Stress Impairs Memory…But Here’s a Way to Make Your Memory More Anxiety-Proof

I took piano lessons for several years as a child. But I didn’t get very far because I had a rather peculiar approach to learning.

Due to my principled objection to the existence of other clefs, I never actually learned bass clef. Anytime I got a new piece, I just memorized the left hand, and played off the music while looking at the treble clef.

I know…pretty ridiculous in hindsight.

But you know the saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? Well, I was reminded of my bass clef aversion recently when listening to my daughter practice the piano. Unlike me, she can read both clefs. But in an interesting twist, she seems to have an objection to looking at the music at all, preferring to keep poking around for the right notes by ear.

Imagine giving a beginning hunt-and-peck typist this blank keyboard (btw, isn’t that the awesomest thing ever?), and you’ll have a pretty good idea what we experience in our living room every day.

Needless to say, it drives my wife (a pianist) crazy. Whom I’ll often hear shouting “LOOK AT THE MUSIC!!!” from various corners of our apartment.

But then I read a study recently which made me wonder if our little one is actually onto something.

Huh?! What could that possibly be?

Stress and memory

There’s a pretty robust literature which shows that stress disrupts our memory. Whether it’s a math test or public speech or performance, we tend to forget things under pressure.

But a team of researchers started wondering…are such memory issues inevitable? Or might there be a way to make our memory more stress-resistant?

Observing that most previous studies haven’t been especially concerned with what specific memorization strategies their participants used, they put together a study to dig a little deeper.

Nouns and Photos

120 participants were presented with a list of 30 nouns to memorize.

Half (60) of the participants then re-studied the 30 nouns. Meanwhile, the other half engaged in retrieval practice – asked to recall as many items as they could remember.

30 photos

Then everyone was presented with a collection of 30 photos.

Once again, the study group re-studied the 30 photos, while the retrieval group was asked to recall as many photos as they could.

30 nouns & 30 photos

Then, the study group re-studied both the list of nouns and the photos, while the retrieval group attempted to recall as many words and images as they could.

A short distraction…

Finally, after a short distractor task, the study group re-studied all 60 items one last time, while the retrieval group attempted a final recall of as many items as possible.

So to be clear, the study group had 3 additional study sessions of the material, while the retrieval group had 0 traditional “study” sessions but instead were tested on their recall of the original presentation of the words and pictures.

On paper, that seems like an awfully lopsided advantage of study time for the study group, but let’s see what happened when they went back to the lab 24 hours later for a test…

24 hours later…

When participants returned to the lab for testing, half of them – 30 from the study group, and 30 from the retrieval group – were asked to give a speech and solve math problems in front of 2 judges and 3 peers (to make them anxious and increase their stress levels).

Five minutes into this stressful task, they were asked to recall either the words or pictures that they learned the previous day. Twenty minutes later – which is about when the stress hormone cortisol reaches its peak – they were asked to recall whichever items they weren’t tested on in their first test.

And to see what performance would look like when not stressed, the other 60 participants took the same memory tests, also at 5 and 25 minutes, but while completing a non-stressful task.

What happened?

As you can imagine, stress did have an effect on memory – but only for those who studied in the traditional way.

The study group did indeed do worse on the memory test when stressed (7 items recalled when stressed vs. 8.7 items recalled when not stressed). But the participants who engaged in retrieval practice, seemed unaffected by stress. Their performance under stress (11.1 items recalled) was essentially indistinguishable from their fellow retrieval practicers who were not stressed (10.3 items recalled).

Even more impressive, the participants in the retrieval group who took the test while stressed (11.1) outperformed the participants in the study group who took the test while not stressed (8.7).

In other words, the retrieval group who did their recall test in the worst-case scenario, outperformed the study group which did their recall test in the best-case scenario.

How did this happen?

The authors cite a convergence of research, from neuroscience to cognitive theory, noting that retrieval practice seems to strengthen memory by creating multiple pathways to retrieval. Sort of like if Hansel and Gretel had left not just a trail of breadcrumbs, but also a trail of pebbles, a string tied to a tree at the entry of the forest, and used a map and GPS too.

The idea being, more retrieval attempts results in a greater number of distinct ways to access the same information.

What does retrieval practice look like for musicians?

Sure, we could all probably do more run-throughs, record ourselves more often, and so on. But I think retrieval practice could also represent a fundamentally different approach to learning. Where efforts to play from memory are baked into the learning process from the very beginning.

When I was a kid, memory was something I never thought about until I had gotten a piece totally learned. I saw it as a task to engage in during the “polishing” stage of learning a piece, to get it ready for performance. But how might our approach change if we saw memorization as an integral part of learning a piece from Day 1? Not as some add-on at the end of the learning process?

