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Musical Memory

Posted by Stev187 on Thursday, January 18, 2007

I'm delighted that some folks here have found this post interesting.  I have added the reference to Gleason's book at the bottom.

[NOTE: I went back to look at Gleason's text and noticed a couple of things.  First, he uses the term "Cognitive Memory" instead of "Theoretical Memory."  I think this is more inclusive, but I'll leave my list the same.  Also, his explanations are slightly different and more geared toward written organ compositions.  I have reprinted his text in another blog entry HERE.]

When I was taking classical organ lessons, I had a great textbook (it didn't help me learn the organ, but I was beyond help there).  At any rate, the author--a fella named Gleason--had a passage about musical memory. 

There are four types of musical memory:

  1. Theoretical memory
  2. Visual memory
  3. Motor memory
  4. Aural memory

Theoretical memory is notes and keys in the abstract--meaning letters and numbers, etc.  An example of this would be remembering what is the 4 chord in the key of G Major.  Essentially, this type of memory addresses music as a system (cycle of fifths, major/minor, modes, dominant, etc.).  This is great stuff to think about when you are drifting off to sleep.

Visual memory is twofold: seeing notes on a page, or actually looking at the instrument for where to play.  This would include seeing it in your head.  Visualization is an important part of performance.  This can be a downfall or crutch--nobody likes it when a performer is always staring at their instrument (and it's one reason pianos have glossy finishes on the fallboard; they act as a little mirror).

Motor memory is fascinating to me--it's your body's memory of the feel of the instrument.  Where to put your fingers, when to blow, how to move, etc.  This was my downfall as a keyboard player because I was always "teaching the music to my hands."  To this day I can play things on the piano that I don't really understand.  Motor memory is very important, but by itself it's just finger wiggling.

Aural memory is hearing--melodies, harmonies, and rhythym.  This would include recognizing and remembering melodies and chord progressions, identifying intervals and chords, as well as recognizing and remembering rythmic patterns and song forms.  It also includes hearing it in your head.  I think aural memory is the strength of most traditional/folk musicians.

My aural and motor memories are strongest.  I have some visual memory of the actualy instrument, but nothing with notes or tab.  Visual memory was helpful for me as a bass player--I developed the ability to "read" chords by watching the shape of the guitar player's left hand.  My theoretical memory needs help (flash cards or something) so I can remember that stuff.

Source:  Harold Gleason, Method of Organ Playing (several editions), Prentice Hall.

5 comments on “Musical Memory”

frailin Says:
Thursday, January 18, 2007 @11:42:14 PM

Cool info!  Didn't know any 'o that!

Thanks for posting!

Stev187 Says:
Friday, January 19, 2007 @9:56:01 AM

No problem, Criag!  It's funny--I'm really doing the blog thing as a journal, so I forget that people can get online and read it (better spellcheck then, huh?).  At any rate, this idea about memory has helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses as a musician.  I am a totally non-literate player, and theoretical memory is a challenge for me (it's too much like math in my head).

Glad you thought the stuff was useful, too.

irasmith Says:
Friday, January 19, 2007 @11:26:34 AM

This is the most helpful information I have seen in a while. I will think about all of the musical memory concepts, and be aware of them in my learning

Thanks Steve!

kallekockum Says:
Friday, January 19, 2007 @2:49:25 PM

Nice! I hadn't given much thought to it, but it makes perfect sense. The muscle memory is what fascinates me the most. I can still, 20 years later, play Bach's (two part) Inventio no. 4. I never pracitce it, it's just there!

janolov Says:
Saturday, January 20, 2007 @11:41:21 AM

I think it was a very interesting entry.
I was aware of most of the educational principles, since I've been working at an university and teached a lot. I was also learned some about this during my military service. But I have never thougt about during my straggles with the banjo.
I think my theoretical memory and visual memory is good. I know a lot about banjo music but am a very poor player. I have a lot of tunes tabbed in my head, which I can't play. I can right down a lot of tabs that I cannot yet play.
The motor memory has in other discussions been called muscle memory. In another thread in the Clawhammer and other old-time style forum Donald Zepp answered the question "Do you look at your left hand when playing" with this:  it's fascinating to see what my fingers can do with no conscious input from me." (see I think that is a good desciption motor memory or muscle memory.
I hope that this blog can help more people to learn to play banjo. It is not just to sit down and play. And all four "elements" have to be in place to be a good banjo player.

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