“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?