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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 3

Pianists' Four Kinds of Memory

by Francis Dubé / November 5, 2003

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It is considered traditional for pianists to memorize their solo repertoire. However, this was not always the case; for a long time reading from the score overshadowed memorization. It was Franz Liszt, the 19th century composer and virtuoso pianist, who was the first performer to present an entire recital by memory. One hundred and fifty years later his initiative endures.

Few pianists dare question this legacy these days, and yet the memorization of a musical score remains a difficult exercise for most. It is a complex and daunting task. To be successful, a performer must call on several senses (hearing, sight, touch) and mentally manipulate a lot of data to avoid a memory lapse during a public performance.

Though pianists have been memorizing for a long time, not much is known about the process. However, recent scientific research has provided us with some of its basic elements.

The act of memorization calls on several distinct types of memory, of which a pianist uses four to memorize a work in his/her repertoire: auditory, visual, kinesthetic and conceptual. Each fulfills a specific role in the process, but it is their mutual interaction that allows a pianist to remember. All kinds of memory must work together to be truly efficient.

Auditory memory

Auditory memory is what is activated when people belt out their favourite tune in the shower. Since music is essentially an assortment of sounds, auditory memory plays a dominant role in a pianist's memorization. A performer uses it to accomplish two specific tasks: to know if he/she is playing the right notes, and to anticipate what he/she will play in the next few seconds. Without this, the pianist would inadvertently play the wrong notes and the sequence of movements would be laborious and insecure.

Visual memory

Visual memory allows humans to record large amounts of information, from faces and colours to everyday objects. This cognitive ability is used abundantly by a pianist in the memorization of a score. First, it enables a pianist to internally visualize the score during a performance. Second, it is used to recall the physical gestures involved in playing, much in the same way a dancer recalls his/her movements.

Kinesthetic memory

Kinesthetic sense allows people to feel internally the movements of their muscles, joints and tendons. Thus, all physical activity, such activities as walking or bicycling, draws on kinesthetic memory to automate movement. As playing the piano requires many automatic physical actions, kinesthetic memory is essential for the memorization of a score, i.e., all the movements, gestures and physical sensations needed to play a musical work.

Conceptual memory

Some kinds of memory are recorded in the brain by repetition without special effort on the part of the individual. Auditory, visual, and kinesthetic memories, although they can be reinforced by various exercises, fall into this category. Although they are essential to the pianist in his/her mnemonic work, none of these types of memory provide for retention of the musical text. Only conceptual memory, used intentionally, allows a pianist to integrate this knowledge. To be more precise, a pianist must be totally aware of what is being memorized to really absorb and retain the score. Conceptual memory provides total assimilation of the musical text, including harmony, nuances, phrasing, reference points, and notes. In short, conceptual memory is acquired by exceptional effort while the three preceding types are recorded automatically while practicing. Finally, this memory provides for the synthesis of information into a single brain concept. For example, instead of separately memorizing the major notes (seven different elements), the pianist has to retain only the basic scale of C major (a single concept).

Looking to the future...

In the past few years science has made great progress in understanding human memory, notably by such state-of-the-art technologies as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, many questions remain unanswered, and this inevitably affects our understanding of the pianist's memorization process. The problem stems from the predominance of scientific studies that focus mainly on short-term rather than long-term musical memory, as memorizing a score depends on the latter system. A major consequence of this situation is that pianists must continue to build and develop their own system, for better or for worse.

Microanalysis, an element of conceptual memory, can be defined as a learning activity in which a pianist verbalizes in his/her own words various observations or reference points necessary for him/her to play by memory. These might be, for example, the identification of common notes in consecutive chords, or the parallel or contrary motion in a specific passage. Despite our awareness that microanalysis is a common practice in the work of a pianist's memorization, this segment of conceptual memory has never been the subject of a systematic study. My research aims to inventory the different types of microanalysis used by pianists of varying levels (pre-university, university, and professional).

To sum up, as our understanding of long-term musical memory improves, the process of the memorization of a piano score will become clearer. As more scientists dedicate research to this cognitive problem, more piano teachers will be effective in establishing, through the years, a true pedagogy in the art of memorization.

[Translated by Susan Spier]

The author has been a piano instructor in the Faculty of Music at Laval University since 1998. His students have won prestigious awards such as the prix d'Europe 1998, first prize in the MSO competition in 2000, and first prize in the competition of the Fédération des professeurs de musique du Canada in 2001 and 2003. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in music education at Laval University under Marie-Michèle Boulet.

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