Modes of memory and music learning - Piano Lessons London by WKMT

Speaking about performance in particular, as it emerges from a study of Chaffin (1997), an important part of the artist’s preparation of a piece would be developing multiple and flexible retrieval systems that will allow the performance to continue and be successful, whatever may go wrong.

Apparently, using these systems, prevents musicians from relying almost exclusively on motor memory, a type of memory which can be developed rapidly through simple repetition (Chaffin & Imreh, 1994). As a pianist, I find it relevant that unlike other types of memory, pianists are able to rely heavily on motor memory (Chaffin & Imreh, 1997). Thus, I consider this to be a potential obstacle towards the achievement of self-awareness and it makes me question how many other pianists actually use their brain properly while practicing.

As soon as we start learning, mental structures begin to form in the brain, but the degree of security in recall depends on a more multi-layered level of learning and many repetitions, so that the music can be ‘imagined’ in its entirety. The more different senses are involved at the time of learning, the more secure will be the memory trace. We will restrict our description to those systems most relevant to musical performance, such as auditory, motor, visual, emotional, narrative, and linguistic memory. A memorized performance is generated through the interaction of the information available in each system.

Auditory memory

Since music is essentially an assortments of sounds, auditory memory plays a dominant role in a pianist’s memorisation. A performers uses it to accomplish two specific tasks: knowing if he is playing the right notes, and anticipating what he will play next (Finney and Palmer 2003). This kind of memory is so vital and automatic that it is often simply taken for granted (Chaffin, Imreh, & Crawford,

2002). Auditory memory appears also to contain information about both pitch contour (relative pitch) as well as pitch category (absolute pitch), since people can sometimes recall music in the same key as the original.

Motor memory

Pianists talk about motor memory as being ‘in the hands’. The most important feature of this type of memory is perhaps that it is implicit/unconscious.

Musicians know that they can play a particular piece, but the knowledge of how to play can only be exhibited by actually playing. This is a source of anxiety, and may lead to over-practice. Playing seems to be the only way to reassure oneself that memory for a piece is intact. Motor memory also provides the clearest examples of associative chaining in memory: each action in the series cues the next. This is what makes motor memories implicit: to be accessed, they must be performed. This type of memory allows actions to be executed automatically by providing kinaesthetic memory of the sensory feedback from joints, muscles,

and touch receptors (Chaffin, Logan & Begosh, 2009).

Visual memory

Visual memory preserves some characteristics of our senses pertaining to visual experience. We are able to place in memory visual information which resembles objects, places, animals or people in a mental image. The experience of visual memory is also referred to as the mind's eye through which we can retrieve a mental image of original objects, places, animals or people. This cognitive ability is used abundantly by pianists in the memorisation of a score as it enables to internally visualise the score during a performance, as well as to recall the physical gestures involved in playing. This type of memory is used mainly in the early stages of memorisation, while visual memory of the hands on the instrument becomes more important in the later stages. However, this memory is not taken for granted as many pianists mention that they either have it or they do not (Chaffin, Imreh, & Crawford, 2002). The role of visual memory for the score is evident, for example, in the difficulty that some musicians experience when working with a different edition of a score from the one they used to create the first visual memory when they initially learned a piece (Chaffin, Logan

& Begosh, 2009).

Emotional memory

A study by Chaffin (2009) has highlighted that the performer’s visceral response to the music contributes to musical memory, as memories for emotional events are formed more easily and are less likely to be forgotten than non-emotional memories. It appears clearly that our emotions and our memories are inexorably linked; that is the main reason why we are more likely to remember any image if we ourselves are in a state of heightened emotion.

Kinaesthetic memory

Kinaesthetic sense allows people to feel internally the movements of their muscles, joints and tendons. Thus, all physical activity, e.g., walking, playing etc., draws on kinaesthetic memory to automate movement. As playing the piano requires many automatic physical actions, this type of memory is essential for the memorisation of a score, i.e., all the movements, gestures and physical sensations needed to play a musical work.

Conceptual memory

Some kinds of memory are recorded in the brain by repetition, without special effort on the part of the individual. Auditory, visual and kinaesthetic memories, although able to be reinforced by various exercise, fall into this category.

Although they are essential to the pianist’s work, none of these types of memory provide for retention of the musical text. Only conceptual memory, used intentionally, allows integration of knowledge. To be more precise, a pianist must be totally aware of what is being memorised to really absorb and retain the score. Conceptual memory provides total assimilation of the musical text, including harmony, phrasing, reference points and notes. It is acquired by exceptional effort while the three above mentioned types are recorded automatically while practicing.

Linguistic memory

The mental instructions that experienced performers use to remind themselves what to do at key points in a performance are a form of linguistic memory (Chaffin, 2002). An important characteristic of linguistic memories is that they can be rehearsed in working memory, where they can serve to direct other mental processes. One of the strategies which may improve this type of memory

is self-talk. Many psychologists, in fact, recognise the benefits of this practice in influencing positively a performance.

Content-addressable memory

Associative chaining works well so long as the chain is intact. If the performance stops, however, the chain is broken, and then memory failure is inevitable. The performer can only go back to the beginning and start over. To avoid that, experienced performers prepare a safety net which provides other options; they prepare multiple starting points. Chaffin uses the term performance cues as landmarks in the mental map of the piece, distinguishing four main types: structural cues are critical sections in the formal structure of the music; expressive cues represent the main musical turning points of the piece where the feeling changes; interpretative cues concern some aspects of interpretation which require attention (e.g., a change of tempo); basic cues represent critical details of technique which must be executed as planned in order to perform as intended. (Chaffin, Lisboa, Logan & Begosh, 2009). According to a study of Beilock & Carr (2009), there is a risk involved in setting up additional starting points. In fact, thinking about what you are doing might interfere with skilled performance, a phenomenon known as choking (Beilock & Carr 2001). A memory is content addressable if you can ask yourself, e.g., ‘How does the third repetition of the main theme go?’, and the music comes to mind (Chaffin, Logan

& Begosh, 2009).




Chaffin, R., & Imreh, G. (1994). Memorizing for piano performance. Piano Journal, 15(45),16–19.

Chaffin, R. & Imreh, G. (1997) “Pulling Teeth and Torture”: Musical Memory and Problem

Solving. Thinking and Reasoning, 3 (4), 315-336

Chaffin, R., Imreh, G., & Crawford, M. (2002). Practicing perfection: Memory and piano

performance. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Finney SA and Palmer C (2003). Auditory feedback and memory for music performance: sound evidence for an encoding effect. Memory and Cognition, 31 , 51–64.

Chaffin, R., Logan, T.R., & Begosh, K.T. (2009). Performing from memory. In S. Hallam, I. Cross, & M. Thaut (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (pp. 352-363). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beilock SL and Carr TH (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: what governs choking

under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General ,130 , 701–725.

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