As much as I enjoy a tidy, nicely-made bed, actually making the darn thing every morning is one of those activities in life that often feels like a questionable use of time. I mean, it’s going to get unmade anyway the next evening, right?
Socks (or more accurately, their seeming proclivity for ditching their partners) are another time-sucking black hole in our lives1.
Not all shortcuts are better, of course. But spending more time on something than is necessary does seems like a waste, when there are so many other meaningful and interesting outlets for our time and energy. So whenever it’s possible to do more in less time, with less effort, I get really excited. 🤪
Which brings us to memorization. Which is probably everyone’s least favorite thing to do ever. But also one of many musicians’ biggest sources of worry and anxiety.
Effectiveness vs. efficiency
Usually, when we ask questions about memorization, it’s oriented around the issue of effectiveness. As in, what memorization strategy will result in the most durable memory, abolishing memory slips forevermore? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a 100% guaranteed memory-slip-proof system quite yet, but there is another question regarding memory that we probably ought to be asking as well. And that’s the question of efficiency. As in, what strategy will help us memorize music most quickly?
Obviously, we’d prefer a strategy that is both efficient and effective, but an effective strategy that takes forever isn’t much good to us either.
In a study of pianists (Williamon & Valentine, 2000) working on the Bach D minor Prelude and Fugue , for instance, it took an average of ~14 hours to memorize the piece – but some pianists memorized the piece in less than 10 hours, while others needed almost 20 hours.
That’s a pretty big difference.
So are some people just born better at memorizing than others? Or are the fastest memorizers simply doing something different than the slower folks?
Four memory strategies
Researcher (and violist) Jennifer Mishra recruited 60 university-level instrumentalists (2002) and asked them to memorize a short 36-measure exercise, taking however much time they needed.
Then, she selected the four fastest memorizers (8.66 to 17 minutes), and the four slowest memorizers (66.83 to 100 minutes), all of whom were able to successfully play the exercise from memory, and analyzed how they approached the task.
It turned out that the musicians used four basic strategies. She called these strategies Holistic, Additive, Segmented, and Serial, and found that the fastest memorizers relied more on the Holistic and Additive strategies, while the slowest memorizers tended to use the Segmented and Serial strategies.
And what do these strategies look like, exactly?
- Holistic = starting at the beginning and playing straight through to the end, backtracking only a tiny bit if you make a mistake or have a memory slip
- Additive = starting at the beginning and memorizing an initial segment of the piece, then progressively adding a little more music to the first bit, until the initial segment grows larger and larger and eventually contains the whole piece.
- Segmented = breaking the whole piece into chunks, memorizing the chunks in isolation, and then trying to link the chunks together into a whole
- Serial = starting at the beginning and playing until you make a mistake, at which point you rewind back to the beginning and give it another go, hoping that you can get further the next time.
Putting the strategies to the test
Very intriguing of course, but from this data alone, it’s not really clear if the faster memorizers were faster because of their use of these strategies, or if it was just because they were better memorizers to begin with. So Mishra ran another study (2011) to systematically test the effectiveness of these four strategies.
Forty music education majors were asked to memorize a 16-measure exercise, and randomly assigned to one of four groups. One group used the Holistic strategy. The second group used the Segmented strategy. The third group used the Serial strategy. And the final group used the Additive strategy.
Once the participants were able to successfully perform the 16-bar exercise without any memory errors, they were put through a 5-minute distraction task designed to encourage a bit of forgetting.
Then, they were asked to perform the 16-bar passage again, to see how much of the music they could still recall and successfully play from memory.
Any guesses as to which strategy was the most efficient?
Memorization strategy deathmatch!
It’s important to remember that a short 16-measure exercise and a Bach cello suite or complete concerto are two very different things. And memorizing something in the short-term, and being able to recall it perfectly under pressure after more than just a 5-minute break is quite a different challenge as well.
Nevertheless, the study suggests that some strategies do seem to be more efficient than others.
