Why Singing Could Enhance Your Daily Practice

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 a cruel and unusual exercise unique to the teacher I had, but 20-something years later, I still remember how uncomfortable I felt when I had stand in front of my class and sing the Largo from the third sonata.

I never asked what the purpose of this assignment was, and just assumed that it was a way to test our solfège chops. But I came across a study recently that made me wonder if this exercise may have been more valuable than I thought – specifically, for enhancing memory.

As in, could singing a piece out loud strengthen your memory of it? And potentially enhance memory above and beyond passively listening to a recording of the piece, or studying the score and audiating the music in your head?

The production effect

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

So a pair of Canadian researchers (Forrin & MacLeod, 2017) conducted a study to take a closer look.

They recruited 95 participants to voice-record a list of 160 simple nouns. 

Then they waited two weeks to let some forgetting set in…and then asked them to return to the lab for a study session and a test.

Four ways to study

During their 15-minute study session, they were asked to study 80 of the 160 nouns, in four different ways.

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

Did you study this?

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.

Hearing their own voice was better than hearing someone else recite the word.

And hearing someone else recite the word 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 between the reading aloud and reading silently study types.

So it does seem that reading aloud could potentially result in stronger memory compared with reading silently. But there are a few important caveats to keep in mind.


For one, this study was set up to be more a test of recognition than recall. Simply reporting whether you think you studied a word or not is not quite the same as memorizing a monologue or a 30-minute concerto, of course.

The study focused on words as opposed to musical notes and sounds, so it’s not clear how directly this would translate to memorizing notes on a page either.

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


That said, one of the keys to enhancing memory, is the concept of elaboration. Where the goal is to make each note or phrase more memorable and distinctive during the learning and memory-encoding process. And singing out loud would indeed make the encoding process a more active, engaging, and vivid experience.

There’s also a 2021 study, specifically with musicians (Steenstrup et al.), which compared the effectiveness of regular physical practice, mental imagery, and singing/solfège. And the researchers did find that including solfège in practice led to higher ratings of performance – in particular, more expressive playing – than practicing without solfège.

So maybe you don’t have to solfège publicly, but it does seem like adding a little singing to your practice could be beneficial – and worth overcoming that initial self-consciousness you might feel!

You can learn more about the benefits of singing during practice, and how to weave this into your daily practice more organically in the podcast episode with Kristian Steenstrup here: Kristian Steenstrup: On Singing, Solfège, and Cultivating a More Efficient Approach to Learning New Music


Forrin, N. D., & MacLeod, C. (2017). This time it’s personal: the memory benefit of hearing oneself. Memory, 26(4), 574–579. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2017.1383434

Steenstrup, K., Haumann, N. T., Kleber, B., Camarasa, C., Vuust, P., & Petersen, B. (2021). Imagine, Sing, Play- Combined Mental, Vocal and Physical Practice Improves Musical Performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.757052

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14 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.

  13. There’s a Central African Pygmy flute that produces one note and the performer sings in hocket with it. (If you look up Francis Bebey Pygmy flute on YouTube, you’ll get a nice demonstration…) I decided that I wanted to get better at this technique on the concert flute, so I’ve been practicing Brazilian choros by alternating singing and playing note by note and then transposing the piece by fourths. Once I’ve returned to the original key, I definitely have the tune memorized and can really audiate the whole thing. Highly recommend…

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