Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Learning to Remember: Part 1 – Forget Me Not!

PRSLet me come clean with you: I’m an addict! I’m completely addicted to learning!

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?

Input

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…

Stimulus

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.

Repetition

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.

Pattern

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…

See other posts by Reuben Vincent

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!

14 Comments

  1. Robin Steinweg

    Reuben, great article.
    I might avoid creating a traumatic sensory incident in order to secure a place in the long-term memory of a student (ha!), but any time I can use humor, they retain it much more easily. 🙂

  2. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks Robin. Good suggestion about using humour to help memory retention. I’ll use that in the next article if that’s okay with you

  3. Robin Steinweg

    Be my guest, Reuben!

  4. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks Robin

  5. Jean

    Wonderful article! During teaching I try to teach new concepts at least 3 times in 3 different ways. Some ideas: simply explaining the concept, drawing on the book underlining etc., engaging the student – having them read out-loud while I underline the key ideas, playing the piece for the student, having them play parts and showing patterns, pulling up more information on a piece than what is in the book, showing you-tube videos of pieces being performed on different instruments and other arrangements of the same piece, and when ever I have a story to tell I do as that does engage the student. Finally, afterward asking if they understand.

  6. Paul

    These are some really great ideas. In my classroom I use peer teaching. Students who understand concepts more quickly than others get to teach students who are slower. This way the student who is teaching gets the concept reenforced (like you said, sharing the information helps you remember it) and the students receiving instruction get multiple views and explanations of the concept (repetition).
    Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Val Letenyei

    I definitely use the 3 senses as much as possible. Finding patterns in the music and having the student verbalize while reading, circling the skips or keynotes, and finally playing the notes…is a great method. It takes time and the students aren’t always happy about this process but I’ve found that making it a scavenger hunt or using colored hi-liters/markers or sparkly pencils makes it more fun for them. For those (typically boys) who need more encouragement to verbalize the information, I use the phrase “it’s your job to…count the rhythm, clap the rhythm, say the note names…” and they eventually get more comfortable with this process. Building this into their practice routine at home takes consistent reminders but several of my students have seen how successful they are when they follow the steps! And they do memorize very well, almost effortlessly by the time they reach this point. One recent idea that has been a hit has been the “Musical Memory Club”. Kids love to be in clubs and I told my students that when they play a song by memory, they are in the club! When they have 10 songs memorized, they get a special reward. I had to limit most of them to 1 or 2 songs by memory at each lesson and after one month I have a list five pages long of songs that they have memorized! Now I need ideas for the rewards:)

  8. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks Paul. That’s a very interesting way of teaching

  9. Reuben Vincent

    Wow Val! You’re using some very imaginative ideas to help your pupils; sounds like they have lots of fun into the bargain too!

  10. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks Jean; that’s loads of great ideas

  11. Brian Jenkins

    I’ve always been fascinated with memory. As a pianist it is of upmost importance. One of my favorite books on the subject is:

    Your Memory : How it Works and How to Improve It
    http://www.amazon.com/Your-Memory-How-Works-Improve/dp/1569246297/

    The most interesting thing to me is short term memory and how to improve it. Studies show that with very few exceptions people can hold around 7 items in their short term memories. Savants and others that seem to have the fabled yet misnomer “Photographic Memory” almost without exception have the same short term memory capactiy as anyone else. Apparently it depends on what 7 items means to each person. To an experienced musician a chromatic scale going up two octaves is really only one or two items to remember. The note the scale starts on and the note the scale ends on perhaps. Although there 24+ notes, we can identify a pattern and notice it is a scale. This is how musicians like Gieseking were able to memorize an entire concerto away from the piano in just a day. It’s because he had such a deep understanding of music, and was able to see patterns on first glance that would take even very experienced musicians hours of analyzing to reveal.

    Another fantastic book on the subject is Gieseking’s book about Piano Technique. Don’t be confused by the title he actually spends quite a long time talking about memory:

    Piano Technique
    http://www.amazon.com/Piano-Technique-Dover-Books-Music/dp/0486228673/

    I try to teach my students that theory and looking for patterns in small sections and repeating them over and over is the best way to learn a new piece, as well as become better at fitting more things into our 7 items.

  12. Kyle Cullen

    Great article. I’m sure smells could be brought into the process. I know a certain brand of cigarets reminds me of working from a snare drum book as I worked on it with a teacher who smoked.

  13. Reuben Vincent

    How interesting Kyle. I knew someone out there would have a smell or taste related experience!!!

  14. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks Brian. That’s an interesting theory about the short term memory holding 7 items. Thanks for sharing those links too

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