Monday, July 22, 2013

You say memory, I say mnemonic

About a month before I started this blog, an audience member approached me after a recital with the usual memorization question: "How do you do it?"

My response was, "Well, it's not really memorization. I use a bunch of mnemonics to create the experience--but if I didn't have those tools, the piece wouldn't be memorized."


"But you just played a recital from memory!" he replied.


Silly me, he was right. I was, in fact, playing from memory, but my perception was from the business end. I was doing hard work while this audience member was experiencing something that appeared effortless.


Look at the Wikipedia definition of mnemonic:

mnemonic, or mnemonic device, is any learning technique that aids information retention. Mnemonics aim to translate information into a form that the human brain can retain better than its original form. Even the process of merely learning this conversion might already aid in the transfer of information to long-term memory. Commonly encountered mnemonics are often used for lists and in auditory form, such as short poems, acronyms, or memorable phrases, but mnemonics can also be used for other types of information and in visual or kinesthetic forms. Their use is based on the observation that the human mind more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, physical, sexual, humorous, or otherwise 'relatable' information, rather than more abstract or impersonal forms of information.
The word mnemonic is derived from the Ancient Greek word μνημονικός (mnēmonikos), meaning "of memory" and is related to Mnemosyne ("remembrance"), the name of the goddess of memory in Greek mythology. Both of these words are derived from μνήμη (mnēmē), "remembrance, memory". Mnemonics in antiquity were most often considered in the context of what is today known as the Art of memory.
Ancient Greeks and Romans distinguished between two types of memory: the 'natural' memory and the 'artificial' memory. The former is inborn, and is the one that everyone uses automatically and without thinking. The artificial memory in contrast has to be trained and developed through the learning and practicing of a variety of mnemonic techniques.
Mnemonic systems are special techniques or strategies consciously used to improve memory, it helps employ information already stored in long-term memory to make memorization an easier task.
Is there every any case in musical memorization when one isn't using mnemonics? Sure,
there are ingrained tunes that require no memory device (e.g., Twinkle, twinkle, little star), but, for the purpose of memorizing music to play in concert, a large majority of the work is based in mnemonic memory. 

A while ago, I wrote about three types of memory: tactile, aural, and visual. Because mnemonics play such an important role in the musical memory process, it almost seems as if they should be considered a fourth type of memory. But mnemonics are tools, not actual memory. Of course, this can get really confusing when we start needing mnemonics to remember our mnemonics!


I use mnemonics to create all three types of memory. From landmarks to form, from harmony to visualization of chord shapes, mnemonics guide the memorization process from the inception to the final stages.