Memory Palaces and Music

by Thomas Brett

“A memory consists in the awareness, first, of the diminished intensity of an impression, second, of its increased ease, and third, of the connections it entertains with other impressions” – Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p.31.

In the New York Times Magazine this past weekend there was a fascinating article by Joshua Foer on “memory athletes” — a strange breed of person who is capable of (and interested in) quickly memorizing huge quantities of information.  In the article, Foer learns how to train his own memory and ends up competing in (and winning!) a national memory competition.

One of the key techniques used by memory athletes is a trick that dates back to Simonides of Ceos, a poet of ancient Greece.  The technique is called “method of loci” or the “memory palace.”  The idea is to visualize a mental walk through a place you know well–like a room in your house–which you can fill with objects (or people), each of which represents one of the items you’re trying to memorize (a number, say).  Once you’ve made the associations, remembering your items is then a matter of re-visualizing the space–playing it back in your mind’s eye– and observing its contents.  Foer elaborates on how modern-day memory athletes use the memory palace technique:

“Memory palaces don’t have to be palatial — or even actual buildings.  They can be routes through a town or signs of the zodiac or even mythical creatures.  They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as they are intimately familiar.  The four-time U.S. memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts to help him memorize the entire 57,000-word Oxford English-Chinese dictionary.  In the 15th century, an Italian jurist named Peter of Ravenna is said to have used thousands of memory palaces to store quotations on every important subject, classified alphabetically. When he wished to expound on a given topic, he simply reached into the relevant chamber and pulled out the source.”

This idea of remembering one thing by using a spatial mnemonic technique that places it somewhere else has me thinking about how musicians memorize vast quantities of music. One way you do it is through sheer repetition of practice: playing a phrase over and over again until you can “chunk” all of its notes into one block in your memory.  Musicians who play traditional instruments also have some spatial experience built into the very experience of playing.  For instance, a pianist, a drum set player, or a violinist all have to negotiate their instruments in terms of particular “pathways” to make sure their fingers travel the right routes to make the required sounds.  In the case of the drummers, they need to trace a pattern in space around a collection of instruments as well as between their four limbs to produce the required rhythm.  Finally, instrumentalists who play melodic instruments have melody itself as a guide to help them remember a sequence of notes.  (I bet melodies help us remember words too…)

I don’t have extensive experience memorizing music, but during college I did spend many hours memorizing marimba pieces, in part because I couldn’t read the marimba scores fluidly enough to not impede my playing.  Reading Foer’s article reminded me of how important muscle memory was to my musical memory.  A marimba, for those of you unfamiliar with the percussion world, is like a giant xylophone, with a keyboard layout just like a piano.  One usually plays with marimba with four mallets, and it takes some dexterity to manipulate what are essentially four giant mallet appendages jutting out of one’s hands at awkward angles.  Learning marimba pieces often involved breaking them down into small sections, each section in turn comprising a sequence of hand movements over the terrain of the marimba.  This memorization work had to be done methodically and at very slow tempos to commit the note sequences to memory.  While I didn’t use memory palaces in terms of visualizing specific spaces in which to store the notes I wanted to memorize, I did visualize sections of music in vague bodily terms.  Entire sections could be “cued” in memory just by a sticking pattern or the shape of my hands at a particular register of the instrument.  It seemed to be mostly a matter of body knowledge–knowing by feel–and to this day I’m not entirely sure how it works, only that, in music at least, remembering involves some kind of interaction between listening, muscle memory, and anticipating or “pre-hearing” in ones’ mind’s ear what hasn’t even happened yet.  This last point is perhaps the most interesting part about music, for it is, as musicologist David Burrows once put it, a curious perceptual phenomenon: music is time-bound and thus continually exists in a liminal space of the Now, on the leading edge of its own absence.  In other words, as soon as you hear a note, it is gone and you’re onto the next one.

So my goal in memorizing music was always the same: to be able to play the piece fluidly at speed without needing to “think” about it.  Memorization was key because in performance there was little to no time to think about where one was going next.  Musical experience is all about the Now, and so the notes had to come automatically to me so as to not derail the flow.

Joshua’s Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything comes out next month.

The Kittler epigraph to this blog post comes courtesy of Erin Mizrahi’s interesting blog post on memory palaces.

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