I know some musicians who do this. Who spend the first week or so “learning” a piece so that they can play it from memory, however imperfectly and haltingly, from a very early stage. And a 2007 study (download PDF here), which follows a concert pianist as she learns Debussy’s Clair de Lune, found that a deliberate effort was made to emphasize memory from the very beginning, even if it meant “muddling” along in a start-and-stop-and-pause-and-think kind of way at the outset.

This was a completely foreign idea to me, but in light of this study, is starting to make a lot of sense.

So is my daughter really onto something? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, maybe we will have to chill out a bit and let her practice in peace…

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9 Responses

  1. Awesome insights (and an awesome site, by the way). From some time now I’ve experienced how hardship when learning makes every new thing you learn more meaningful to you, and when you reflect upon it later you can see more clearly how this thing relates to everything you’ve learnt in life.

    Thanks for the info!

  2. i think there are a few advantages in starting to memorize a piece of music before it is completely mastered technically.

    1. the sooner you start the memorization process then then the sooner you will have memorized it. not a bad deal!

    2. starting the memorization process early lets you do a form of “interleaved” practice WITHIN the same piece, i.e. practice for technical learning/practice for memorizing. and because it’s all on the same piece, you get a double dose of practice in while at the same time working in an interleaved fashion.

    3. you will have double the amount of “yeast left in the oven” to make it easier to get started in the next practice session.

    i’ve been doing this a little bit, thinking it just kind of felt right. but now, thinking about, it seems to be a very reasonable thing to do.

  3. Great article! I see this with my students as well. But I always warn them, that they have to check in with their music, because I also don’t want them guessing too much too early and learning the piece incorrectly… plus, I also want them to be good readers. This is a really interesting study though, and I think it’s totally true! I recently had to memorize 16 pieces of music… granted, several pieces I’ve been playing for a while (it was for a concert with my electric string trio), but the new ones, I started memorizing them right away – so I actually implemented what this study is talking about! I listened to the original music (we do covers of popular music in string version) and played along over and over again, only occasionally checking in with my music… and it worked! When it came to our performance, I didn’t have memory lapses and I felt that I actually played more musically because I wasn’t reading the music. I think it would actually mess me up to read the music at this point… (I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing though!)

  4. Your article reminded me of a gospel pianist who filled in it at our church many years ago. While we were going over the music for the service he asked me to sing one of the hymns for him since he didn’t know it and couldn’t read music. I sang it. And then he asked me what key I wanted it. So, I told him. He played it perfectly with all the requisite flourishes. The rest of the songs were already in the hymnal he carried in his head.

  5. For me, memorizing the music of the score always came with the practice of it. Sometimes, I would even pretend I was reading the score but I wasn’t. It is a question of energy also I think.
    Other times, I didn’t have to learn the piece or to perform it so it was cool. I could keep the score. That being said, I was able to have the score on stage and to rush or to hesitate so I wasn’t regular with learning pieces by heart. Memorizing is a process that requires energy as much as working on the piece in fact so depending on which energy I had put in playing, I memorized faster. In general, if I put energy in playing and if I focused correctly, I memorized faster.
    But I also sung the piece instead of practicing it. It didn’t necessarily work. When I knew how to do that and knew how to use my energy to do something like that, I wasn’t learning the piece’s fingering by heart but was memorizing the melody. i was able to be a rebel, to do different fingerings, it worked. I played the piece. But you have to be rapid, and you have to really concentrate to do that. I was able to concentrate on my fingerings.
    #focus #energy #sport psychology

  6. Im reading a lot of stuff about how to improve memory. As if recalling memorized facts and figures would have some value in itself. For me it has not. Memory has its value, but only as as a secondary function. Once something is learned in the way that it is fully understood there is no need at all to use any memorization techniques. And this goes for all subjects. A physics formula is understood when the learner understands the principles it reflects. Once that is achieved there is no need at all to memorize it. If forgotten it can easily be recreated . The same is true for music, once it is understood how a certain piece reflects the ideas that form the basis of the piece there is no need to memorize it, one can recreate it on the fly if forgotten.

    Actually this focus on memorization techniques impairs learning since it attempts to short cut the brains ability to recognize patterns and deduct underlying ideas.

  7. In the last three years I’ve learned 50 pieces and I always begin A new piece with memorization. My routine now makes it easy to memorize.

    One of the things I like about this approach is as I continue to master and refine the pieces, I don’t have to worry about remembering it. Yes occasionally I refer to the score, it’s always out for me check if I need to, but having a piece already memorized makes refining technique and/or musicality some much easier and gratifying as well. Also, I like to focus on one thing at a time. So, for instance if I’m focusing on melodic contour, I’m not distracted by memory lapses.

  8. The Suzuki method uses memorization “from Day 1” especially in young children. I believe he speaks directly about memorization in his book Nurtured by Love. It is a fascinating process to watch and, I think, not needing to read music makes performance possible at a younger age or to students who may have other visual/reading issues.

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