Singing out Loud: Embarrassing Ear Training Exercise or Nifty Memory Hack?

“Argh…why are we doing this?”

“Seriously…WHY?” I wondered to myself, as I resigned myself to my fate, took my place in front of the class, and squeaked out a feeble “la si do fa sol mi fa la re si do…”

I don’t know if solfège-ing a movement of unaccompanied Bach in ear training class is some sort of universal aural skills rite of passage, or if this was unique to the teacher I had, but this moment still stands out in my memory – almost two decades later – as the most “I hope I never have to do that again” requirement of my graduate program.

I didn’t have the courage to ask what the purpose of this assignment was, and simply assumed it was just a way for us to test our solfege skills. However, I came across a study this week that made me wonder if this exercise may have been more valuable than I thought – as a memory hack.

As in, is there any evidence that singing a piece out loud can strengthen your memory of it? Above and beyond listening to a recording or studying the score and hearing it in your head (both of which are way less embarrassing)?

The production effect

Several studies, dating back to the 70’s, have provided some evidence of phenomenon known as the “production effect.” Where saying words out loud seems to result in better memory of these words than simply reading them silently.

So a pair of Canadian researchers conducted a study to take a closer look.

They recruited 95 participants to voice-record a list of 160 simple nouns. And then, two weeks later (enough time to forget the list of words they read out loud), had them return to the lab for a study/testing session.

During their 15-minute study session, they were asked to study 80 of the nouns, in four different ways.

Twenty of the words were read aloud. For another twenty, they heard themselves saying the word. In another set of twenty, they heard someone else’s voice reciting the words. And in the final set of twenty, they silently read the word to themselves.

Studied? Or not studied?

Immediately after this study phase, they took a test, in which they were presented with all 160 words, one at a time, on a computer screen.

Their task was simply to report whether the word on the screen was one of the 80 that they studied, or one of the 80 that they didn’t study.

So how’d they do?

Which method works best?

As the researchers expected, there was a significant trend across the four types of studying. Reading aloud resulted in better performance than hearing their own voice, which in turn was better than hearing someone else recite the word, which was better than reading the word silently to themselves.

Some of the differences between these types of studying were pretty minimal, but there was  about a 12% difference in their memory performance when comparing the reading aloud and reading silently study types.

So at first glance, it does seem that reading aloud could result in stronger memory compared with reading silently – but there are a few important caveats to keep in mind, before you get too excited.

Caveats

For one, the focus on words means that this study might be a little more directly relevant to singers or actors who work more with text. And it might not translate quite as directly to memorizing notes on a page.

And then there’s the fact that this study was set up to be more a test of recognition than recall. In which they’re basically just reporting whether they remember having studied a word or not. Which is not quite the same as memorizing a monologue or a 30-minute concerto.

Furthermore, the memory test came immediately after the study session. So it’s not clear how much participants would remember a day (or week) later. Because as we’ve discussed here before, there’s a big difference between skill acquisition and skill retention.

Takeaways

Having said all that, anything we can do to make each note and phrase more memorable and distinctive during the learning and memory-encoding process, the better off we’ll be when it comes time to perform.

And singing out loud can’t help but make the encoding process a more active, engaging, and vivid experience.

Epilogue…

It’s been ~18 years (yikes!) since that day in ear training class, when I had to solfège the movement of Bach, and I haven’t played it since (the Largo from the third sonata , in case you were wondering).

So out of curiosity, I took out my violin today and tried to go through it without listening to it or looking at the score first. Admittedly, it’s not an especially long or complicated movement, but I was able to get through it fine, without any snags!

That’s just one tiny data point, but maybe there’s something to this singing-out-loud exercise after all?

What has been your experience with singing through rep as a way to reinforce memory? Have you found this to be an effective way of “bulletproofing” your memory? Or not?

 

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Comments

13 Responses

  1. More years ago than I care to count or even talk about I discovered that for memorization ( catechism, vocabulary, dates, poems etc) often just writing them down was enough. If the lists or paragraphs were longer, I wrote them down twice separated by a couple of days. Worked great

  2. I love the synchronicity of this… just last month I started experimenting with having my sing “Do, Re, Mi…” etc while playing a two octave major scale. It tools then a bit to get the hang of it, especially coming down… but i do believe this aids in connecting the universality of the scale to all keys as well as connecting the sound to their inner ear, which in the end leads to memorization. Curious if you ever experimented with this Noa. Warm regards!

  3. As an instrumentalist, singing has many benefits. If I sing while playing my guitar, my brain is under additional load, but this also means it’s receiving additional stimulus. Instead of just the aural and tactile signals inputting into the brain from playing my guitar, the sound of my voice and the tactile feeling of my voice box are added to the mix. That’s a double or triple whammy. Also singing adds musical details of interpretation that when uncovered, through singing, gives me vivid and concrete musical creations that are personal and memorable for my performance. Finally, I believe that my best music is created in my mind a micro second before I execute the note. Singing gives me a concrete reference for this mental model that I mentally play while I perform my guitar.

