Why Some Musicians Seem to Be Memorization 'Naturals'

Courtesy of Dr. Noa Kageyama

Memorization seems to happen so naturally for some musicians... Easily. Almost without even trying... What’s up with that?

Ah, the dreaded memory slip. We’ve all experienced at least one in our lifetimes. And spent many a sleepless night playing and replaying music in our heads in an effort to reassure ourselves that we actually do have everything memorized. Or spent most of a performance fearing that we’re going to forget what comes next, or get stuck in an endless loop. It may not literally be life or death, but it can certainly feel that way at times.

But then there are those for whom memorization seems to happen naturally. Easily. Almost without trying. What’s up with that? Do they know something we don’t? Or are their brains just wired differently than ours?

The study of memorization
Roger Chaffin, a professor of psychology at UConn (and amateur flutist), has conducted a number of studies on the learning processes of high-level musicians. Several are related specifically to the memorization process, and provide some insights into how expert memorizers memorize.

The "Two types" of Memory

Type 1: Serial chaining
It turns out that there are two types of memory that musicians rely on. Each has its pros and cons, so it helps to know which is which, so we don’t put all of our eggs in the wrong basket.

The first type is called serial chaining. This is where playing one phrase cues up your memory of the next phrase, which cues up your memory of the phrase after that, and so on. On the plus side, this type of memory develops naturally as you work on a piece, so there’s not much you have to do other than practice as normal. And it works pretty darn well too – so long as the conditions of retrieval are close to the conditions of practice. But when does that ever happen?

Any deviations from our experience in the practice room, either internal or external, have the potential to weaken these "chains," which link one phrase or passage to the next. And if one of the chains break, we’re kind of screwed, because often, the only way to get back on track is to start at the first chain again. Kind of like singing the alphabet song. Real quick – start singing the ABC song from F – but do not cue up the tune by singing from A. Not so easy, right?

I had a job in grad school that required doing lots of filing of records alphabetically. You’d think I would have figured out the alphabet by then, but it was surprising how often I had to sing the ABC song to myself to figure out which letter came after which. And even more surprising was how often I had to start at A. In fact, I still seem incapable of starting anywhere other than A or Q. Bizarre.

All this to say, if serial chaining is the only type of memory we have developed for our recital program, we probably should be a little bit freaked out about the reliability of our memory.

Type 2: Content addressable access
If serial chaining is like autopilot or cruise control, the second type of memory is like manual override. Termed content addressable access, it involves creating specific "retrieval" or "performance cues" that allow us to get ourselves back on track at any of a whole range of locations throughout the piece. So if everything goes to crap, and we break a chain, instead of having to backtrack and start at the beginning, we are never more than a few bars away from a fresh start. Having all these recovery points programmed into the piece has the additional benefit of providing us with a much clearer musical and conceptual "map" of the piece too.

The downside, however, is that these cues must be created and rehearsed. So it takes deliberate effort and a bit of time. Though, if you ask me, this is a small price to pay for the peace of mind which comes from knowing a piece like the back of your hand. What do performance cues look like?

What do these performance cues look like, you ask? Well, there are at least four different kinds.

Structural cues are natural breaks in the structure of a piece – like the exposition/development/recap, or where phrases begin and end.

~ Expressive cues are mood or character-based. Sections that are sad/happy/sarcastic, or represent a specific action or dialogue between voices.

~ Interpretative cues are musical in nature, having to do with changes in tempo, phrasing, dynamics, etc.

~ Basic cues are technique-related, such as bowing or fingering choices.

Taken together, these four types of cues add additional layers of information to the music, kind of like landmarks that let us know if we’re on the right path or not, and help us get back on track if we start to lose our way.
How so?

Mental performance scripts
Through observational studies of musicians learning and memorizing new works for performance, Chaffin found that these performance cues are created during practice sessions, and are themselves rehearsed during practice as well.

In other words, rather than just starting a phrase mindlessly without a clear intention, expert memorizers seem to start and stop at these recovery points during practice, thinking about the structural, expressive, interpretive, or technical element involved. Over time, this creates a "mental script" of the piece, which gets encoded into memory along with the physical script (i.e., the technical execution of the piece).

So as expert memorizers work out the musical and technical details of a piece, making clearer and deliberate decisions about the musical structure, character, phrasing, fingerings, and what to focus on from phrase to phrase, this not only boosts the level of their musicianship but also serves to anchor these performance cues more deeply into memory. Particularly, as they think about these things while practicing, much like paying attention to street signs and landmarks as you drive through a new city that you’ve just moved to.

Below is a graphical representation of what this kind of memory map might look like (just as an illustration – it’s not like you would necessarily write this out on paper away from the score, though I suppose you certainly could).


diagram Chaffin, R., Lisboa, T., Logan, (2010). Preparing for Memorized Cello Performance: The Role of Performance Cues. Psychology of music.

Take action
The big take-home message for me is that even when it comes to memorization, simply playing through pieces over and over on autopilot is an inefficient use of time. And that how we practice lays the groundwork for how we will perform.

More specifically, what we think about in practice will influence what we think about when performing. So if we’ve not created or practiced a mental script in advance, our mind will create one for us – one that is probably much more based in fear and anxiety than related to the nuances and musical elements that would make for a more engaged and compelling (and worry-free) performance.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard faculty member Dr. Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.