Our memories are most robust and reliable when they are reinforced and enriched, over and over, in different ways. This is for two reasons. First, reinforced and enriched memories have more ways to be cued and connect to more kinds of meaning. Second, having different but associated ways of understanding music gives us different ways of thinking about it at different times. Your brain has several mechanisms for working with information and planning action in the moment, but they are all limited; if one mechanism is overloaded, a musician with multiple ways of thinking about music can rely on another. For example, if you are in an ensemble and preparing for your next entrance, your ability to imagine sound may be overwhelmed by the other sounds people are performing all around you, but you may be able to feel more ready for the entrance by imagining it through physical motion or solfège/scale degrees.
If you have played some instrument for many years, you may be able to make your internal image of sound more robust by either playing an “air” version of the instrument (for example, forming your fingers to hit the right keys on your saxophone or piano) or even just imagining playing the instrument. This type of reinforcement, called Instrument-based kinesthetic imagery, helps your sound-image connect with physical motion, giving you two different ways of understanding and encoding in memory.
One more method that can be useful is getting really familiar with solfège and scale degrees (as recommended in Chapter 3). The more you practice solfège, the more it will help you store, and think about, music in different, mutually-reinforcing ways.
In the end, if you have these ways of thinking about music, they can be just as powerful as the ability to hear realistic sounds in your head.
Goal: To hear a sound and quickly be able to map it to physical motions on an instrument and solfège.
Before you start: You’ll ideally want a group for this activity. It can work with voices or instruments or any combination, but will work best if everyone has access to an instrument on which they can track whole and half steps.
- Each member of the group silently comes up with a string of 3–5 notes that they can either sing or play on their instrument. The string of notes should all fit and make sense in a single key.
- One person performs their string of notes (twice if the string is hard to remember). Then the rest of the group takes a silent 30 seconds to do the next two steps. (If those steps are not working well, it may help to do them aloud with trial-and-error at first, but our goal is to eventually make them silent.)
- First, figure out how to play it back. If working on relative pitch, you may do so at any pitch level. If there are multiple people in the group, it may be useful for the first person to indicate the starting concert pitch so that everyone can work it out at the same pitch level.
- Then figure out how to describe it in solfège. There may be multiple different solutions: for example, scale degrees 3-2-1 (mi-re-do) could also be heard, without any other context, as scale degrees 6-5-4 (la-sol-fa).
- Everyone then plays the string of notes aloud on their instruments, then sings them aloud on solfège.
Goal: Build strong connections between your conception of key on your primary instrument and solfège.
Before you start: This is a group activity. It will work, and has different benefits, with both voices and instruments. Working vocally will exercise your internal “map” of key, while working on an external instrument will integrate a clearer understanding of half and whole steps into this map.
- Agree upon a mutually-acceptable concert key. Establish the key in some way, such as the vocal patterns suggested in chapter 3.
- Someone in the group calls out a short (3–6-note) string of solfège syllables/scale degrees.
- Everyone else plays/sings back the requested notes. (If necessary, it’s ok to take a few seconds to work this out before playing.)
- Repeat steps 2–3 several times, but if you’re practicing this for very long, make sure to change keys every once in a while and go back to step #1.
- Suggestion: also try the inverse of this activity. That is, after establishing a key, someone plays a short string of notes in the key, and everyone else figures out how those notes would be represented in solfège/scale degrees.
Goal: From notation, generate a robust internal concept of the intended sound using solfège and instrument-based kinesthetic imagery
Before you start: Select a piece of notated music that you are currently studying on your primary instrument. The piece should be one you haven’t memorized, and it’s great if you are only just starting to work on it. We’re going to use solfège, so double-check that it at least starts in a clear key, with a level of chromaticism (sharps/flats/naturals outside the key signature) that you are comfortable with. Choose a phrase to work with; in many cases, the first theme/phrase will work.
- Solfège: determine the solfège syllable/scale degree of each note in the melody. Ideally, it’d be great to imagine singing the whole thing on solfège in rhythm, but we haven’t worked on sight-reading skills yet, so it’s fine if you just do this out-of-time. Then either sing or subvocalize through the melody on solfège; if subvocalizing, try to hear it in your head.
- Instrument-based imagery: go through the melody again, this time using instrument-based kinesthetic imagery. Depending on your level of comfort, you may either imagine playing your instrument, play an “air” version of your instrument, or actually use the instrument itself without making sound. (If your primary instrument is the voice, you may either use another comfortable instrument or subvocalize, making sure to use good technique.) As you do so, try to hear the melody in your head.
- Finally, play the melody normally. As you do so, can you hear solfège syllables in your head?