  4. Whenever I memorize, I try to use as many methods of “production” as possible. Usually that simply means singing through difficult passages, playing them on the piano, and then returning to my trombone. Since every instrument has different mechanisms for producing sound and different ways of organising groups of pitches (i.e. guitar fretboard vs. piano keyboard), I find that forcing myself to navigate the passage on different instruments is very helpful for retention and recall.

    I got the idea from my psychology textbook a few years ago — it advocated studying for exams but reading, writing, speaking, typing, out doing any other method of “production”, pointing out that different activities use slightly different areas of the brain ( the Boccus region for speech, if I remember correctly), which has the effect of cementing and reinforcing knowledge only squirted and stored in one area.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article! If you have the time, If really be interested in proving this further from a musicians perspective. Do you know of any teams doing original research on this?

  5. It is true that engaging more than one sense will have better outcomes than engaging just one. That said, the reason why the performers (those that actually performed the action, rather than just hearing it) is that the brain remembers much better when engaging in motor activity as it raises the frequency of firing in the prefrontal cortex, where cognition takes place. Movement is also an emotional experience, so it also raises the likelihood that you’ll remember what it is you are supposed to remember. This is the reason why taking notes in a class and rewriting them results in better outcomes on tests which rely primarily upon recall to score well. So, in this scenario, (note taking), you have two senses (eyes and ears) and writing (motor). In the above experiment, it isn’t stated whether they had visual, but they certainly had auditory and when they added the actual pronunciation of the words, they added the motor, making it far more likely that the subjects would remember what they had to remember.

  6. In my recent (and new) experience of singing and playing while learning classical repertoire and while improvising (I’m working with an improv/Jazz teacher who requires all his students to do this) I have found that my retention of new music has increased exponentially. This is a new process for me and I’ve been thrilled with the results. I’ve also been passing this on to my students and have found they are having similar results. Win!

  7. The production model is well known in language teaching and learning where I spent much of my career, first as a teacher and then as a translator. Given the positive interactions I have observed between language learning (particularly first language learning in small children) and music (how they reinforce each other, particularly learning to read both music and language at the same time), it would follow that production (singing) would help playing (whether memorizing or playing from music). However, some questions remain. Where does exact pitch come in. As a trumpet player, I cannot sing as high as I play. Are there diminishing effects if we are producing a octave lower than we are actually playing, etc.? Just from my own very amateur case, it seems much easier for me to remember pieces I can actually sing at their real pitches. Ones that I have to imagine are harder. I wonder if you have a comment on that aspect.

    1. As a clarinet player, I’m interested in this, too. Also wondering how playing a transposed instrument would affect things if I wanted to incorporate piano into it as well (thinking of Danny’s comment above re: going between singing, piano, and back to trombone)

  8. Asking my piano students to sing a passage out loud is one of the ways in which I sometimes help them with playing tricky bits – I like to add silly words too as this really fixes rhythms firmly in the memory. Singing also helps with learning to define the textures in contrapuntal music. I don’t use sol-fa though – to students who don’t normally use it, I think this would be a step too far and may feel like an extra complication instead of a help.

  9. One question I’d like to see answered in a future post would be how effective this is for folks who can’t really sing. I happen to be one of those people, and while singing is an important way to internalize pitch, it takes a long time to get any good at it, so if you can’t actually sing the melody, can this in fact backfire or is it one of those things where it works because you get credit for trying?

  10. I have used solfege often to help enforce my memory, but reading this article raises a question for me. How much of your memory of the Largo was due to singing the solfege and how much because you memorized it when you were young? I find that pieces that I memorized in my youth (even without singing solfege) I’m still able to recall, but pieces that I memorize now as an adult require more work to memorize and more maintenance to keep memorized. Can you write about this please?

  11. One thing I often ask about these studies is whether each group was allowed to study and restudy as often as possible in the time allotted. I can silently read faster than words can be said. So, if I was allowed to review the words as fast as possible, silent reading might be more effective. If the words are “fed” to each group at the same rate, regardless of how fast they can process them, the methodology does not really demonstrate the best use of time.

  12. I, too, believe that the more synergetic the memory, the more likely it is to stick around, but in the case of the Bach Largo, I have to wonder if the emotional intensity of the experience had as much to do with burning it into your memory as production effect. You did say it was “the most” uncomfortable requirement of your graduate program. So I’m curious how unique the memory is. That is, how well do you recall passages you solfeged at the time that didn’t involve such intense experiences?

    Speaking from a very amateur level, I can only say that trying to sing through a passage can sometimes help clarify a muddy aural memory for me.

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