Memorizing Music: The Two Most (and the Two Least) Efficient Strategies

Memorizing Music: The Two Most (and the Two Least) Efficient Strategies

Arts June 01, 2016 / By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Memorizing Music: The Two Most (and the Two Least) Efficient Strategies

Not all memorization strategies are created equal. Learn which two are the best use of your time.

Making the bed in the morning is one of those activities in life that seems like a questionable use of time. I mean, it’s going to get unmade anyway the next evening, right (at least, this guy feels the same way)? Sorting socks into matching pairs is another time-sucking black hole in our lives. 

Then again, as a fundamentally lazy person, I’m always looking for ways to be more efficient.

Not that all shortcuts are better, of course. But spending more time on something than is necessary seems like a waste, when there are so many other meaningful and interesting outlets for our time and energy. So whenever it’s possible to do more in less time, with less effort, I get oddly excited.

Which takes us to memorization, which is probably everyone’s least favorite thing to do ever, but also one of the biggest sources of worry and anxiety for musicians.

Usually, when we ask questions about memorization, it’s oriented around the issue of effectiveness. As in, what memorization strategy will result in the most ironclad memory, abolishing memory slips forevermore? While there doesn’t seem to be a 100% guaranteed memory-slip-proof system quite yet, there is another question regarding memory that is also interesting. The question of efficiency. As in, what strategy will help us memorize music most quickly?

Obviously, we’d prefer a strategy that is both efficient and effective, but an effective strategy that takes forever isn’t much good to us either.

In one study of pianists working on the Bach D minor Prelude and Fugue, for instance, it took an average of ~14 hours to memorize the piece – but some pianists memorized the piece in less than 10 hours, while others needed almost 20 hours.

That’s a pretty big difference.

So are some people just born better at memorizing than others? Or are the fastest memorizers simply doing something different than the slower folks?

Four strategies

In a study of 60 instrumentalists, researcher (and violist) Jennifer Mishra analyzed the memorization strategies of the four fastest memorizers (8.66 to 17 minutes), and the four slowest memorizers (66.83 to 100 minutes), discovering that they relied on four basic strategies. She called these Holistic, Additive, Segmented, and Serial, and found that the fastest memorizers relied more on the Holistic and Additive strategies, while the slowest memorizers tended to use the Segmented and Serial strategies.

Which is to say…

  • Holistic = starting at the beginning and playing straight through to the end, backtracking only a tiny bit if you make a mistake or have a memory slip
  • Additive = starting at the beginning and memorizing an initial segment of the piece, then progressively adding a little more music to the first bit, until the initial segment grows larger and larger and eventually contains the whole piece.
  • Segmented = breaking the whole piece into chunks, memorizing the chunks in isolation, and then trying to link the chunks together into a whole
  • Serial = starting at the beginning and playing until you make a mistake, at which point you rewind back to the beginning and give it another go, hoping that you can get further the next time.

Putting the strategies to the test

Very intriguing stuff, but from this data alone, it’s not really clear if the faster memorizers were faster because of their use of these strategies, or if it was just because they were better memorizers to begin with. So the researcher ran another study to systematically test the effectiveness of these four strategies.

Forty music education majors were asked to memorize a 16-measure exercise, and randomly assigned to one of four groups. One group used the Holistic strategy. The second group used the Segmented strategy. The third group used the Serial strategy. And the final group used the Additive strategy.

Once the participants were able to successfully perform the 16-bar exercise without any memory errors, they were put through a 5-minute distraction task designed to encourage a bit of forgetting.

Then, they were asked to perform the 16-bar passage again, to see how much of the music they could still recall and successfully play from memory.

Which strategy is the best?

It’s important to remember that a simple 16-measure exercise and say, a Bach cello suite, are two very different things. And memorizing something in the short-term, and being able to recall it perfectly under pressure after more than just a 5-minute break is quite a different challenge as well.

Nevertheless, the study suggests that some strategies do seem to be more efficient than others.

The Holistic strategy led the pack with an average memorization time of 39.2 minutes. Significantly faster than the Segmented strategy (58.49 minutes) and Serial strategy (58.53 minutes). The Additive strategy seemed to work pretty well too (46.39 minutes), if you’re keeping score.

Of course, memorizing music isn’t a race, and the point is to maximize the durability of our memory, so as to prevent memory slips in the future. So while the Segmented and Serial strategy may have taken longer, perhaps the extra time was worth it?

Well, as it turns out, maybe not so much. All four groups made a comparable number of mistakes when trying to play the passage from memory after the 5-minute break, and neither the Segmented or Serial groups displayed any advantage from the extra time they spent memorizing the passage (Holistic=3.0 mistakes; Segmented=2.75 mistakes; Serial=5.14 mistakes; Additive=3.1 mistakes).

Take action

You can read the study here for more nuances and insight about the memorization process, but the two big takeaways are:

(1) Encourage students to play through larger, meaningful sections of a piece so they can get a sense of the larger structure and how things fit together (Holistic), rather than stopping and circling all the way back to the beginning every time they run into a snag (Serial).

(2) Memorization should be an active process. Simply engaging in mindless repetition of a chunk of music over and over hoping that it will stick, is not a very efficient or effective way of committing music to memory. So if a student is going to memorize a piece in chunks (Segmented), make sure that they take the time to identify chunks that are musically and structurally meaningful – not just some arbitrary 2-bar or 5-bar block of notes.

A version of this article originally appeared at The Bulletproof Musician.

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