Thursday, July 23, 2015

Memory

Let me set you at ease: this post will not be about the Andrew Lloyd Webber song from Cats. That would be simply too cruel. No, instead I am going to talk about music and memory and we will start with an article in The Guardian: "How to memorise a symphony." Go have a read.

Like the author, I too have little bits of tunes playing in my head. Also, like the author, a non-musical reference can spark a musical memory. You know, someone cancels a date and an hour later you find yourself humming "Don't Let Me Down" by John Lennon:


The article continues:
For neurobiologists, the fact that music sticks in our heads suggests an evolutionary origin. Darwin felt that both music and language evolved as part of an emotion-signalling system, initially based on imitating – and modifying – environmental and animal sounds. Studies show that the same brain regions process all these kinds of sounds, lending credence to the idea of a common evolutionary origin. My lab’s own studies show that music activates regions of the brain that are older than those that process language, suggesting music preceded language, as Darwin believed.
This is the kind of rote blather that always irritates me. Why does that fact that music can "stick in our heads" have anything to do with evolution? Or "evolutionary origin"? What could that possibly mean? These are really meaningless phrases that get tossed around without anyone really inquiring what is meant by them. And frankly, I'm not so terribly interested in what Darwin felt about music. If he had some evidence, that might be interesting. To my mind, all that is suggested is that the raw materials for music began in our environment: birdsong and so on. And would someone, please, explain what the phrase "common evolutionary origin" means. I have read it a thousand times and still have no idea. It always seems to be used in the cause of a crude reductionism. The Eroica Symphony by Beethoven is equivalent to the mating dance of the partridge is what I think they are secretly thinking.

Thankfully, after the pseudo-scientific boilerplate we get on to actual stuff about music.
I’m often asked if musicians have better memories than everyone else. The answer is yes – and no. Yes, they tend to have better auditory memories. Music unfolds over time, so a musician’s memory for auditory sequences has to be very good. But their memory for other time-bound things, such as birthdays or appointments, is not necessarily better than anyone else’s.
Oh, you bet. The case of the famous conductor comes to mind who was conducting from memory a lengthy orchestral score, but when it came time to say a few words to the audience he forgot the name of the piece! Different kinds of memory.

A lot of the article is just basic facts about how musical memory works:
All musical instruments, including the voice, require some movement on the part of the musician, and the brain has evolved very sophisticated mechanisms for learning motor-action sequences, the basis of tool use. When learning a piece of music, musicians learn and store in their memory a series of movements, and these are bound to their aural memory.
Some long-debated questions come up:
The distinction between playing from memory (“good”) and not playing from memory (“bad”) is not as black and white as it might appear. All playing is scaffolded on some type of memory: motor memory for scales and chords learned as a student, auditory memory of the piece and other pieces it reminds us of. The real question is whether the musician refers to written music or not. In a few contexts, such as studio work or a player sitting in as a substitute in a Broadway pit orchestra, reading is necessary because there is not enough time to memorise the parts.
So, on the whole, a pretty good introduction to musical memory.

Now for some comments. First of all, the one thing the article does NOT do is what the title promises: it does not tell you how to memorize a symphony! Ever notice how the headlines are just about always lies? Isn't that weird? Apart from telling us that conductors have perhaps the most prodigious memories, there is no mention of how they go about learning a score. Obviously it doesn't have much to do with "muscle memory". The article mentions that, but is vague about other kinds of musical memory. There are actually three, or perhaps four.

Muscle memory, which is not really in the muscles as the article says, is very important. It is by learning certain patterns and making them entirely automatic that a musician can perform virtuoso music. But these patterns are of two kinds: there are the physical movements required to produce the passage, the "muscle memory", but there is also the sound pattern that results. As the article says:
When learning a piece of music, musicians learn and store in their memory a series of movements, and these are bound to their aural memory.
So there is also the memory of the sound pattern. A performance is a fusion of these two things. But obviously it is different for a conductor. True, his arm movements do produce a sound pattern, but only via the medium of the orchestra, not directly. So I think that for conductors, and all musicians, really, there is another kind of memory. I will call this "structural memory" as it is memory of how the piece is put together. Conductors and other musicians have an understanding of the landscape of the piece, how one thing leads to another. On a basic level it is simply knowing where the repeats are. But on another level it is knowing about the modulations and relationships between themes.

