all the notes. I played well enough, but no where near as well as I can play. It’s easy to assume that playing your own music is easier than playing someone else’s –  you can just make it up as you go, right? Not true. The only difference is that no one knows for sure when you’re forced to improvise to cover a mistake. The pressure of delivering a convincing, stylistically appropriate interpretation is replaced with the knowledge that the audience is judging you not just as a pianist, but as a composer.

On his excellent blog, pianist Graham Finch recently wrote a post entitled ‘But I can play it perfectly well at home!‘ I imagine this is a familiar feeling to all music students and an assertion well known to teachers. But I don’t believe this phenomenon is explained simply by allowing “sly corrections” in the comfort of one’s own homes. As Finch says, “what felt easy and natural when we were alone suddenly becomes treacherous and untrustworthy when in the presence of others”. For those of us who are not natural performers, properly preparing for a performance is crucial for coping with the stresses and strains of being in the limelight. I don’t yet know why adrenalin causes acute memory problems, but it’s definitely something I want to find out…

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Music and long term memory

Why can I remember a long Bach fugue, but forget where I put my keys?* Although we regularly curse our memories, our amazing capacity for memorising music indicates that we can actually retain and reproduce an enormous amount of information with incredible accuracy.

Having a good memory requires two things – good encoding (i.e. storage and organisation of information) and efficient retrieval  (i.e. fast and accurate access to relevant information when required). We all carry vastly more information around in storage than we can possibly access at any one time – words, dates, facts, places, friends, events, preferences and dislikes. Everyone has experienced that exasperating tip-of-the-tongue scenario, when we’re sure of the answer but can’t quite produce it when asked. Some unlucky folks have a musical equivalent – sitting down at the piano in full view of an expectant audience, knowing all the notes of a Chopin etude but being utterly unable to recall how to actually play it at that moment in time!

How is music encoded and retrieved from long term storage? I previously wrote about  the role of short term working memory in music, which provides temporary storage and manipulation of information in real time. But a well memorised piece of music is encoded in long term memory (LTM), which provides storage of information for long periods of time, ranging from hours to decades. Importantly, different types of information is stored separately and recalled differently from long term memory:

  • Explicit (declarative) memory is consciously recalled. This includes:
    • semantic memory of knowledge, words and facts (e.g. Beethoven is a classical composer who wrote the Moonlight Sonata)
    • episodic memory of autobiographical events (e.g. I played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in a cold concert hall in Bristol when I was a teenager).
  • Implicit (procedural) memory is unconsciously recalled. This includes memory for skills (e.g. how to play the C# minor arpeggio at the start of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata).

Long term memory

There are a number of different descriptions of how memories are organised in LTM. Of particular relevance to music is the use of hierarchical schema which provide an organised network of connections between chunks of memorised information. It’s easier to remember new information that’s consistent with existing schematic knowledge – a phenomenon known as consistency bias – which explains why most people find memorising tonal music easier than atonal (and why two people can have radically different memories about the same event). Memories in the network can be accessed via retrieval cues – snippets of information that are linked to a particular memory. Retrieval cues are most effective when they are encoded at the same time as the memory itself, such that retrieval becomes essentially a progression from one or more retrieval cue to the target memory.

Aaron Williamon at the Royal College of Music in London has written extensively about the role of hierarchical retrieval structures in memorising music. In a fascinating analysis of 22 pianists of differing levels of skill (ranging from ABRSM Grades 1-8), he found that all pianists used structure during encoding and retrieval of a new piece of music, and that the shared tendency to both start and stop at structural bars during practice increased with skill level [1]. The pianists were essentially using key structural bars as retrieval cues for a whole section of the piece. Excitingly, taken together with Roger Chaffin’s detailed case study of a concert pianist learning a new piece, this demonstrates that there is a continuity between the memory strategies of experts and novices. Rather than being something exceptional, only attainable by the elite few, expert musical memory develops alongside musical expertise itself.

Neuroimaging has also been used to investigate the way in which musical information is stored and accessed from LTM.  Groussard et al. used functional MRI to compare the neural activation that occurred in 20 musicians and 20 non-musicians who were asked to rate the familiarity of 60 melodies [2]. As expected, a much higher proportion of the melodies were rated “extremely familiar” to musicians than non-musicians (85% versus 30% respectively), in whom the melodies formed part of both their semantic and episodic knowledge. Essentially, musicians were able to link the melodies to both perceptual and contextual details that the non-musicians lacked. Moreover, although familiarity increased activity in an extended network of regions in the brain in both groups, significantly stronger activation was observed in certain areas in musicians including those involved with viso-spacial and autobiographical memory. They also observed a significantly higher density of grey matter in the left hippocampus of musicians, a region classically dedicated to memory. The authors concluded that the “data indicate that musical expertise critically modifies long-term memory processes and induces structural and functional plasticity”.

Clearly performing music from memory draws on every type of LTM – explicit semantic memory of the notes and structure of the piece, explicit episodic memory of prior performances or rehearsals, and implicit procedural memory of the skill required to actually play a piece. For a great summary of how musical memory works, and the interaction between working memory and LTM, here’s an excellent video from Victoria Williamson at Goldsmiths College in London.

