Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter XV

How to Remember Music

Like all of the other faculties of the mind, that of music or tune is manifested in varying degrees by different individuals. To some music seems to be almost instinctively grasped, while to others it is acquired only by great effort and much labor. To some harmony is natural, and inharmony a matter of repulsion, while others fail to recognize the difference between the two except in extreme cases. Some seem to be the very soul of music, while others have no conception of what the soul of music may be. Then there is manifested the different phases of the knowledge of music. Some play correctly by ear, but are clumsy and inefficient when it comes to playing by note. Others play very correctly in a mechanical manner, but fail to retain the memory of music which they have heard. It is indeed a good musician who combines within himself, or herself, both of the two last mentioned faculties–the ear perception of music and the ability to execute correctly from notes.

There are many cases of record in which extraordinary powers of memory of music have been manifested. Fuller relates the following instances of this particular phase of memory: Carolan, the greatest of Irish bards, once met a noted musician and challenged him to a test of their respective musical abilities. The _defi_ was accepted and Carolan’s rival played on his violin one of Vivaldi’s most difficult concertos. On the conclusion of the performance, Carolan, who had never heard the piece before, took his harp and played the concerto through from beginning to end without making a single error. His rival thereupon yielded the palm, thoroughly satisfied of Carolan’s superiority, as well he might be. Beethoven could retain in his memory any musical composition, however complex, that he had listened to, and could reproduce most of it. He could play from memory every one of the compositions in Bach’s ‘Well Tempered Clavichord,’ there being forty-eight preludes and the same number of fugues which in intricacy of movement and difficulty of execution are almost unexampled, as each of these compositions is written in the most abstruse style of counterpoint.

“Mozart, at four years of age, could remember note for note, elaborate solos in concertos which he had heard; he could learn a minuet in half an hour, and even composed short pieces at that early age. At six he was able to compose without the aid of an instrument, and continued to advance rapidly in musical memory and knowledge. When fourteen years old he went to Rome in Holy Week. At the Sistine Chapel was performed each day, Allegri’s ‘Miserere,’ the score of which Mozart wished to obtain, but he learned that no copies were allowed to be made. He listened attentively to the performance, at the conclusion of which he wrote the whole score from memory without an error. Another time, Mozart was engaged to contribute an original composition to be performed by a noted violinist and himself at Vienna before the Emperor Joseph. On arriving at the appointed place Mozart discovered that he had forgotten to bring his part. Nothing dismayed, he placed a blank sheet of paper before him, and played his part through from memory without a mistake. When the opera of ‘Don Giovanni’ was first performed there was no time to copy the score for the harpsichord, but Mozart was equal to the occasion; he conducted the entire opera and played the harpsichord accompaniment to the songs and choruses without a note before him. There are many well-attested instances of Mendelssohn’s remarkable musical memory. He once gave a grand concert in London, at which his Overture to ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was produced. There was only one copy of the full score, which was taken charge of by the organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who unfortunately left it in a hackney coach–whereupon Mendelssohn wrote out another score from memory, without an error. At another time, when about to direct a public performance of Bach’s ‘Passion Music,’ he found on mounting the conductor’s platform that instead of the score of the work to be performed, that of another composition had been brought by mistake. Without hesitation Mendelssohn successfully conducted this complicated work from memory, automatically turning over leaf after leaf of the score before him as the performance progressed, so that no feeling of uneasiness might enter the minds of the orchestra and singers. Gottschalk, it is said, could play from memory several thousand compositions, including many of the works of Bach. The noted conductor, Vianesi, rarely has the score before him in conducting an opera, knowing every note of many operas from memory.”

It will be seen that two phases of memory must enter into the “memory of music”–the memory of tune and the memory of the notes. The memory of tune of course falls into the class of ear-impressions, and what has been said regarding them is also applicable to this case. The memory of notes falls into the classification of eye-impressions, and the rules of this class of memory applies in this case. As to the cultivation of the memory of tune, the principle advice to be given is that the student take an active interest in all that pertains to the sound of music, and also takes every opportunity for listening to good music, and endeavoring to reproduce it in the imagination or memory. Endeavor to enter into the spirit of the music until it becomes a part of yourself. Rest not content with merely hearing it, but lend yourself to a _feeling_ of its meaning. The more the music “means to you,” the more easily will you remember it. The plan followed by many students, particularly those of vocal music, is to have a few bars of a piece played over to them several times, until they are able to hum it correctly; then a few more are added; and then a few more and so on. Each addition must be reviewed in connection with that which was learned before, so that the chain of association may be kept unbroken. The principle is the same as the child learning his A-B-C–he remembers “B” because it follows “A.” By this constant addition of “just a little bit more,” accompanied by frequent reviews, long and difficult pieces may be memorized.

The memory of notes may be developed by the method above named–the method of learning a few bars well, and then adding a few more, and frequently reviewing as far as you have learned, forging the links of association as you go along, by frequent practice. The method being entirely that of eye-impression and subject to its rules, you must observe the idea of visualization–that is learning each bar until you can _see_ it “in your mind’s eye” as you proceed. But in this, as in many other eye-impressions, you will find that you will be greatly aided by your memory of the _sound_ of the notes, in addition to their appearance. Try to associate the two as much as possible, so that when you _see_ a note, you will _hear_ the sound of it, and when you _hear_ a note sounded, you will _see_ it as it appears on the score. This combining of the impressions of both sight and sound will give you the benefit of the double sense impression, which results in doubling your memory efficiency. In addition to visualizing the notes themselves, the student should add the appearance of the various symbols denoting the key, the time, the movement, expression, etc., so that he may hum the air from the visualized notes, with expression and with correct interpretation. Changes of key, time or movement should be carefully noted in the memorization of the notes. And above everything else, memorize the _feeling_ of that particular portion of the score, that you may not only see and hear, but also _feel_ that which you are recalling.

We would advise the student to practice memorizing simple songs at first, for various reasons. One of these reasons is that these songs lend themselves readily to memorizing, and the chain of easy association is usually maintained throughout.

In this phase of memory, as in all others, we add the advice to: Take interest; bestow Attention; and Practice and Exercise as often as possible. You may have tired of these words–but they constitute the main principles of the development of a retentive memory. Things must be impressed upon the memory, before they may be recalled. This should be remembered in every consideration of the subject.

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