How to Help Your Brain Memorize Music, with Molly Gebrian

June 28, 2018, 2:23 PM · What is the best way to memorize music? And how can the science of the brain help us be more effective with memorization?

Molly Gebrian -- who is an expert in both viola and neuroscience -- is the perfect person to investigate the possibilities, which is exactly what she did in a lecture entitled "The Brain and Memorization" at the 2018 American Viola Society Festival at The Colburn School.

Molly Gebrian
Molly Gebrian and her memorization strategies.

One important consideration is the fact that memory is multi-faceted and complex, Gebrian said. When a person says something like, "I have a bad memory" or "I have a good memory," this makes memory sound like a singular quality. In reality, memory has many dimensions.

"There are different kinds of memory that are independent of each other," Gebrian said. Simply speaking, those different kinds include long-term memory, short-term memory and working memory. Long-term memory includes memory for facts and events in your life, as well as "muscle memory." Short-term memory is for remembering things such as phone numbers. Working memory includes memories that are held in one's mind while manipulating that information. One example for musicians of working memory would be remembering accidentals in a piece of music while sight reading it.

How are long-term memories made? Getting information into one's brain involves something called "encoding." The deeper the encoding, the better the memory. "If you don't encode well, you won't remember the information as well."

Getting information from short-term memory into long-term memory is called "consolidation," and sleep is critical to this process. Getting the information back out of the brain is called "retrieval."

"Every time you retrieve that information - or even try to retrieve it -- you consolidate that information better," Gebrian said.

Something happens when you consolidate information: you are able to remember certain patterns of things in "chunks," and that is less work on your brain. For example, when learning to read, we start by sounding out individual letters, but eventually we learn syllables and even words, and we are able to identify these things much faster and with much less work. This kind of memory consolidation is called "chunking." The same thing happens in music.

Forming memory "chunks" turns out to be very important in memorizing music.

For example, the beginner learning May Song in Suzuki Book 1 may be learning it note-by-note, but a more advanced student or player would recognize its opening as a simple arpeggio. Practicing scales, arpeggios and etudes creates those familiar "chunks."

"This is the point of practicing technique: creating motor chunks and auditory memory chunks," Gebrian said. "If we don't practice technique, we don't have chunks. Practicing technique is not a waste of time at all; it aids our memory."

Music theory also gives us "chunks" having to do with the overall structure of a piece of music, its chord progressions and other concepts that help memory.

A beginner or novice has no chunks. And what happens when you have little or no chunks? It means that your working memory has to be very active, piecing together every small detail from scratch. This is not the best scenario for performing a piece of music by memory.

"You don't want to have a lot of working memory going when you are on stage," Gebrian pointed out. Working memory tends to be very sensitive to pressure, whereas using long-term memory is much less taxing on the brain.

A better player, who has "chunked" portions of the music, requires less short-term "working memory" and uses more long-term memory. The expert-level player has even bigger chains of chunks called "knowledge structures," which rely even more on long-term memory less on working memory.

When it comes to music, there are many different aspects of a piece that one can commit to memory: its form; its expressive characteristics; the rhythm and dynamics; the basic techniques involved. Memorizing involves remembering a combination of these different things, but which are the most important and effective?

Gebrian used the example of a psychology professor named Roger Chaffin, from the University of Connecticut, who did a study on memorization with professional musicians. He had each musician videotape every practice session leading up to a performance, giving commentary on their practice and why they practiced various ways. These were categorized into four types of performance cues: structural cues, about the form of a piece; expressive cues, about the emotional content; interpretive cues, about tempo and dynamics; and basic cues, about technique such as fingerings, etc. He then contacted each musician two years after their performance and asked them to write down the piece they had played. The question he was trying to answer was: which of these cues proved the most durable over time, for memory? As it turned out, the structural and expressive cues were the most durable. The technical cues were actually the least durable.

Gebrian's takeaway: "You need to have a lot of different cues throughout the pieces that jog memory."

These cues play on three types of memory: muscle memory, auditory memory and declarative memory -- "You have to have all three, and they all enforce each other," Gebrian said.

Here are a few practice techniques that Gebrian suggested for enforcing each kind of memory:

One interesting scientific discovery about musicians came from a study in which violinists' brains were monitored while silently playing part of Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5. When playing silently, even though there was no sound, the auditory cortex was active in professional violinists. In other words, the brain was "hearing" the music associated with the finger movements, even when there was no sound.

That would seem to indicate that "in musicians, the auditory and motor cortex have become connected," Gebrian said. Her theory is that in Suzuki learning (in which the first stage is by rote), the auditory and motor sections of the brain are connected from the beginning, explaining why Suzuki-trained students tend to have less trouble with memory. When one learns to read first, the visual and motor cortexes can become connected, she said.

Perhaps more important than any of these things is the role that sleep plays in consolidating our memories. Gebrian emphatically recommended reading the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

"This is the most important book I've read in my entire life," she said. One of the points of the book: most people need eight hours of sleep, and the most important part of that sleep, for memory, is the final two hours of sleep.

To get the best boost from sleep, practice last thing at night, then first thing in the morning. But "you've got to get enough sleep, or it won't work," she said.

Another important part of playing from memory is to actually practice playing from memory. This sounds obvious enough, but "we don't practice playing from memory enough," Gebrian said. It's not something you can suddenly do under pressure -- if you don't have a piece memorized until the day before the performance, this will not be a comfortable (or likely successful) situation. It helps to try playing at least portions of a piece from memory at an earlier stage, and research bears that out.

"Trying to play even just a little bit by memory, from the beginning, can help you," Gebrian said. Gebrian also recommends not getting into a practice rut, where you practice the same thing the same way all the time, but doing things like starting in different places, randomizing the way you practice passages, etc. Gebrian has come up with a host of other practice strategies -- click here to find her articles on the topic.

Gebrian also talked about what makes us mess up in performance and have problems such as memory slips. Surprisingly, the biggest culprit appears to be thinking too hard; that is, monitoring every aspect of the task at hand. This phenomenon is backed up by scientific studies of athletes who "choke": "explicit monitoring" is what causes them to mess up.

The irony here is, how do you practice for "letting go" of that over-monitoring? Isn't that exactly what we do in the practice room, and in lessons: monitor everything we do?

One strategy for protecting against the problem is to videotape yourself practicing, so that you get used to being monitored. Another is to focus on something somewhat outside the direct task: focusing on bigger-picture aspects such as phrasing and sound. When it comes to shifting that focus, "you have to practice thinking that way in the practice room."

In sum, here is a summary of the strategies that Gebrian suggested to help with memory (also in the picture of her, above):

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