Memorising music

Helping pupils learn pieces aurally and recall them

The importance of memory to blind musicians

  • People who can see typically rely on visual prompts to help them remember things: writing down a phone number, for example, making a shopping list, consulting a map, keeping a diary. None of these things is convenient for blind people, however, and so memory assumes a greater importance in everyday life – even down to such mundane things as remembering where one put one’s keys or a cup of tea down. With sight, these things are trivial, since vision offers a constant source of reinforcement as to where things are and permits quick scanning of the environment to find them. For blind people, searching is a far more painstaking process, and losing things can be a frequent source of frustration.
  • Comparable issues pertaining to the importance of memory are to be found with blind people’s engagement in music-making. Even the system of notation that exists in Braille is actually an aide mémoire rather than a scheme that enables instructions for singing or playing to be scrutinised as performance occurs, since (with one or two exceptions, such as the trumpet), it’s impossible to read the music and play simultaneously. Even when singing, since text and notes are written on different lines, and as only one of these can be scanned by the fingers at once, performers have to choose between memorising the words and reading the music, or memorising the music and reading the words.

Memory can be improved with practice

  • The more a child memorises music, the better they are likely to get at it as, consciously or intuitively, they will learn and use strategies to make the task easier. How can the process of memorising things be made more efficient? By searching for rules and patterns, and – in the case of music – by hearing groups of notes as forming larger clusters in sound. An expert listener hears the big picture at the same time as taking in the detail. Teachers can assist in this process by pointing out that one passage is the same as another, or a transformed version of it (through transposition, for example, or similar to another, given certain modifications).
  • Moreover, connections between pieces can be highlighted. Compositions in a particular style tend to use material from a common stock. So, learning a new piece becomes a matter of hearing it in the context of the familiar.

Playing or singing from memory is a good thing

  • Since playing or singing from memory necessarily means the child having to internalise a piece of music, it enables them to focus more quickly on what they wish to convey through their performance, and how different forms of expression will be brought to bear to communicate with their audience.
  • Memorising music is an important step on the road to being able to play by ear and improvise fluently, since both these skills rely on the internalised models of musical structure that memories of pieces provide.

All the children in the films have memorised the music that we hear them play or sing. It is quite simply a natural part of the way they engage with music, whether it is Aizah, just setting out on her musical journey, playing Twinkle, Twinkle Aizah's Story @ 02:59 or Ashleigh, with a panoply of advanced musical skills, giving her rendition of Rachmaninoff’s C sharp minor prelude Ashleigh's Story @ 07:18.

In Eleanor’s story, we see her teacher, Alice, helping her to memorise a piece Eleanor's Story @ 03:30. Alice sings and plays one short phrase at a time, and then asks Eleanor to repeat it. This technique relies on Alice’s ability to break a melody up into manageable chunks, and on Eleanor’s capacity to listen and memorise what she hears. Note that this way of learning is in any case well established among singers from many different cultures, since most vocal soloists perform without reference to sheet music.

In common with other methods of helping pupils remember rhythms in different cultures, from the Suzuki approach for beginners in Western classical music to Konnakol (the art of performing percussion syllables vocally in the south-Indian Carnatic music), Dave assists his students, including Nafis, by introducing them to the ‘drinks cabinet’, which contains (occasionally humorous) items such as ‘apple juice’ and ‘Coca-Cola’ – each creating a distinct rhythm as it is enunciated. This approach is particularly helpful for a blind student such as Nafis, who does not use music notation, and for whom, therefore, aids to learning and remembering are all the more important. Nafis's Story @ 01:30.

In Lucy’s story, we see how Daniel ensures that she knows how a new piece of music sounds by playing it to her all the way through before she attempts to memorise it. Lucy's Story @ 02:06.This is important as Lucy learns entirely by ear, and to remember pieces accurately, it will help her to know how all the parts that she will subsequently hear and practise separately fit into a whole. Making sure that a child has a piece of music in their head (either through performing it to them or listening to a recording of it with them) before they attempt to play it on an instrument can be a supportive strategy in the early stages of instrumental learning.

In Ashleigh’s story Ashleigh's Story, we see how she is still acquiring new repertoire largely by ear, although she has started to learn how to read and write music in Braille. Adam helps her learn new pieces by playing a bar or two at a time (depending on its complexity) and having Ashleigh play it back. Because Ashleigh has highly refined aural abilities, it is not necessary for Adam to play with hands separately (unless there is some ambiguity as to which note is taken in which hand). With other pupils, a more piecemeal approach may be required, whereby chords are broken down and played note by note, for example. Similarly, Adam slows down fast music to facilitate learning, and uses recordings where appropriate. He makes practice recordings for Ashleigh that include a verbal commentary to supplement the purely musical information that his playing provides. This commentary includes precise descriptions of expression and articulation marks that are in the score and fingering. He deconstructs large chords or complex textures for the sake of clarity. He sings fingering at the same time as notes are played. Difficult passages are repeated. For other pupils who do not have perfect pitch, teachers can sing the names of the notes. Working in this way demands two things on a teacher’s part: the ability to play precisely what is written in the score (which may require careful preparation), and good aural skills to ensure that pupils reproduce exactly what is played to them. Working on two keyboards makes it easier to build up momentum in the teaching and learning process, without the need for teacher and pupil to be constantly changing places.