Wish You Could Memorize Better? Why a Little Bit of “Verbalization” Might Be the Missing Ingredient


Let’s try a little mental memory challenge. Read the following letters to yourself, slowly: NCTECOOVD

Now, close your eyes, and see how many you can recall.

Maybe a handful?

Now read through the same letters, just organized differently: OCTNOVDEC

Easier, no?

It’s not like you became a better memorizer in the last few seconds – you simply recognized a familiar pattern in the second grouping of letters that made recall way easier.

Indeed, researchers have long recognized that identifying patterns and structure is a key ingredient in being better at memorization.

A famous chess study, for instance, found that when briefly shown images of chess positions for a few seconds, and then asked to recreate the position of all the pieces on the board, an expert chess player demonstrated much better recall than a novice and amateur player. However, when the pieces were “scrambled,” and placed in positions that would be unlikely (or impossible) in a real game, the expert was no better than the novice and amateur at recreating the placement of chess pieces.

Is it possible that the same could be true for memorizing music as well? That great memorizers don’t necessarily have inherently better memory, but are simply more effective at identifying patterns and structure among the notes on the page?

A memorization study

A pair of Indiana University researchers (Timperman & Miksza, 2017) recruited twenty violinists and violists for a memorization study.

To make things fair, they gave everyone the same task – to memorize a short 18-measure etude. The etude was sight-readable and not too technically demanding – but it was complex and long enough that it would take some deliberate effort to commit it to memory.

So then the musicians were split up into two groups, each with a different approach to memorization.

Rote memorization vs. repetition and analysis

One group of musicians (the repetition-only group) was simply asked to play through the etude 10 times. And then, after a 30-second break, the music was taken away, and they were asked to play as much of the etude as they could, from memory.

The other group of musicians (the repetition+analysis group), was also asked to play the etude 10 times, but then they were given 6 minutes to complete a written worksheet with prompts about the etude’s musical character, and its harmonic, structural, and rhythmic features. After completing this brief written analysis, or “verbalization,” the score was taken away, and they were asked to play the etude from memory just like the other group.

So did this little 6-min speed-analysis exercise lead to better recall?

Initial results…

Nope, not really!

The repetition+analysis group did manage to recall slightly more of the etude than the repetition-only group – 49% vs. 43% – but this difference was not statistically significant.

So at first glance, regular ‘ol memorization through repetition appears to work just fine. And the extra 6 minutes of score-study and analysis was perhaps a waste of time.

But then again, what really counts is not how much you remember today, but how much you remember tomorrow, right?

24 hours later…

So to gauge the impact of score-study/analysis on longer-term learning, participants were asked to return 24 hours later to see how much of the etude they still could play from memory.

And this time, wouldn’t you know it, there was a significant difference between the two groups.

While the repetition+analysis group still remembered a respectable 38% of the etude, the repetition-only group managed to recall just 18% of the etude.

So a little bit of written analysis or “verbalization” does make a difference! So what was on this score-study worksheet that made such a big difference in their memory?

What was on the worksheet???

Here are the prompts that the researchers asked the musicians to respond to:

Please provide the information requested below.

  • Discuss the musical character of the etude:
  • Discuss the musical high points:
  • Discuss characteristic phrase structures of this etude:
  • Discuss characteristic rhythmic motives of this etude:
  • What keys or tonal centers are present in this etude:

Narrative analysis

  • Please provide a detailed analysis of the etude beginning in measure 1 and working to the end:

So what are the main takeaways from all of this?

Takeaways

Takeaway #1: Look for patterns

Sitting through hours of private theory lessons, pre-college classes, and theory courses in school, I often wondered why I needed to know anything about inversions, cadences, or the difference between a half-diminished and fully-diminished seventh chord.

Well, as it turns out, it’s not just something schools make you take so they can fill out your course schedule. It’s about picking up some tools that help us better see the underlying structure and form and patterns that make music work. (And if you missed the podcast episode with my college music theory teacher Brian Alegant and violist Molly Gebrian a few months back, check it out here. Turns out music theory doesn’t have to be as dry and dull as we tend to think it is.)

Where the more of a piece’s building blocks you can discern and appreciate, the less arbitrary and note-y it will probably seem in your head. And the easier it will be to “chunk” it all into memory.

Takeaway #2: Use your words!

Leon Fleisher once asked a chamber music group to describe what they were trying to convey in a particular passage. And when they offered only a general, vague description of the character of the passage (“happy”), he pushed them to elaborate on the description, and give it much more specificity and vividness.

He explained that if you can’t verbally articulate what you’re going for, it’s a sign that you don’t have a clear enough idea of what you want. And if you don’t know what you want, you’re probably not going to get it.

Indeed, the process of crystalizing abstract thoughts into words certainly seems to be a vital part of developing the character of a piece. But the IU study also speaks to the role of verbalization in memory too, and illustrates, in the words of the researchers, “the importance of developing a conceptual understanding of to-be-learned music and not relying on procedural memory alone to give memorized performances.” (emphasis mine).

Take action

Working on a new piece that isn’t quite memorized yet? Try whip out a blank sheet of paper, open up your score, set a timer perhaps to keep you from spending too much time on this in one sitting, and jot down some answers to the same prompts above that the students in this study used. See if that forces your brain to work a little harder – and leads to better recall as you deepen your knowledge of the piece beyond “muscle memory” alone.

Not exactly a theory wiz? That’s ok – I think it’s still worth giving it a shot. Watch this entertaining TED talk , where Ben Zander deconstructs a Chopin Prelude for a non-musical audience, which illustrates how even a very basic outline of a piece’s structure can make it more meaningful to both performer and listener.

And if one of the authors’ names sounded familiar, it’s because Peter Miksza’s research has come up a couple times here on the blog before (like this post on practice strategies to accelerate learning). He was one of my very first podcast interviews too, which you can check out here (we chat about the value of informal vs. deliberate practice, improvisation, and more).

A version of this article was originally published on 10.29.2017; revised and updated on 9.11.2022.


References

Timperman, E., & Miksza, P. (2017, August 21). Verbalization and musical memory in string players. Musicae Scientiae, 23(2), 212–230. https://doi.org/10.1177/1029864917727332

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