Two Approaches to Memorization – One of Which Can Leave You Lost and Stranded if You Rely on It Too Much!

Ah, the dreaded memory slip.

If you’re like most musicians, you’ve probably experienced at least one in your performance history. I’m guessing that you’ve probably also had the experience of spending a sleepless night playing and replaying music in your head, in an effort to reassure yourself that you do indeed have everything memorized. Or maybe you’ve found yourself on stage, thinking not about the music, but worrying about whether you’re going to be able to remember what comes next…

It may not literally be life or death, but it can certainly feel that way at times.

Of course, then there are those for whom memorization seems to happen naturally. Easily. Almost without trying.

What’s up with that? Are their brains just wired differently than ours? Or do they know something we don’t?

The study of memorization

Roger Chaffin, a now-retired professor of psychology at UConn (and amateur flutist), has conducted a number of studies on the learning processes of high-level musicians.

And several are related specifically to the memorization process, and provide some insights into how expert memorizers memorize.

Two types of memory

Type #1: Serial chaining

It turns out that there are two types of memory that musicians rely on – and each has its own pros and cons. Which is helpful to know, to make sure we don’t put all of our memory 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 what’s the downside?

Well…serial chaining works well as long as the conditions of retrieval are close to the conditions of practice. 

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. 

It’s kind of like how most of us sing the alphabet song. For instance, take a moment to start singing the ABC song – but start from the letter F AND DO NOT help yourself cue up the correct note by singing in your head from the letter 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 driving a stick. Called “content addressable access,” it involves creating specific “retrieval” or “performance cues” that are kind of like headings or chapter markings that help us get 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.

The downside, is that these cues don’t just spontaneously appear on their own out of thin air. We have to take the time to intentionally create and rehearse them in practice. So it takes some effort and a bit of time. 

Though that’s arguably a small price to pay for the peace of mind which comes from knowing that you know a piece like the back of your hand.

So what do performance cues look like?

Four performance cues

Well, there are at least 4 different kinds.

  1. Structural cues are natural breaks or logical sections that form the structure of a piece. Like the exposition/development/recap, or where phrases begin and end.
  2. Expressive cues are mood or character-based. Sections that you decide should be mysterious, or pensive. Or that communicate happiness, sadness, or sarcasm. Or involve characters who form part of a narrative in your head.
  3. Interpretive cues are also musical in nature, but related more to the hints that the composer has left us in the score. Like changes in tempo, phrasing, dynamics, and all those Italian words we suddenly realize we should have looked up when our teacher quizzes us in a lesson.
  4. Basic cues are technique-related, such as bowing, sticking, 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. Though, just FYI, not all performance cues are created equal – the structural and expressive cues seem to be the most useful, with basic cues being the least helpful (and possibly actively unhelpful).

So…how exactly do these performance cues help with memory?

Mental performance scripts

Through observational studies of musicians learning and memorizing new works for performance (e.g. Chaffin et al., 2009), Chaffin found that these performance cues are created during practice sessions, and are rehearsed during practice as well.

In other words, rather than just starting a phrase mindlessly, 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” or map 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. Much as you might consciously pay close attention to street signs and landmarks as you practice navigating through and familiarizing yourself with 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).

Chaffin, R., Lisboa, T., Logan, T., & Begosh, K.T. (2010). Preparing for Memorized Cello Performance: The Role of Performance Cues. Psychology of music, 38, 3-30.
Chaffin, R., Lisboa, T., Logan, T., & Begosh, K.T. (2009). Preparing for Memorized Cello Performance: The Role of Performance Cues. Psychology of music, 38(1), 3-30.

Take action

So what can we take away from all of this?

Well, the big take-home for me is that memorization seems to be a skill. An active process that one goes through in the course of learning a piece, rather than something that just magically happens on its own with enough time and repetition. And that thoughtfully engaging with fundamental aspects of the music when we practice – from observations about patterns in the music to decisions about phrasing and voicing and how this relates to mood, character, and emotion – lays the groundwork for how expressively we will play on stage, as well as how confident we will be in our memory.

After all, if we haven’t created or practiced a mental script in advance, our squirrelly little brains will probably be happy to create one for us. But one that is probably much more based in fear and anxiety, than the nuances and musical details that would make for a more engaged and compelling (and worry-free) performance.

Originally posted on 3.20.2016; revised and updated 12.19.2021

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Chaffin, R., Lisboa, T., Logan, T., & Begosh, K. T. (2009). Preparing for memorized cello performance: the role of performance cues. Psychology of Music, 38(1), 3–30.