*So, in answer my original question: I spent many many hours practising, analysing and learning my favourite Bach fugue (BWV 944) over a 6 months period. I embedded performance retrieval cues every few bars, to which I attended regularly through both physical and mental practice. I carefully considered which contrapuntal line to bring out and experimented with alternative dynamics and articulation throughout. When I perform it, I am conscious of my location on a mental map of the piece, and of past performances. In contrast, I threw my keys on a chair and put my bag on top without even a moment’s consideration! Perhaps this difference in focus is why memorising music provides such a meditative respite from the frenzied whirr of daily life.


[1] Williamon, A., The Role of Retrieval Structures in Memorizing Music, Cognitive Psychology 44 (2002); 1-32

[2] Groussard, M., La Joie, R., Rauchs, G. et al. When Music and Long-Term Memory Interact: Effects of Musical Expertise on Functional and Structural Plasticity in the Hippocampus, PLoS One 5 (2010); e13225

Further resources:

Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, Memory (Psychology Press, 2009)

Williamson, Online lecture about music and memory (free access)

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Interview with… Melanie Spanswick (pianist)

MelanieSpanswickPlease tell me a little about yourself (profession, musical activities, etc).
I have been a concert pianist for many years giving recitals and chamber music concerts everywhere and anywhere. I have taught extensively, examined for the ABRSM and I also adjudicate too. My first book, So You Want To Play The Piano? will be published on April 1st 2013.

Do you actively memorise music and perform without a score? If not, why not? If so, why? When in your musical development did you start to memorise?
Yes, I have always played solo piano music from memory. I was fortunate in that I was encouraged to memorise from the beginning, I don’t ever remember not playing from memory except in chamber music. It was considered unacceptable by my piano teacher not to memorise so I just learnt how to play without the score.

Have you ever had a major memory lapse during a performance and, if so, what happened?
Yes, I have had memory lapses but probably not any major ones. I have never walked off-stage to get the score or been unable to finish a piece! I’m quite good at covering slips and I think this has to do with knowing a work backwards so you are completely immersed in the music.

Are there any particular types of music – pieces, composers or genres – that you find particularly easy or difficult to memorise, and why?
I find works by J.S. Bach very challenging to play from memory, and I don’t play his music at all. I think it’s the counterpoint that makes memorising awkward. I don’t mind memorising contemporary music which I know some find difficult, and I don’t have many problems with other composers.

How do you memorise music? Are there particular techniques you use? Do you use visual memory, and if so, what do you visualise?
Over the years I have developed strategies but at first I think I memorised by rote as many young pianists do. This can lead to problems so it’s a much better plan to have several methods in place. I mostly rely on my emotional senses or the way I want the piece to sound and let this guide me. My professor always advised to ‘play from the heart and then you will never forget’. This is so true although it can be difficult to implement if the work you are studying isn’t a favourite. I also use all the other methods such as muscular, auditory, intellectual, and visual memory of the score as it’s written out, which are the usual ways of remembering.

At what point during learning a piece do you work on memorisation?
I memorise from the very beginning and I always encourage this in my memorisation classes. It’s far better to start off learning a piece from memory rather than negotiating all the notes and then going back to memorise later. I think this just wastes time.

How do you deal with memory lapses? What tricks do you use to prevent it happening during a performance?
No-one likes to have memory lapses but they do occur even by eminent pianists. I try not to let them bother me (although they do of course!) and if you’re playing a long recital then the slip must be banished from your mind so that it doesn’t affect the rest of the concert. Concentration plays a large part in playing successfully from memory and confidence is another vital tool too. If you feel uneasy about playing a work from memory then a lapse is much more likely – in fact it probably will happen. I think playing from memory needs lots of practice. It also helps to be able to ‘pick-up’ at any point in the music too.

Are there particular techniques you use for maintaining your memory of specific music over a long period of time (i.e. years)?
I practice playing pieces through from start to finish, making sure works stay in my head. Doing ‘run-throughs’, whether just to myself or others, helps too. Playing music through in your head away from the piano is useful as well although concentration is paramount here because it’s surprisingly easy to lose your place!

What do you think is the role of musical memory in creating new music, either through improvisation or composition?
I don’t really compose or improvise but I’m sure memory helps with this aspect too.

Have you ever tried to teach others to memorise music? If so, how do people differ in their ability to memorise music, and what tips do you offer them to improve?
Yes, I do teach memorisation both in classes and individual lessons. I love teaching it to classes because students generally react favourably when they all try this challenging aspect together. I use different strategies and encourage each student to try them out in front of the class so they are, in effect, memorising instantly on the spot. I find most pupils enjoy playing from memory as it allows greater freedom ultimately. Some students do find memorisation more difficult than others, but I think it’s all about conditioning and if it’s encouraged from the beginning then most students become competent.

Melanie is a concert pianist, author, teacher, presenter, blogger and adjudicator. She studied at the Royal College of Music in London, where she won many prizes and graduated with a Masters degree. She has performed at all the major UK concert halls as well as many around the world, has made two solo recordings and has broadcast on Classic FM, BBC Radio 2, CBC Radio, Swedish and Spanish Television. Highlights include performances for the Queen Mother and Danish Royal family. Melanie has taught the piano at Reading University and the Royal College of Music Junior Department. She has also examined for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and currently adjudicates for the British and International Federation of Music Festivals.


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