Back in college, my wife and I would good-naturedly debate which was the more difficult instrument – violin (my instrument) or piano (her instrument).

I would always throw out the intonation card, while she would fire back with the claim that the sheer number of notes pianists have to play (and memorize) trumped intonation.

When it comes to discussions about memorization, and whether musicians ought to perform from memory or not, it does seem like pianists are often at the center of the debate. Case in point, Stephen Hough’s eloquent take on the subject, a WQXR radio spot, a NY Times piece, and even an entire blog devoted to memorizing music.

So is memorization a more difficult task for pianists than other instrumentalists?

Or is there another factor at play that affects memory in performances – and might just happen to impact pianists more than some other musicians?

Context-dependent memory

Most research on memorization in music has focused more on exploring various encoding strategies (like structural analysis, practicing hands together or separate, etc.) than on the retrieval process.

But there are many factors that can affect recall too. One, is a phenomenon known as context-dependent memory. This is the curious observation that we have better recall of information if we are tested on that material in the same environment where we learned it.

For instance, way back in 1975, two psychologists tested members of a scuba diving club on their ability to recall a list of words while sitting on the dock (dry), or submerged underwater in their scuba gear (wet).

As it turned out, participants were able to recall the words just fine whether they were on land or underwater – as long as they did their learning and recalling in the same context.

In other words, those who learned in one environment and then were asked to recall in a different environment (wet-dry or dry-wet) recalled fewer words than those who did their learning and recall in the same environment (wet-wet or dry-dry).

Unpredictable, yet reliable

Other studies have replicated this effect in the years since, and even expanded on the idea of context to include internal mental states like mood.

It’s important to note that context-dependent memory effects are notoriously unpredictable and tricky to study, since it’s difficult to predict in advance what elements of an environment will matter.

Nevertheless, enough studies have found a memory advantage for recall in the learning environment, that we can be pretty confident this is an actual, true phenomenon.

Do unfamiliar pianos affect memory?

One of the unenviable realities of being a pianist is that they must spend most of their time practicing and learning on a comfortable, familiar piano, yet perform on a strange foreign piano when it matters most. Sure, all pianos have the same number of keys, and are located in all the same places, but the weight and “touch” of the keys can be vastly different, not to mention the sound.

A University of Houston study thus sought to see if practicing on one piano, and performing on a different piano could increase the likelihood of memory slips.

32 first and second-year college piano students were asked to memorize a short 16-bar piece composed specifically for the study. The students learned the piece on either a 7-ft Steinway grand, or a Kawai upright (both of which were located in the same teaching studio).

Then, they were asked to perform the piece from memory on either the same piano that they used when learning the piece, or the other piano.

Those who learned and performed on the same piano did well on their performance test, scoring an average of 26.46 (Steinway) and 27.96 (Kawai) out of 32.

But it was a different story for the students who were asked to switch to a different piano for their performance. They had far greater memory errors, evidenced by incorrect rhythms and notes, with average scores of 14.08 (Steinway-Kawai) and 15.96 (Kawai-Steinway).

I was never much of a pianist, but I used to swear to my piano teacher that I sounded better at home, and that her piano was to blame. Ha! Sweet, sweet, vindication!

Although to be fair, I was generally guilty of not practicing enough…and making excuses never seemed to help my case much…

Take action

So what can we do?

It has been found that learning material in multiple contexts during learning can help to strengthen our ability to recall information in a new environment and nullify the context-dependent memory effect.

So for pianists in particular, finding opportunities to practice and do some run-throughs on pianos other than your own might help better prepare you for the piano and context that you will eventually be performing in.

I imagine this would also apply to organists, harpists, percussionists, and other instrumentalists who may not be totally familiar with their performance instrument in advance.

But it’s less clear how much of an impact the context-dependent memory effect would have on other musicians who use the same instrument but must practice in one type of setting (e.g. practice room, or one’s home), yet perform in a very different physical and acoustical setting like a concert hall.

What has your experience been? Have you noticed any sort of context-dependent memory slippage in your own performances?

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study 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.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

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