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9 Responses

  1. Now here is the way I, personally, do it:

    First of all, i recognize that there are actually FOUR (4) different memories that miraculously come into play when learning to perform a piece from memory:

    1. muscle memory
    2. musical memory
    3. intellectual memory
    4. visual memory

    (intellectual memory – # 3 above – is what i understand the bulk of this article to be about. it correspond to a structural map of the piece. intellectual memory helps us remember what goes where, and if you’re really good at it, even the “why” of why it goes there.)

    Memories #1 and #2 gradually build up as we play and replay a piece. It can even be helpful to try to be conscious of what’s going on with these two memories as we learn a piece, although they are really not within our conscious control – at least not within the control of MY consciousness. They are, in my opinion, two magical, mystical, and wonderful memories that just happen to be built in to our brains and bodies. They are great, and can help a lot in giving us additional memories to work with while learning and performing a piece.

    Memory #4, visual memory, is sometimes called “memorize even the grease spots on the printed page around the area to be memorized”. This memory is very much within our control, and can be brought into play when trying to gain mastery over a tricky and elusive place. Like all the memories, visual memory is also quite magical, but like intellectual (structural) memory you can store stuff in it by really thinking about it, focusing on it, and eventually it somehow gets memorized.

    What works for me is that i enjoy trying to be conscious of what’s in each of these four memories as i learn and perform a piece. When performing, if i want to, i can switch back and forth through each of these memories as i play along. On some days one or more of these memories can be weaker or stronger for a particular piece. By being flexible and alert enough to know which memories are working best (or not working so good) at any particular time, i can usually feel like i really have one or more level of memory back-up as i move along.

    Anyway, that’s the way i’ve been doing it lately.

    Gary Berlind/

  2. I have been working on performance cues. I like to do what I call “drop the needle”- like you used to able to do with a phonograph record. You should be able to pick up from any part in the song in the same way when you are learning it. One thing that I found that helps me quite a bit is laying out the arrangement before getting into the particulars. I play mainly by ear and use an iPad app that allows me to flag sections of an MP3 and even give them a title in the graphical display of the song. Since most pop music is pretty much of formula thing it is easy to lay things out as intro, verse, pretty chorus , chorus , solo, etc. The app displays the list of section headings and selecting any one of them starts the peace from the exact point. That’s where my drop the needle concept comes into play. It really helps for a more thorough understanding of the structure of the piece. There is also a loop function that allows me to hammer away at repetitions and then the loop points can be adjusted to help add previous or subsequent sections to have it all makes sense. This is a great article. I highly recommend people take this information and put it to use.

  3. Thank you, I can’t love this article more since it’s about note taking in the practice room and I am passionate about it. I am passionate about the concept of “cue”. As you had said in your “centering” lecture, the cue can be a word (in the case of the note-taking in the practice room) but can also be a feeling, a sound? (“mellow”) ? I wanted to know if I could use the “cue” in my note-taking fore abook where a cue acts like a springboard as I reread my notes.

  4. Very insightful article Noa. I realized that this is basically what I unconsciously do when learning and practicing new material.

    I recently had to learn 10 new songs on drums before heading into the studio and had to do it in 2 days. Closed myself up in the practice room and literally immersed myself in those songs. It’s really a mix of “serial chaining” and “content addressable access” but what’s really important for me is usually the approach to learning the parts. Mostly I would divide the songs in its fundamental sections, and start scanning them from beginning to end until I can play the whole song several times without messing up. When it comes to learning with no written music, listening to understand which drum or cymbal is being played and visualising have a huge role as well for me.

  5. One other comment. I think this note taking system in the practice room that Noa gave us by the intermediary of the study he found is useful because this mental script is the script of what is relevant to what we are doing, and this builds our focus in the practice room as well, not only prepares us for the performance. Don’t you think, Noa?

  6. I had a piano teacher used a final test of memory prior to performance in which I had to play a measure then — with hands still — “think” the next measure throughout the entire piece. This ensured there were mental question at every measure. Very difficult, but if practiced, very effective!

  7. It’s master of one thing with a lot of work over time. I know there is a lot of explanation I’m learning an instrumental for 3 months and I can barely produce one sound it’s not my fault I think it’s how our brain works it needs time to process, to master.

    Why is someone different? Is this the real question? Or they worked more than the normal one in a single instrument?

  8. I always get a bit anxious before I need to play an instrument in front of an audience. Memorizing every note can be difficult but I noticed that being anxious doesn’t help either. I become less nervous once I start playing and manage to turn these negatives emotions into confidence.

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