I know the feeling. Reading music didn’t come easy for me either.
There is an enormous amount of information in the music world that can get very overwhelming at times. The fact that many concepts and ideas go by more than one musical term makes it all the more frustrating. How does anyone ever remember all this stuff?
The Truth About Your Memory
No one is born with an exceptional memory. Your memory capabilities are learned over time. This is true for all human beings.
We all have to continually work on improving our memory skills. No one is really any different in this matter.
The problem is that we assume that some of our top musicians have staggering memories. Some may do, but most do not. Those that do have a good memory simply learned how to expand it over time.
Researchers have clearly discovered that our memory ability is acquired. It is not something we are born with naturally. In fact, a better memory can be easily developed by anyone!
How to Improve Your Memory
On average, everyone can hold only about seven items in their short-term memory. This is the part of our memory that holds information only briefly. If by chance you happen to get distracted, what is in your short-term becomes subject to forgetting what you were trying to remember in the first place!
It’s a tricky place for trying to hold information for very long.
What allows top performers to remember things more effortlessly is not the size of their memory storage, but on what they do with those items in order to move them quickly into their long-term memory.
Once something is finally moved to long-term memory, it is there forever and can be retrieved over and over again.
The answer to this interesting phenomenon is what’s called “chunking”. Information is organized into groups in order to bring meaning and send it to the long-term memory bank of knowledge.
Isn’t that the goal? To acquire as much knowledge as possible for quick retrieval and faster reaction time when reading music?
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 a full measure, a complete line, or a full page of music all at once.
Reading every single note and music symbol individually slows you down too much. Instead of looking at 16 different notes, the best musicians may see just 2-4 groups of notes.
These note “chunks” represent units of knowledge that have meaning to the musician. Wouldn’t reading groups of notes be a lot easier to remember and faster to recall rather than each individual note?
In order for “chunking” to work well, you do need to have a deep understanding of musical symbols first. Otherwise, your reaction time while playing your instrument will still be pretty slow.
This knowledge provides the structure for remembering and retrieving information 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.
How to “Chunk”
In order to create your own successful retrieval structure using the “chunking” method, try practicing these music reading techniques away from your instrument:
1) Read a group of notes at once. Scan 3-5 notes from left to right and don’t allow your eye to fixate on any one for too long. Now try to recall their names. Do any of them happen to spell a word or remind you of something?
2) Look at a full line of music and trace the landscape of the notes with your eye. Are the notes primarily moving up or down? Is it mostly steps or by skips?
3) Now look at the entire page. Notice the larger symbols such as dynamics, instructional signs (D.C. al fine, etc.), and repeats. What do you expect to happen?
4) Find rhythmic groupings. Things like syncopation are much easier to read as a one unit rather than as separate notes.
Getting familiar with these “units of knowledge” will help you read and understand your music a lot faster when you do play with your instrument.
Already Occurring Chunking
Music is already organized into groups for easier reading. Pay attention to this and use it to your advantage.
For example, notes are grouped by a certain number of beats in each measure. The key signature always details the sharps or flats of a piece in the same exact order. Eighth notes and sixteenth notes are usually barred together a certain way for your eye to detect quickly.
Think through other already occurring chunking happening right in your music and use it to advance your brain’s memory structure.
The Big Picture
By seeing the entire picture and not focusing only on separate units of notes and symbols, you will be able to bring more meaning to what you are seeing and send it to your long-term memory a little faster.
The more you do this, the better your memory capacity will get over time.
Start looking for chunks by finding as many relationships between the notes and patterns as possible. What once may have looked impossible for you to read may now seem quite a bit easier!