Monday, 31 October 2016


Memory and attention problems

Music, as we all know, is an art form that occupies time, it is linear. Short of an error or physical problem, such as a broken string, a performance moves with grace and little interruption. However when it comes to our own attention and recall of music there are issues which need to be raised. Before we get to these issues a few notes on memory and attention are required, resist the temptation to skip these paragraphs as knowledge of the two areas are vitally important to our perception and performance of music.

In 1968 Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed a three stage model of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory Memory
We take our sensory information from the environment and store it for a very brief period of time. For musicians the difference between visual and auditory memory recall is significant, for visual information recall is no longer than a half-second, but auditory information is retained for up to 4 seconds.


Short-term memory, also known as active memory, is the information we are currently aware of or thinking about. Our focus on sensory memories generates (or if you prefer moves) the information and places it into our short-term memory. The storage time for STM is usually between 20 and 30 seconds. Attending to this STM allows it to flow to the next stage - long-term memory. It seems that the number of memory inputs is about 7 items (+/- 2 items).


Long-term memory is our storage of information. We are not continually aware of LTM but it can be usually be accessed for use when required. Ease of access is variable. Psychologists suggest that we have no time limit for accessing LTM and that the capacity is also unlimited. Our recollections are primarily based on language but can be of a visual or auditory nature. 

Information from the STM is transferred to the long-term memory only if that information is rehearsed. If rehearsal does not occur, then information is forgotten, lost from short term memory through the processes of displacement or decay.

With such information it becomes easier to understand why short motifs and repetition have such an important role in composing. Our notion of organic growth where we can relate each new event to the previous statements makes equal sense to design and the design of our system of recall.

Recent research suggests that rehearsal may not be essential, but it certainly is an aid to transfer. As there is primarily a semantic quality to LTM I decided to attempt a simple experiment to aid my memory of music. I set out to play the first movement of the Italian concerto from memory. I don’t frequently make a point of learning by heart, my muscle memory is quite good, but I do get patches where if I play a wrong version of a chord (even an inversion instead of a root) it can untangle the flow. I set out to play through the movement each time noting a break and then discussing it with myself along the lines of….that is a 7th chord, I need to remember the B flat is sustained…and so on. I was pleased with the results in that far greater (in fact total) continuity was achieved. Some time ago I attended a lecture regarding retaining vocabulary when learning a new language. The gist of the argument was that by making visual associations with each syllable of the word and linking these in a bizarre way made recall much easier. A challenge was set to learn the welsh word for geography, ddaeryddiaeth. We were told to envisage an old Cornish lady who being toothless made a breathy sound at the close of each phrase, her phrase is

“dear o thee aye” (th). We were all invited to speak as the old lady and share the word. We discussed in a previous blog (laughter) how group humour is very different to individual humour, and the result was unexpected extended hilarity. More importantly the whole group had excellent recall of a more difficult word. Humour and laughter brings together disparate ideas, and this fusion promotes recall.

Reading about memory can take us into some very strange areas, and one may speculate about genetic aptitudes regarding music from this report on the transference of memory via DNA in mice. The research was done at the Emory University School of Medicine and led to the statement that

“The experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations”

My wife noted that since her earliest years she has made the action of lifting her skirt before climbing a style, even though she rarely wore skirts and dresses and never in the country. She believes that it is an inherited action which she only noticed because of its oddity. One may consider large numbers of families of musicians who have followed the same profession for many generations. In my case, being adopted into a family of total non-musicians it is intriguing to consider why my interests were drawn to the subject with such passion despite efforts to turn my attention to more lucrative pursuits.

Psychologists have divided memory systems into two broad categories, declarative and nondeclarative .The first includes memories of facts and events. Nondeclarative memory includes skills and habits…..  Declarative memory is "knowing what" and nondeclarative memory is "knowing how".

Bringing muscle memory and the discussion about the formation of the music in the Italian concerto brought both types of recall together, one reason why I was able to link the sections into a whole movement. It is interesting to consider that in making my memory of the work clearer I was making physical changes to the structure of my brain.

Long-term memory involves changes in the structure of neurons including growth of new processes and synapses.  So, to the extent that you remember anything about this material on memory tomorrow, or next week, or next year, it will be because structural changes in synapses are beginning in your brains!





My intention was to discuss both memory and attention in this blog, but our self-imposed limit is already being exceeded. There are a large number of questions that arise even from this brief blog regarding memory problems and music. Let us close with a seemingly trivial thought, if I listen to a concert with a person coughing how do I remember the music, with or without disruption? If I recall it without the noise I must have a method of filtering unwanted information. If so does this method extend to memories from the whole of my life? If I recall both the music and the disruption does this mean I carry with me imperfect recollections of music? As we can create false memories (outside the scope of this blog) and recall the gist of events better than detail, especially as we age, is my recall of the music a composite of a number of performances of the same piece?