The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Memorization & Working Memory





WARNING:  This post includes a good quantity of amateur neruoscience.  Proceed with caution.


I’d like to explain a bit about how my memorization technique works.


When I was first doing a lot of memorization (before I had developed the technique), I noticed that I could often play a passage from memory after only a few repetitions attempting to memorize it.  The thing was, I could usually only successfully play it from memory once or maybe twice that way, and when I came back to it the next day, I had to start completely over again.  It seemed like there was some sort of shallow or short-term memory at work.


Years later, I learned that particular kind of short-term memory has a name: working memory.  It’s kind of like the clipboard function on your computer—your brain is capable of remembering a certain amount of information right at the front of your brain for the period of time with which you are actively working on it.  But, like the clipboard function when you turn off your computer (i.e. end your practice session), you lose that slate of information.


I developed my memorization method as a means of converting shallow working memory into something deeper, longer-term, and more dependable.  I wanted to be sure the information had passed from my working memory (which is only good for a day or two) into the long-term memory banks of my brain where I could call it up whenever I needed it (i.e. on stage in a month). 


I think the two key processes that effect the conversion from working memory to long-term memory are the close observation of detail (making your memory more specific and full, as opposed to general and shallow) and the isolation of mental practice from physical practice.


So, put on your amateur neuroscientist lab coat, and let’s look at the method from that point of view:

1.   Play your chosen passage through twice, reading the music and observing as much about it as you can (close observation of detail).

2.   Think it through once:  this is working memory in action.  While you are thinking it through, be aware of any information your working memory has missed (Is the last note a B or B-flat?  Is there a dynamic change somewhere?  What about the articulations?)

3.   Play it through once, reading the music.  This is where you fill in the blanks left by your working memory (remember it’s shallow and misses things).

4.   Think it through twice:  by the second time, you will be relying more on a deeper kind of memory than shallow working memory.


The second stage adds in the physical part. By its very nature, physical practice (actually playing the music) will generate muscle memory:  your fingers start to know what notes to play all by themselves. Muscle memory is a great thing, and can be a big help if you get distracted when in performance:  your muscles take over while you are thinking of something else, and, hopefully, the audience is none the wiser.


However, during the process of memorization, muscle memory can be a real problem:  it can create the illusion that you know a passage when, really, only your fingers know it.


I do the mental work first because when performing from memory, it is most effective for information to flow from your brain to your fingers, not vice versa.  Separating mental practice from physical practice bypasses muscle memory and allows you to get the information deep into your brain’s hard drive, where you can call it back when you need it.  Then, in stage two, you take what you learned mentally in stage one, and manifest it physically.  You practice converting knowledge (memory) into action (playing), which further cements your memorization of the piece.  This allows muscle memory to serve as your “backup” in case of emergency.


Photo credit:  Arwen Abendstern

4 Comments to

“Memorization & Working Memory”

  1. On May 30th, 2009 at 2:54 pm Rebecca Says:

    Hi Zara,
    I’m reading your memorization info, and enjoying it.
    Some of it just didn’t make much sense to me. After some research, I figured out that I have an auditory processing disorder, relating to my short term memory. If I hear it, (without any visual or other sensory input to go with), it does NOT go into my short term memory.
    Do you have any references or contacts with regards to auditory/memory disorders, as they apply to learning music- and flute, especially?
    Your blog is great, full of some excellent information. Please keep it up!

  2. On June 1st, 2009 at 6:06 pm admin Says:

    I’m glad you like the blog. I don’t have any particular information about auditory/memory disorders (when I say “amateur neuroscience,” the emphasis really is on “amateur”). I’d be interested to hear more about your experience, though, and maybe we can figure out some strategies for you to try…
    Do you mean that you can’t remember music unless you’ve read it as well as heard it?
    Have you noticed this in other areas of your life–like learning names?
    Are you working now on memorizing a particular piece of music, and have you ever memorized music before?

  3. On June 17th, 2009 at 7:11 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » New Category: Amateur Neuroscience Says:

    [...] of my observations.  For example, in developing my memorization technique, I didn’t know about working memory as a scientific concept.  I merely observed that I could remember a phrase for the duration of a [...]

  4. On November 28th, 2009 at 12:05 pm Rachel Says:

    This was extremely interesting. These were points that I never really thought much about or even really considered learning more about.

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