Types of Music Memory

Types of Music Memory

I am aware of four types of music memory that can be used in performance of a piece of music by memory:

Kinesthetic Memory is where the fingers “know” what to play based upon habit. This is the weakest kind of memory, and it is most prone to break when performance conditions change. Yet, it is also the most common and frequently the only form of memory used in performance. A change in instrument (teacher’s piano versus home piano versus stage piano) can throw kinesthetic memory off. The piano keys feel different, and the physical cues that trigger the kinesthetic memory change. When the performer is nervous, or even playing at a different time of day, the body behaves differently, and the kinesthetic memory can again be broken.

Kinesthetic memory also tends to be sequential, in that the memory of a note depends upon the correct performance of the previous note. If a note is played incorrectly, then the sequence is broken, and the body does not remember what comes next. From a performance point of view, kinesthetic memory tends to be passive, and the performer in effect is letting the body do the work instead of intentionally creating an experience that will move both the performer and the audience.

For these reasons, I always encourage students to develop other kinds of memory.

Aural Memory is another common kind of memory, but it is usually used reactively instead of proactively. It is aural memory that causes a student that plays a wrong note to hear the mistake, then react to the mistake by stopping, and then try to correct the mistake. A student who gets into the habit of making a mistake, stopping, and correcting may end up creating a kinesthetic memory of just that process: the body remembers that the sequence of events is to make the mistake, then stop, and then play the correct note.

Aural Memory is best used proactively: the performer hears what is to be played before the time it is to be played. When listening ahead, the performer anticipates the music coming up, is reminded of what happens next, and can execute it intentionally. Using aural memory proactively not only improves the memory of the work, it also creates a more intentional and effective performance of the work. A performer who listens ahead knows the music that is approaching, will anticipate the tension and release before the audience can hear it, and will channel that emotional energy into the direction of the music being performed.

Mental Memory is a less common form of memory because it requires effort and understanding. Mental memory of a work is evident when the student can relay with words or music notation exactly what happens in the music. “Here the harmony changes to a first inversion V chord, and the melody walks from the D to the G in eighth notes.”  “The B section starts in the parallel minor with a scale and Alberti bass.” “This restatement of the theme is the same as the initial statement of the theme except for the extra voice added on the A.” With all but the shortest works of music, mental memory requires a knowledge of form and harmony so that the scaffolding for the mental memory can be constructed in the mind.

Of the three types of memory already mentioned, effective mental memory is the least likely to fail. I ask my students to test their mental memory while lying in bed. If they can picture each of the notes played on the piano, in slow motion and without moving their fingers, then there is a good shot that their mental memory is in good shape.

Photographic Memory is a form of memory with which I have no personal experience, nor have I had a student who has experienced it. With photographic memory, the performer can visualize the page of music and read the music off of the page during a performance. If one is not gifted with a sense of instant photographic memory (you look at the page, and your mind remembers every detail), then one can develop a photographic image of a work.

One of my mentors in Ann Arbor, Michigan spoke of her ability to study a Beethoven Sonata so thoroughly that, even before touching the piano, she had the work memorized, she could see the sheet music in her imagination, and she could play it the first time she sat at the piano. Knowing this woman’s level of musicianship and her devotion to the study of music, I have no doubt that she speaks the truth. By the time she has memorized a work, I am confident that she has already developed a complete aural and mental memory of the work that offers the scaffolding necessary to create the “photographic image” of the work in her mind.

Until I end up with a student who is gifted with instant photographic memory, I will ask my students to focus on using only the first three forms of memory. If possible, all three forms of memory should be practices effectively so that there is little chance of memory failure during a performance.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some tricks to developing kinesthetic, aural, and mental memory.

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