The Holistic strategy led the pack with an average memorization time of 39.2 minutes. Which was significantly faster than the Segmented strategy (58.49 minutes) and Serial strategy (58.53 minutes). If you were pulling for the Additive strategy, that seemed to work pretty well too (46.39 minutes).
Speed vs. quality?
Of course, memorizing music isn’t a race, and the point is to maximize the durability of our memory, so as to prevent memory slips in the future. So while the Segmented and Serial strategies may have taken longer, could the extra time have been worth it? Like, maybe they made fewer errors on the final run-through, even though it did take them longer to get the music memorized?
Well, as it turns out, maybe not so much? All four groups made a comparable number of mistakes when trying to play the passage from memory after the 5-minute break, and neither the Segmented or Serial groups displayed any advantage from the extra time they spent memorizing the passage2.
It’s possible that the results could have shifted if the musicians were tested again a day or week later, but at least in the short-term, with a relatively short chunk of music, the Holistic strategy seems to be the most efficient of the four strategies.
You can read the complete paper here for more nuances and insight about the memorization process, but for me, the two big takeaways are:
(1) Encourage students to play through larger, meaningful sections of a piece so they can get a sense of the overall structure and how things fit together (Holistic), rather than stopping and circling all the way back to the beginning every time they run into a snag (Serial).
(2) Memorization should be an active process. Simply engaging in mindless repetition of a chunk of music over and over hoping that it will stick, is not an especially efficient or effective way of committing music to memory. So if a student is going to memorize a piece in chunks (Segmented), it’s probably worth taking the time to identify chunks that are musically and structurally meaningful – not just some arbitrary 2-bar or 5-bar block of notes.
And if you’re an educator…
Have you ever wondered why some students are happy enough to play their instrument…but seem to be allergic to practicing? Or why some students practice diligently, but can’t seem to transfer what you hear in lessons to the stage?
I was both of those students growing up. In that I felt a lot of resistance towards practicing for the first 20 or so years of my musical life. And inconsistent, hit-or-miss performances and auditions were pretty much the norm too.
It really wasn’t until I started learning about performance psych and incorporating changes in my daily practice like the memorization “hack” in today’s post, that practicing started to become interesting. Rewarding. Even borderline fun. Because I started to see tangible results on a day-to-day basis. Which was a huge boost to my confidence. Which in turn made me want to practice more, crazy as that sounds, given my past history of practice-avoidance.
All this to say, if you have students who struggle with practice motivation, experience distressing levels of anxiety around performing, and get discouraged with how they sound on stage, it may not be that these students are unmotivated or uncommitted. It might just be that practicing and performing makes them feel kind of crummy. 😥
A community that can relate
If adding a few new tools to your teaching toolbox, while connecting with a community of thoughtful, curious, like-minded educators to share notes on how to make these techniques work for students at all ages and levels of ability sounds like it’d be a fun thing to do this summer, you may be interested in the live online 5-session Performance Psych Essentials class starting next week.
In addition to live Zoom sessions where we’ll explore effective practice skills and strategies for managing nerves and getting into the zone, there will be worksheets and activities to try, small and large group mastermind sessions, and Q&A’s – all spread out in a manageable sort of way, so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.
Teachers who have participated in this class have reported seeing some really gratifying changes in students. If you’re a tiny bit intrigued, you can see what they’re saying, and get all the dates and details here.
Registration begins today (7/10), and runs through Sunday, July 17th at midnight.
A version of this article was originally posted on 05.24.2015; reposted on 07.10.2022.
Mishra, J. (2002). A Qualitative Analysis of Strategies Employed in Efficient and Inefficient Memorization. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 152, 74–86. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40319128
Mishra, J. (2011). Influence of Strategy on Memorization Efficiency. Music Performance Research 4, 60-71.
Williamon, A., & Valentine, E. (2000). Quantity and quality of musical practice as predictors of performance quality. British Journal of Psychology, 91(3), 353–376. https://doi.org/10.1348/000712600161871
- Simplify your life one sock at a time
- Holistic=3.0 mistakes; Segmented=2.75 mistakes; Serial=5.14 mistakes; Additive=3.1 mistakes