What I am not sure of is how much this sort of thing is held in your conscious memory and how much it is, like most of our musical memorization, really submerged below the verbal level. I don't think I would be noting to myself internally "oh yes, now we have the development section." I would know it, be aware of it, in fact, be creating (or re-creating) it, but I don't think I would be saying that to myself. Our thoughts when we are playing are non-verbal thoughts. I had a philosopher claim to me that thought is always verbal, that non-verbal thought is impossible. But he was wrong. Having verbal thoughts when you are performing would just be a distraction.

Oh, there is one other kind of memory possible: this is visual memory of the score. Not sure how much this is the case, but I know some musicians who can visualize a score in their head and play from it.

One final thought: a very wise violinist one said to me that if you have any worries about having a memory lapse, then you should simply play from the score. I don't think I have heard any better advice.

The article mentions that the Aurora Orchestra are known for playing from memory. Here is a clip of them with an excerpt from the Symphony No. 40 of Mozart:


Yes, quite impressive, but it is really a stunt, isn't it? Ask yourself, is an orchestral performance better if played from memory? Not to my mind. One wonders whether Mozart would have thought it just a bit silly.

39 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, there's a discipline called evolutionary psychology which tries to explain behaviors etc. by using evolutionary explanations. One part of the discipline about proving that something is biological is more scientific as you can test it here and now. The other part which tries to give an evolutionary explanation of why a certain behavior might have been developed relies on statements like "Group x does y because they did z about d years ago." (where d is often 10000+ years ago, often 100k years ago). It's more of a pseudo-science in that regard. You can't prove these statements unless you invent a time machine and travel back to check. I guess they try using the most plausible explanations (whatever that means). Of course this assumes that the evolutionary theory is 100% correct and I'm not going to take sides. Evolutionary theory is not 100% scientifically solid. Personally I don't really care about whether evolutionary theory is true or not, it's not within my range of interests.

Anyways, as for memory: In "The Fundamentals of Piano Practice" there are several types of memory for music described: 1. Muscle memory (of course the kind that is automatically gained by playing a part/s of a piece many times) 2. Photographic memory (not actual photographic memory since it doesn't exist but basically memorizing the score), 3. Musical (Aural) memory (basically you use the musical sound itself to remember a piece, it plays a big role in the other types of memories, it enhances them basically), 4. Theoretical memory (you memorize easier by remembering parts of the music theory in the piece, things like key signature, time signature, basic harmonies, structure etc.) 5. Mental Play (most important type of memory, you either memorize your playing (play the instrument in your head basically) or memorize the score (picture the score in your head) AND at the same time imagine how the piece sounds (musical (aural) memory) which gives better memory). Also, the more ways you use to memorize the better since memory relies upon making associations. The more associations with something the better the memory. We actually remember everything we encounter. The trouble we have is that it's hard for us to retrieve the memories unless we've done a good job of memorizing these things in the first place. Of course some things (such as dramatic events) are naturally easier for us to remember (although in some cases the memories are repressed). Some things (such as series of random numbers) are on the other hand naturally harder to remember. The memory of music has the advantage of being tied to musical (aural) memory, which makes it easier to remember compared to many things.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the explanation, Rickard. I still find this sort of evolutionary explanation feeble when it comes to something complex like music. For one thing we have absolutely no idea what humans did musically 10,000 years ago or why.

The piano book's discussion sounds pretty close to mine.

Marc Puckett said...

While hed writers can be widely knowledgeable and witty, would it have really killed the Guardian to have simply run Dr Levitin's lecture title, 'Unlocking the Mysteries of Music in Your Brain' instead of the misleading 'How to memorise a symphony'?

L. hasn't yet told me how to get Elvis Costello out of my head, either.

Rickard Dahl said...

@Marc, they do what brings article views. A more absurd title is simply better marketing. Not in the sense that it's more accurate but in the sense that it sells. Marketers/salespeople use various tactics/principles to get more products/services sold. For instance there's the principle of scarcity which means they say something like "You can buy this for limited time only." or lie about how many of a product they have left in stock. Another principle they use is to give you free test samples, not because they want you to test it (or maybe a bit, just not primarily) but rather because they want to guilt you into buying the actual product they're selling. Also, don't be fooled by the term "Public Relations". Public Relations is simply a re-branding of the word propaganda. "Propaganda" became a dirty word after WWII so Edward Bernays coined the word "Public Relations" instead. In this case (at Guardian) they use the principle of clickbait (at least what's it's called in internet terminology). I'm not sure what the more correct name for it is but make no mistake: It IS a salesman/marketing tactic. The more page views the more ad revenue, thus the outrageous title.

