Developing Your Musical Mental Map with Melissa Gerber Knecht

July 18, 2016, 8:28 AM · Of the young students who begin violin and viola lessons, some 80 percent quit during the first year.

That rather sobering statistic was cited by Hillsdale College Strings Studies Professor Melissa Gerber Knecht, based on anecdotal observations by Shar. She went on to say that, of the 20 percent who continue, many hit a wall when they arrive at pieces such as Haydn's G major Violin Concerto or Telemann's Viola Concerto in G major (Suzuki Book 4 level or so).

After that, "just a small percentage move on to that next level of playing," Knecht said at a lecture called "Cows, Chess and Music Expertise: Perception, Comprehension and Memory in Music," at the American Viola Society Festival at Oberlin in June.

Why is that the case? And what can be done about it?

Melissa Gerber KnechtKnecht has been searching for the answer to those questions for the last 10 years in her research on mental musical patterns. She also has created a website called Developing Your Musical Mental Map to help people understand and use her findings. (Her book, by the same name, is available through Shar Music.)

Some might say that "talent" that gets certain students past the difficulties -- and a lack of it leaves others struggling. Though we have a lay notion of what constitutes "talent," is there any science behind it?

One of the most indisputably talented musicians of all time was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and there are many stories to corroborate his astonishing abilities. One story has to do with his ability to transcribe complex music upon hearing it once: At age 14, he heard the nine-part vocal work "Miserere" by Gregorio Allegri at the Sistine Chapel, then later that afternoon was able to recall and transcribe it in its entirety, to the note. After hearing it just once!

How could he do that? It had to do with his knowledge of musical patterns and language, which he'd banked in his memory from an unusually early age.

"He used his vast experience in listening and performing music," she said. Because of that knowledge, "he was more able to identify music into chunks and remember patterns."

Two things help us put musical language together: having a "schema" and being able to "chunk."

A schema is a set of expectations, and it can apply to many things, not just music, she said. For example, most of us have a "schema" about birthday parties: the expectation that there will be people gathered, cakes, hats, party streamers, games, etc.

"We have musical schemas, too, that begin in the womb and develop from there," Knecht said. "By the age of five, children have learned to recognize chord progressions in the music of their culture." By that point, our musical memory has certain structures, into which we fit details.

"Experts don't learn pieces one note at a time," Knecht said, "once they reach a certain level, they can scaffold onto music they knew before." That is called "chunking."

Musical Mind Map
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Our minds group certain things together. For example, what comes first into your mind when asked the question: What do cows drink? You might have immediately thought of "milk," even though with further thought, they mostly drink water. But that is because when it comes to language, the brain is likely to group those culturally-associated words together. Chess players also can "chunk" -- experts can look at a chess board with strategically placed pieces, then reproduce exactly that set-up. This is because of their vast experience with the game -- those set-ups mean something. But when the set up has a pattern that would never appear in a game, they are less able to reproduce it.

Musical material has patterning, as does language and chess. But without recognizable patterns, the mind has a harder time processing music, language, and chess. Knecht has some examples from language: Look at the following word, then immediately cover it up: VERNALT. It's a nonsense word, but can you spell it? Now look at this word and immediately cover it up: PQVLKSL. Can you spell it? For most English-speakers, the first spelling is easier to remember, and the second is difficult or impossible, with just a glance. That is because the first word contains syllable patterns that appear with statistical frequency in the English language, whereas the second does not.

This same phenomenon happens in music: there are patterns that we can easily "chunk," because they come up frequently in Western music.

In her research, Knecht used a computer program called "Travesty" to come up with groups of musical patterns that appear frequently, less frequently, and not frequently at all in Western music. Then she tested people's ability to remember those patterns, using Chicago Symphony Orchestra members (in other words, highly trained musicians) and high school students (not highly trained). They were asked to repeat eight-not patterns. Her findings?

"When the patterns were random, the experts became novices," Knecht said. "My research suggested that experts don't have a better aural memory. Experts did better only when the patterns made sense with their harmonic system."

In other words, "what makes an expert better than others is the quality of their schema -- or musical mental maps," she said.

So how can students build better-quality mental maps, and how can teachers help them?

If a student is unable to chunk an eight-note pattern, then they are mapping just one note at a time. That means they need to get some basic aural schema in place. Knecht's suggestions, which are laid out in her book, Developing Your Musical Mental Map (available from Shar), include: arpeggios to map the division of musical space; intervals to clarify distance between notes; melodic patterns to chart musical sound; and reading tracking exercises for training the eye.

"Single-line players need to be able to scan, recognize and anticipate patterns," she said. "Basically, reading words instead of letters."

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July 18, 2016 at 02:23 PM · A good example of the phenomenon is in instrumental Irish folk music, and other folk music genres. An experienced Irish folk musician will have many hundreds of tunes - possibly in the low thousands in some cases - in his head and fingers ready for instant playing. You see this in the ceili bands where they'll be playing for 3 hours or more with the only piece of paper in sight being a running order. This is because instrumental Irish music is primarily an aural tradition and to a certain extent is formulaic in its structure, rising out of its origins in dance. When an experienced player hears the first half of a new 16-measure reel or jig his embedded database of patterns will give some indication of how the second half is likely to pan out. An experienced musician in a session when hearing an unknown tune will therefore have it pretty well note-perfect on the second playing; all done by ear - playing from sheet music is frowned on in Irish sessions.

The main practical problem that I have, not an uncommon one, is remembering the names of the tunes. It has been said, with considerable justification (see the Tunes section of the Irish music forum, that an Irish fiddle tune can have 6 or more different names, and a name can frequently be found applied to several different tunes. Well, I suppose that's an almost inevitable by-product of aural transmission (and age!).

July 22, 2016 at 02:52 PM · There's a lot in what Trevor says. I play bluegrass fiddle in addition to classical viola. Bluegrass is another aural tradition; many very good players can't read music at all. A typical jam consists of people taking turns calling out tunes, then as we play one tune we go around the circle soloing in turn. We start with basic patterns and improvise on them - when it's my turn to "take a break", I might have an opening lick in mind, but after that I'm just making it up on the fly, fitting notes into the pattern of the piece.

I've always felt that if I could be put into a brain scanner while I'm playing, it would light up like a Christmas tree. My brain certainly feels that way. (I've heard recently that experimenters have done exactly that, and the machine does indeed light up.)

Pattern matching works in classical music too. Every now and then I'll look at the notes on the page and not recognize them - but when I make myself play them it sounds good. Sometimes I'll feel completely lost in the middle of a run, but my fingers want to go somewhere and I'll just let them - and it usually is exactly what is needed.

I've occasionally entered a state where a portion of my mind will detach itself, and stand back and watch my body playing. It's a bizarre experience. But the rest of me has mastered the patterns, and that's enough to keep the music flowing.

If there's one thing I'd love to do with my life, it's to find a way to convey this sensation to beginners. I'm sure it has to do with learning basic patterns, then recognizing them and improvising on them.

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