If working memory only allows us to store and work with 3–4 bits of information at a time, how in the world can people memorize a several-minute-long piece of music and perform it without notation? Honestly, it’s a pretty impressive feat. But the basic answer is that this ability develops from complex interactions between working memory and long-term memory. Those interactions are complex enough that we only have a limited understanding of the process, but we can give some advice.

First, as with chunking, the more that you can think of the music in larger groups rather than individual notes, the less taxing it will be on your memory. Many of the chunks we’ve described here are still fairly short, on the order of 3–5 notes. But there are ways of focusing on larger units of music: in particular, focusing on how it feels to perform the music may help us group entire phrases into physical gestures.

Second, there are techniques proven to reinforce long-term learning in fields outside of music that are likely helpful in music memorization as well. Most prominently, these include practicing recall, mixed practice/interleaving, and spaced practice.

Finally, remember that memories need to be cued: we typically think of something stored in long-term memory when we are presented with something associated with that memory. At any point in a piece of music where you think memory may falter, think about what might cue your memory of what’s supposed to happen next. Breaks between sections of a piece of music are one location where memory often fails: you might think about what in the ending of the first section will call forth your memory of the second. Sections that are similar but with slight differences are also tricky. What will trigger/cue your memory of the differences, and how will those triggers/cues differ between the two similar sections?

Practice these methods with music you are learning. Some of them are difficult and may not feel productive in the moment—mixed practice, in particular, is often experienced as less productive than repeating the same thing over and over—but they really do work, long-term!


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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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