If you have read The Exceptional Memory Lie People Like To Believe, then you know that having an incredible memory is not necessary in order to really succeed in reading music.
Some folks have better memories than others. It’s not because they were born that way, it is something they have developed over time.
A good memory is not something we are born with naturally. We have to develop it through persistent practice over time.
There are many ways we can go about doing this, but music just happens to be a great way to extend your memory capacities in the brain.
Your Short-Term Memory
On average, everyone can hold only about seven items in our short-term memory. This is the part of your memory that holds information only briefly, and if distracted, is subject to forgetting what we were trying to remember very easily.
Have you ever started searching for your keys, then someone asks you a question, you answer it, and finally you’re left wondering what you were looking for in the first place? Yep, this has happened to me too.
Our short-term memories are pretty fragile, so we have to find a way to get that information to our long-term memories as quickly as possible.
Professional Musicians are Special…Okay, Not Really
What allows top performers to remember things more effortlessly is not the size of their memory bank (their short-term memory can only hold seven items also), but on what they do with those items to move them quickly into their long-term memory.
In other words, they have learned the art of “chunking.” This explains why they seem to remember things a lot easier than most people.
Just Chunk It
Information is organized into groups in order to bring meaning and send it to the long-term memory bank of knowledge.
An example of how we do this every day is with phone numbers. We could read a phone number like this and try to remember it: 7645378231
Or, we could group the numbers together and be able to remember it a lot easier: 764-537-8231
How the Professionals Chunk It
The difference between professional and mediocre musicians is that they are able to create larger “chunks” of specific information for faster recall.
In other words, they can see the big picture (a complete measure, line, or the full page of music at once), rather than individual notes.
Instead of looking at 16 different notes, they may see just 2-4 groups of notes. These note “chunks” represent units of knowledge that have meaning to the musician.
Wouldn’t those groups be a lot easier to remember creating a faster reaction time during reading?
Top performing musicians also have a deep understanding of music which gives them a structure for remembering and retrieving this information when needed while reading.
A retrieval structure is a way of connecting the notes and symbols on the page to concepts you are already know and understand.
Create Some Short-Cuts
Focused practice will ultimately help you develop a special skill for getting information into your long-term memory and allowing for quick use when you are reading music.
I like to call this taking music reading short-cuts.
Ultimately, they are not really short-cuts since a lot of knowledge is needed in the first place. However, once knowledge is acquired and remembered, recalling it can help you see things differently.
This provides many different ways of reading and playing that are much faster. Think of this as speed-reading for musicians.
How To Build Your Own Incredible Memory
1. Learn music theory. Understanding what the music means on the page will help you build your knowledge base for quick retrieval when reading music.
2. Work on your problem areas. Decide what is holding you back from reading music well.
- If it is note-reading, get yourself some flashcards.
- For rhythm, work through examples writing the counting in underneath.
3. Practice seeing more than one note at a time when reading. Open up your vision to see 2-3 notes, a full measure, a line, and eventually the whole page. Know what the outline and scope of the music is before playing.
4. Look for chunks. Find groups of notes that have meaning to you. An eighth note – quarter note – eighth note = syncopation. This is one great example of chunking.
Are there measures that repeat exactly several times in your music? Take advantage of that knowledge and only practice them once.
Once you start seeing things different through groups or “chunks,” you will be able to remember more. With enough practice, everything in your short-term memory will move to your long-term memory.
When you are finally able to store enough musical knowledge in your long-term memory, you will notice how quickly you are able to recall the information when needed and be able to play music much faster and easier.