Memory: Chunking and Extractive Listening

Memory and attention are closely related. We can better focus on objects for which we have already stored models in our memory, and we are better able to hold objects in memory when we have been able to truly focus on them. So the first step in remembering a dictation melody is to apply the focused attention we talked about above and in chapter 1!

Beyond that, there are two ways to increase your ability to remember music, which is particularly necessary when taking dictation: chunking and extractive listening.

Extractive listening is especially connected to focus and attention. It refers to the ability to focus on, and remember, a portion of the music. We use it whenever the music is too long to remember in its entirety. We use it by setting an intention and focusing our attention. Consider reviewing the materials on extractive listening from the chapter on Memory.

We use chunking when we remember notes in groups that work together in some way rather than as individual bits. It can be helpful to practice chunking by describing music in words, for example, “there was a short scale from scale degree 1/do to 5/sol, then a syncopated rhythm on 5/sol that lasted for a measure,” etc.

Consider reviewing the materials on extractive listening and chunking from the chapter on Memory, both of which include activities.

Activity: Apply chunking to the process of dictation

Goal: Use chunking and extractive memory to make your work in dictation and elsewhere more intentional.

Before you start: You will need a source of melody for dictation, and optionally staff paper to write down your dictation. A useful source of melody can be found at once you click on a number, you can click on “Recording” to hear the melody. You are encouraged not to listen to the starting pitch or scale and not to look at the first note of the score so that you continue to practice identifying key and meter. Finally, it may help to have other people available, as several steps below advise discussing your intention and chunking to make sure these processes are explicit.


  1. Play the dictation melody once and determine its key and meter; set them up as appropriate on your staff paper.
  2. Before the second hearing of the melody, set an intention for what you will remember (extractive listening). If there are other people around, it may help to declare your intention to them to help you commit to it.
  3. As you listen to the second hearing, focusing on the passage you committed to, try to consider the notes in groups such as “arpeggio up the tonic chord, scalar passage from scale degree 5/sol up to 1/do,” etc.
  4. After that second hearing, if there are other people around, it may help to turn to them and describe the chunks you heard in whatever level of detail you perceived. Then, optionally, notate what you heard.
  5. Repeat steps 2–4 for any additional hearings, setting new intentions as appropriate. Perhaps the most difficult decision you’ll make is whether to repeat the same intention if you didn’t catch everything, or whether to move on to focusing on a new portion of the melody. Over time, you may get used to which decision is appropriate, or you may wish to rely on an instructor’s guidance.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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