Rickard Dahl said...

*the term "Public Relations"

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard did a pretty good job of explaining erroneous "click bait" headlines. But I can tell you how to get rid of an ear worm. What I do, when I have a particularly annoying lick that I can't get out of my head, is hum a Bach fugue subject. I use the one from the G minor solo violin sonata usually. It is nicer than whatever the ear worm was and tends not to get stuck.

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks, Rickard! There's no escaping the baleful efforts of the marketers, the PR people, is there? But I've refused to become a 'member' of the Guardian on its site; that's just sort of creepy. :-)

Wonder why the fugue subject doesn't get stuck? hmm. Whatever evolutionary biological reasons for how the brain works now etc, the brain's operations are truly fascinating.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think it is because it isn't "hooky" the way, say, an Elvis Costello lick would be.

Christine Lacroix said...

To see the newest jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander adorably forget the title of the piece he will so brilliantly interpret go directly to 4:18 at...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOV2mONU8a0

Bryan Townsend said...

Not so uncommon!

Marc Puckett said...

Lief Ove Andsnes has been doing his 'Beethoven Journey', conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as he performs the Beethoven piano concertos (looking at the BBC Proms again): I can't imagine how that happens, such prodigious requirements of the memory-- playing, conducting, and transitioning back and forth between the one and the other. From the inside, as one is a musician and performs, I suppose it is an integral, a seamless, whole, but from the outside it is almost incredible to me, how he and others do this.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think one of the reasons that pianists today are tempted to both play and conduct in the Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos is that there is historical precedent: this is exactly how these concertos were performed at their premieres. So having a separate conductor, common though it is these days, is really historically incorrect. The reason we do it is because, during the 19th century, long after these pieces were written, the profession of the virtuoso conductor was invented (by Berlioz, largely) and they now conduct music from before that time as well. Basically, nearly all music written before, say, 1830, was intended to be performed without a conductor in the modern sense. I can't find it right now, but I have posted a clip of Mitsuko Uchida conducting and playing a Mozart piano concerto. It's on YouTube.

Marc Puckett said...

Was just watching a clip from the Verbier Festival concert of the 23rd [http://www.verbierfestival.com/programme-tickets/programme/event/2015-07-23-1900] with three pianists including Valery Gergiev, conducting. Hmm.

Bryan Townsend said...

Three pianists in three separate concertos, or a concerto for three pianos?

Marc Puckett said...

Oh, all three playing together and VG conducting from his piano. Ravel or Tchaikovsky, wasn't sure which one it was. It was almost laughable, the minimal conductorial gesturing from the piano bench, compared to what one expects to see.

Christine Lacroix said...

I read a book about Evolutionary Psychology about 15 years ago, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. The author tries to explain behavior as springing from an innate human desire to reproduce their DNA. For males this means getting as many females as possible. He goes so far as to explain artistic creation as an effort to attract the opposite sex. Music, building cathedrals, painting would be the human equivalent of the peacock spreading it's tail feathers. If I remember correctly he even tried to correlate the most creative periods in artists lives to their sexually active years!

Bryan Townsend said...

I have heard these ideas a number of times, but never their source. Thanks! There is certainly something plausible there. Take Picasso and his serial muses, for example. Or how Janacek's creativity was stimulated by meeting a young woman late in life. Or a thousand other examples. Haydn, trapped in a really awful marriage, but producing a wealth of great music.

The thing is, as soon as you really dig into it, I wonder if the whole theory might just fall apart? The basic problem is that the theory explains too much. The innate human desire to reproduce, for males at least, implying the need to attract females. Producing great works of art used as a means to do so. But do great works of art attract a lot of females for mating purposes? In rock music, maybe, but not in cathedral architecture, or symphonic composition, or abstract impressionism. At least, not that I've noticed. I think that the theory attempts to reduce artworks to the equivalent of peacock feathers, which is simply implausible.

Take Beethoven for example. He was in love with and wanted to marry a young woman. So he dedicated one of his middle period piano sonatas to her. But she married someone else. But this does not to any degree explain all the later, and more profound, piano sonatas he wrote, that had a musical reason for being, not the desire for a date or a wife.

