Memory Imagined

No longer needing to remember phone numbers, but what about playing music from memory?
I have just been reading an article (The Lost Art of Total Recall, The Observer, March 13th 2011 by Robin McKie) about the disappearing art of memorising things. The journalist mentions the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. We’ve all talked about Foer’s observation that we no longer need to remember telephone numbers because of “smart” phones, but I’m also interested in memory and music.

Amongst “classically” trained players there has, as long as I can recall, been some aura of mystique and distrust associated with memorising a piece of music. People say things like “well, I basically know it off by heart, but it’s still safer to have the [paper] music on the stand”, or “what about the danger of missing all the precise details of articulation and dynamics?” (for example in an orchestral audition).

One of Foer’s techniques for reinvigorating the memory is “to transform these grey bits of data into something colourful through the use of some energetic imagination”. I like the sound of this and have always believed that if the eyes were not occupied reading the music for the umpteenth time, then a more artistic and imaginative way of playing would emerge. I’d also like to mention Greg Sandow (link to his blog) again and an idea from his article in the MCA Music Forum (Vol 17 No. 2) where he could imagine a classical world where in a competition, for example, musicians would be asked to “play a new work they’d never seen before, in which the composer hasn’t indicated tempo, dynamics, or articulation. We’d then see how much musical imagination the musicians had, not just how well they’d learned to play the music they’ve practiced”.

If one were to successfully encourage students to memorise their pieces, should it be that they are still “seeing” the imagined scan of the music in front of them? Or rather, should the music from the outset be learnt as a series of intervallic and rhythmic relationships? In other words, are we playing from memory or by ear?

Also, what of recent findings (from 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology) that memory “isn’t reproductive—it doesn’t duplicate precisely what we’ve experienced—but reconstructive. What we recall is often a blurry mixture of accurate and inaccurate recollections, along with what jells with our beliefs and hunches. Rather than viewing our memory as a tape recorder, we can more aptly describe our memory as an ever-changing medium that highlights our ability to create fluid narratives of our experiences”?

One last thought, my daughter slaughters me every time playing the “memory” card game. She doesn’t even seem to be “concentrating” half the time, and never hesitates before turning over the matching pair.

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