Music for memorization
Music for memorization
As I noted in another thread just a few minutes ago, I was recently reading Oliver Sacks's book Musicophilia. I have also begun reading into the technical literature on music in cognitive neuroscience and similar areas, for professional reasons I won't get into here (you don't want to know!). I stumbled on something quite striking.
We all talk about “muscle memory” as though this were a known and real phenomenon, but if we think about it, we presumably realize that there is no such thing. Memory as such, in whatever form, happens in the brain. But that’s not to say that all memory is alike, of course: there are all kinds of different systems that operate in intersecting ways dependent on what’s memorized, how we go about it, and so on.
Now it turns out – and this is fairly recent research – that the brain deals with music quite differently than it deals with other things. Nobody really knows what’s going on here, but music and the brain have a very strange relationship.
The dimension of this I want to bring out here, of course, has to do with memory. When a musician memorizes a piece of music for performance, there are many different ways of going about it, as you’d expect. But the ultimate result is very strange. When you run through a piece in your head, having memorized it for performance (in the sense that you can play it from memory), your brain starts flashing systems all over the place in ways that are largely unexpected and unlike other kinds of memory. Most notably, areas of motor function flash strongly, although the muscles are not triggered, which is basically very weird and not expected from comparisons with athletes, dancers, and whatnot. It seems as though musical memory actually does embed “in the muscles,” which is to say in motor areas of the brain, as well as in lots of other places.
What’s more, these musical memories are fantastically durable. We all know, to our sadness, that forgetting is all too easy. But it seems that musical works, once memorized in this way, are remarkably difficult to forget. For example, Alzheimer’s-type dementias can shred any kind of memory, but it is quite common for afflicted musicians to be able to play extremely complex pieces they have memorized despite massive dementia in other areas. In fact, there are well-documented cases of musicians actually learning new pieces despite such conditions. There are cases of people who have had strokes and such that destroy the ability to form long-term memories, who nevertheless are able to learn musical works and retain them perfectly.
Nobody really knows what’s going on here. This is a pretty new field of neuroscience. But there can be no question that musical memory is powerful and different.
Now here’s why I mention all this.
There is some indication, though so far as I can see it is very little studied, that musical memories can be deliberately attached to other kinds. Too, we all know, here at this forum, that sequence is one of those crucially powerful devices for mnemotechnics. For example, in the Method of Loci, you memorize something like a deck of cards by placing 52 card images (or combined chunks, of course) in a sequence of memorized locations. Now part of what memorizing music entails is an extraordinarily extended control of sequence. If you memorize a 5-minute piano piece, you need a huge amount of encoding in a tight sequence, and once you’ve memorized it, you don’t forget the sequence – you just run through it, and it sort of unfolds automatically.
So let’s suppose you decided to memorize a sequence of something non-musical by attaching it to the sequences in a given musical piece. How would this work? How would you go about it?
I don’t know, but I have a few guesses. I would think that the main difficulties are going to be to figure out (a) what you’re going to memorize, (b) how to break that down into a sequence that can be mapped onto the music, and then (c) how, other than pure repetition, you’re going to encode that mapping.
A few notes:
A) Don’t memorize decks of cards this way. I have an intuition that if you do it, you’ll never forget that one deck of cards, which is pretty much useless. If you actually wipe a deck off a musical work, as it were, I suspect you’re going to screw up the music. Even if that doesn’t happen, I suspect you’ll end up with a lot of confusions. So memorize something you want to know permanently – because if this works, it’s going to be permanent. (Who knows: it might even survive brain injuries!)
B) Music often breaks pretty smoothly into phrases, bars, and so on. Bear in mind that the various layers of architectonic meaning in the music are going to impose cross-conceptual meanings onto whatever else you memorize. So it’s probably best to map this stuff very carefully, by conscious planning, note-taking, and whatnot. (This may also mean that this is a system best adapted to memorizing large blocks of text, such as whole books, or something similar.)
C) I don’t have a lot of suggestions here. It’s too dependent on A and B for me to generalize.
There are all kinds of questions here. I have no answers. I’m hoping people will be interested to discuss.