Playing from memory – types of memory

Memory types

Depending on the fact whether we engage sight, hearing, analytical thinking or a motor organ in the process of memorisation – we call such a method: visual, auditory, logical or motor memory. It does not mean, however, that a given individual is to be attributed with only one particular memory type. All memory types are developed in the course of study and the proportions of their mutual employment differs from person to person.

Visual memory

It seems impossible to remember a piece of music, even of average level of difficulty, using merely one’s visual memory, by only taking a “text photo”, existing somewhere in the player’s consciousness. Photographic memorisation is recommended chiefly in the case of sight-reading, it typically concerns fragments remembered for a very short time, until they are played.

In the case of an entire piece, photographic memorisation would require exceptional and specific skills. However, conscious and very careful study of notation leaves certain pictures, musical images” in the mind, like signposts put up in various places in a music sequence of the performed piece known only to the player. Such pointers will support all that has been learnt through auditory, logical and motor memory.

Auditory memory

Auditory memory, also called acoustic memory – enables remembering the sounds of a music piece. Inner hearing of music that we are to perform allows the fingers to “follow” the path set out through what has been heard.

Logical memory

Logical memory – also called intellectual, reason-related, conscious or analytical and associative memory, is a method of memorisation involving a very thorough text analysis, becoming aware of the key, the meter, logical memorisation of musical, rhythmical, harmonic lines, progression of chords, observing and remembering repetitive, similar and different fragments. In a word – it entails an analysis of everything that is encoded in notation. Depending on pupil’s individual personality traits and how advanced their level is, these aspects will be defined in greater or smaller detail, involving, e.g. a general form description, drawing attention to the key, title, repetitive fragments, scale progression. It may also entail the teacher formulating questions and the student providing answers and – in the case of an advanced pupil – a written analysis of a music piece, e.g. in the form of a written home assignment. It is important for the student to take active part in the process and memorizing the piece through analysing it. ‘According to authorities in piano playing, the process of learning a musical piece by heart must not only be a fully conscious and active process, but it is even compared to an act of creation; there is a widespread agreement that mechanical practice is unacceptable’.[1] Unfortunately, although such practice is “unacceptable”, a significant group of students work in that fashion, since they were not informed that the same material can be learnt more quickly, faster and more effectively. That is why the role of the teacher must not be limited to giving simple instructions, such as: “memorise it”, which is a common practice, and which a student understands as: “repeat it until it finds its way into your fingers on its own”. Such memorisation is typically unreliable. Already in the first stage of working on a musical piece, it needs to be learnt by heart perfectly through the use of the so-called reflection, or “logical, systematic piece analysis.” I am going to analyse a fragment of ‘Study in C-major’ from Lebert and Stark’s school.

Piano lessons London

  1. Time and key signature ( and C major).

  2. Right hand starts with an interval of the sixths (e2-c3) from the second semi-quaver. Then the sixths go down the C major scale up to e-c1.

  3. In bars no 5-6 a row of the sixths goes two octaves up from d-h to e2-c3.

  4. Bars no 3-4 are almost the same as bars no 1-2, except there are the thirds added to the sixths.

  5. The accompaniment consists of the notes from C major chord. The rhythm in the left hand is the same in every single bar (crotchet and crotchet rest)

Motor memory

Motor memory – also called kinetic, mechanic or “finger” memory, is a type of memory that independently of our intentions consolidates, or “etches through exercise” the movements repeated by us, irrespectively of whether they are correct, or not. Motor memory ought to be absolutely subordinated to hearing in the sense that one should not produce a single sound with an instrument without first having imagined it with one’s inner ear. Such imagining ought to be vivid, distinct and sufficiently suggestive to be able to, in a way, “dictate” a proper movement for the sound production. The role of pianist’s motor habits is of huge importance, which is why their formulation from the very start of a pupil’s career and in every new music piece needs to be perfectly correct, based on natural, easy and efficient movements.

Edyta Lajdorf BMus (Hons) RCM, MMus, LRSM (Teaching), SMISM
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[1] M. Preuschoff-Kazmierczakowa, Fortepian dla najmłodszych (Poznan 1994), 44

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