Monday, February 21, 2011

Memorization as an Emotional Place

Stone Corridor under Sky (painting) and Corridor (poem)
Image by faith goble
Joshua Foer's Secrets of a Mind-Gamer in the February 15th New York Times looks at the secrets of memory champions and how someone with an only average memory is able to achieve transhuman mnemonic feats at the World Memory Championships. Foer's secret lay in the memory palace technique:
The answer lies in a discovery supposedly made by the poet Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C. After a tragic banquet-hall collapse, of which he was the sole survivor, Simonides was asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris. When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory. He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.
Since reading the article, I've been fascinated by how this type of memory process might be applied to music. Much of the pedagogical thinking on musical memory these days relies on an individual confluence of different sense modalities, ie. visual, aural, tactile/kinesthetic, and intellectual. I once heard one teacher explain the method of finding one's correct pathway to musical memorization by comparing it to setting your PIN at the bank - find your own individual combination of these four modalities that you need to be able to retrieve at will. I agree with this metaphor and use it in my own teaching.

Yet the way mnemonic athletes like Joshua Foer are able to remember massive amounts of information in a short period of time relies on more of a three-dimensional model of memory than a linear one. The experience of walking through an imaginary edifice with encoded images is what triggers the memories. Can this be applied to musical memorization? Should we think of a musical work as a building?


What I find missing in the traditional modality method of musical memory is any sort of emotional component. Perhaps thinking through more actor-related concepts of memory can help us construct a more emotionally engaged pathway through a work:
  • Where does the work start emotionally?
  • Does it have a physical place?
  • Is there a protagonist?
  • What do they do through the work?
  • How do they change through the work?
  • What is the work's emotional journey?
  • Where does it end?
  • What are your favorite parts?
  • What is the emotional high point of the work?
These questions might be familiar to those who have taken acting courses or have worked with a theater director (take a look at Rena Sharon's basic song-interpretation questions featured in Some Ideas on How to Learn a Song or Aria - many singers and pianists use lists such as these when learning vocal music). If we have an emotional pathway through a work of music, this route can be one of the modalities that we memorize. Emotions, be they pleasant or painful, tend to reside in the body. If these emotions are mapped out through the learning process, they can be recalled just like any other sense-related modality, much like retracing steps through a familiar building. Furthermore, this type of memorization can be valid for any instrument and at any level

Are there any particular techniques you use when memorizing music? How do you teach memorization in your studio?

1 comment:

  1. Alice9:43 PM

    Very intriguing - I'd love to hear how someone could actually apply this, especially to a more abstract kind of piece.