But isn’t it frustrating when we keep forgetting things that we want to remember and yet we can’t forget unimportant matters from our past.
So why do our brains forget? And more importantly, how can we teach our minds and the minds of our music students to remember the important things?
Our brains processes information via our senses. Specific to learning music, we learn by sight, sound and touch. (I don’t ever remember using taste or smell in a musical context but I’m sure there are eccentric musicians out there who would beg to differ!!!)
The Arrival Lounge: Short-Term Memory
Sensory information first enters the short-term memory. Shockingly, scientists have worked out that data in this phase lasts a mere 20-30 seconds! Like the RAM in your computer, the short-term memory is just a temporary holding area designed to be flushed out once it has served it’s purpose. How frustrating, just seconds after being introduced to a new person, we can’t remember their name! That’s the short-term memory at work. The short-term memory acts as a highly efficient, automated service to protect the long-term memory being clogged up with superfluous information. So how does select information pass into the long-term memory (like the hard drive of a computer)? Three main ways…
The stronger our senses are stimulated, the more impact it will have on our long-term memory. That is why humans rarely forget out of the ordinary, meaningful or traumatic experiences in their past.
Repeating information over and over in our minds has the affect of gradually securing its long term future. It is very much like using a hammer repeatedly to tap in a nail until it is firmly secured into the wood. Like me, maybe you learn a new acquaintance’s name my repeating it immediately over and over in your conversation with them, or at least silently in your head.
The brain thrives on order and logic. Consciously and sub-consciously we are constantly looking for patterns and explanations in our lives. For example, composers use structure in music to organise their musical ideas in a meaningful way. When we learn new information our brain tries to make sense of it by simplifying it and fitting it into what we already know. Like picking up a jigsaw piece and finding where it goes in the existing solved puzzle, so the brain needs to find a method of making new information fit into the bigger picture.
Now we’ve unlocked the secret as to why we forget and remember, how can we as learners and teachers successfully use this knowledge in a practical way to improve memory retention?
Time for a Little Example: PRS
So I want to remember the above methods of memory retention to use in my lessons. Let’s see if I can think of a way of remembering the main points. I know! In the UK we have a music royalty collection company called PRS (Performing Rights Society). Maybe that will help me remember Pattern, Repetition and Stimulus (PRS). Now I have a pattern, I must keep repeating the meaning of PRS over the next few minutes and days to secure the concepts and if I share this information with students and parents in this weeks lessons, this will stimulate greater impact of the information on my senses.
How does what we now know about memory change the way we teach? How can you help that student who can’t remember how to play a certain chord? How can the long-term memory aid reading at first sight? What approach to teaching a new scale could you adopt to help your pupil remember it quickly and effectively? What suggestions can you give to help them memorise the piece they are playing in a performance? How will they ever be able to remember the major and minor keys and other theoretical matters?
Let me leave you thinking about this! Feel free to leave your suggestions as comments and maybe I can quote some of your ideas in my next “Learning to Learn” article in December where I want to focus on some practical teaching applications of PRS…