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Expert Musical Memory

Updated: Apr 1

Peering into a professional’s memorization for performance

Image by Николай Григорьев from Adobe Stock

Welcome back to our scientific exploration of musical memory. In the last blog we delved into the inclusive framework by Mishra (2005), which outlined the musician’s journey of memorization.

Now, you might have questions like “how do seasoned performers memorize versus their less experienced counterparts?”

Here, we will begin to shed light on this by making clear distinctions through the lens of key interviews and a longitudinal case study.

Professional vs. Novice Memory

Hallam (1995,1997) used semi-structured interviews to reveal differences in learning and memorization between 55 novice and 22 professional freelance musicians. Questions covered memorization and practice strategies, which showed that novice musicians often relied on serial processing strategies. They played from beginning to end and used rote repetition, forming associative chains where one passage links memory to the next. Associative chains develop spontaneously and are highly accurate until an error occurs, causing the performer to start from the beginning.¹

Novices also did not practice deliberately or without any explicit goal as often as professionals, frequently relying on kinesthetic memory to learn and perform new pieces. Professional musicians reported a more systematic approach by practicing in shorter sections, using the segmented processing strategy alongside analytic learning styles. In these analytical learning styles, associative chains became content-addressable, where musical structure and chords act as reminders in various locations of the music.²

Aiello’s (2000b) semi-structured interviews with four classically trained pianists demonstrated the benefit of this content address approach in specific pieces of music. These musicians made recommendations on memorizing two short works, namely Chopin’s Prelude in e-minor op. 28 no.4 and Bach Prelude in C-major WTC 1. First, they stressed that secure memorization in these pieces involves score study and breaking them into sections, followed by finding melodic and harmonic patterns to learn their function within each work. Afterward, they recommended that musicians reduce each piece to a series of chords to play it in its entirety as a long chord progression.

Performance Cues

Content address is a focus of Ericsson and Kintsch’s (1995) study on long-term working memory, where elite performers achieve impressive feats of memory by relying on it to form checkpoint type retrieval schemes of information. These retrieval schemes consist of meaningful information that is encoded or attended to during rehearsal. Thus, retrieval schemes form mental representations that function to activate long-term memory.

According to Williamon and Valentine (2002), in music, these mental representations exist in a hierarchy, with individual notes forming musical sequences at the local level and complete pieces representing the global level. The recall of these retrieval schemes is rehearsed during extended practice to develop rapid retrieval and reliability. In the process, some become automatic, meaning outside of the performer’s conscious attention, and others are attended to deliberately in the heat of a performance. These are known as performance cues.

During performance situations, these performance cues (PC’s) add a memory safety net. They allow the musician to start from various points in the music in the event of memory failure. This is unlike associative chains, which would cause the musician to start again from the beginning if not supported by PCs. Thus, they serve as “mental landmarks” that can facilitate the performance of entire works, as revealed in the longitudinal case study of an experienced musician below.

The Pianist

In Chaffin and Imreh (1997), Gabriela Imreh, a seasoned concert pianist, videotaped 28.5 hrs. of 42 practice sessions while learning the third movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. During this process, she occasionally commented about identifying problems, proposing solutions, and evaluating playing and progress. Imreh alluded to mental representations stating,

“the practice I needed was in my head. I had to learn to keep track of where I was. It was a matter of learning exactly what I needed to be thinking of as I played, and exactly at what point…” (Chaffin & Imreh, 1997, p. 236).

In her recordings, Chaffin looked for comments involving identifying the formal structure of the work and mention of memorization related to this structure to learn of a retrieval scheme. These recordings revealed specific aspects of the music she worked on during practice sessions, like familiar patterns, jumps, changes in speed, and chord changes. Some of these evolved into PCs at the time of her performance, as revealed through interviews. These PC’s are grouped into three dimensions and visualized in the context of the score below. See figure 1.

  1. Basic — Decisions made to play notes accurately (i.e., fingering and technical difficulties).

  2. Interpretive — Features influencing musical shaping (i.e., phrasing, dynamics, tempo, and pedal).

  3. Expressive- aspects that change mood or character (i.e., “light but mysterious”).

Fig1. Features of the music (indicated by arrows) that the pianist reported attending to during performance for sub-sections Ca, and Ca2 of the Presto movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto (Chaffin and Imreh, 1997).

Recordings of Imreh’s practice, up to the final recording from memory, were used as an objective measure where the location of starts and stops were identified and matched with the score. Results showed these typically occurred at structural boundaries, suggesting that she used the musical structure as a retrieval scheme. Recall in writing out the score 27 months after recordings further supported her reliance on this structural retrieval scheme, as she wrote some of the sections and subsections accurately. Therefore, it was demonstrated that conceptual memory in this musician was used in ways similar to other expert memorists.

Looking Forward

“One does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.” — Glenn Gould

This meticulous exploration begins to reveal a process where the professional musician depends on a synthesis of musical information for memorization to withstand the rigor of a performance. Consider how this information might be leveraged to improve best practices in piano teaching and how it relates to your learning experiences.


  1. Lisboa, Tânia & Chaffin, Roger & Demos, Alexander. (2014). Recording thoughts while memorizing music: A case study. Frontiers in psychology. 5. 1561. 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01561.

  2. Chaffin, R., Lisboa, T., Logan, T., & Begosh, K. T. (2010). Preparing for memorized cello performance: the role of performance cues. Psychology of Music, 38(1), 3–30.

By Stefan Bernhard on May 14, 2021.

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Exported from Medium on July 30, 2021.

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