Marc Puckett said...

That is the same Robert Wright, if Wikipedia is to be relied upon, who does the video conversations with writers, bloggers, journalists etc-- Ann Althouse will sometimes note on her blog that she has done a 'Bloggingheads' conversation with RW. I scarcely ever watch them but the couple of times I have done, RW didn't strike me as specially perspicacious (nor did AA, frankly, whose blog I do look at most days)-- and, anyway, why do I want to spend fifteen or twenty minutes watching those people talking when I can read the transcript in five?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, so it would seem! I read a Steven Pinker review of the Wright book in which he points out a number of its failings, especially with regard to the foundation of morals and ethics.

Christine Lacroix said...

Mark I have the same lack of patience when it comes to listening to people waffle on about their ideas. I much prefer to read, skip and skim at my own pace.

As for the Robert Wright book it provides a different lens for looking at human behavior. Recently I heard a man explaining that he had enjoyed going to the Starkey Hearing Foundation Gala because just being in the same room with George Bush and Bill Clinton made it worth it. I immediately thought back to Wright's description of simian behavior towards hierarchy. Monkeys are willing to sacrifice food just to sit near a high ranking individual. Because high rank means power and safety, important in evolutionary terms. It's an interesting model but as many models probably flawed.

Bryan Townsend said...

I suppose I should read the Wright book and not just rely on the Steven Pinker review, but it seems to me to be simple reductionism, like trying to understand politics by reading poll numbers. Oh, wait! Don't attempts to understand human behaviour by reference to evolutionary pressures run hard up against the "is--ought" problem?

Christine Lacroix said...

Here is the article that inspired me to buy The Moral Animal. Maybe it will help you decide if you want to read it.

http://edition.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1998/01/26/time/wright.html

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christine. That gives a bit more information, but, strangely, does not tempt me to read the book! Picking out some particularly loathsome examples and saying, "see, we are still just the product of our primitive evolutionary urges" doesn't seem so terribly interesting after all.

Christine Lacroix said...

What's the 'is-ought' problem?

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, you caught that! This is a famous problem in philosophy first stated clearly by David Hume. Here is the pretty good Wikipedia article:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem

He notes that descriptive statements and prescriptive or normative ones are significantly different and it is not obvious how to move from one to another. This is an important question in ethics because arguments are frequently made that make claims based on descriptive statements that purport to arrive at what ought to be.

I think I was just trying to be clever as I suppose that as long as people do nothing more with evolutionary arguments than try to describe human behaviour then this doesn't apply. But if they try and say something about how humans ought to behave...

Christine Lacroix said...

I don't recollect that there was any 'ought' in Wright's work' I think he's just trying to understand human behavior, identify patterns and speculate on why we do what we do.

Bryan Townsend said...

I can't argue about it with you unless I read the book, of course. But, by any chance, does he smuggle in prescriptive statements under the guise of "why" statements?

Christine Lacroix said...

I read the book 15 years ago so I'm probably not the most reliable source! I didn't have the impression he was presenting his work as a truth. I took it as speculation. I'd probably read it differently after this conversation.

Christine Lacroix said...

Just read the Wikipedia article on 'is, ought' question. Not sure I really understand. Not a philosopher!

Bryan Townsend said...

I fell into the clutches of a philosopher at an early age, so I'm hopelessly corrupted.

Let me give you an example: kids today are drinking alcohol, doing drugs and having sex. THEREFORE, they should stop that and act more virtuously.

Bryan Townsend said...

Here is a more current one: Only 15% of Google's executive level employees are women, visible minorities THEREFORE, they should hire promote more women and visible minorities into these positions.

Rickard Dahl said...

Wow, 31 comments here already. Either way, one of the most basic things that I believe evolutionary psychologists tend to agree about (might be wrong) is that men and women have different strategies when it comes to reproduction. Specifically: Men seek youthful and beautiful women (which usually are things that indicate good signs of fertility with things like a specific waist-to-hip ratio (forgot what the number was) usually being more attractive). Women on the other hand seek men who can provide resources and protection, i.e. protectors and providers. They also seek men with specific genetic qualities but that comes in addition to protection and provision (these things have been proven in various studies). So basically men have to compete with other men in various ways of acquiring resources and status, which is probably where the idea of muses stem from. Artistic men (as with other men) naturally desire certain women (unless they are gay of course but that's another topic) and they get inspired to create works of arts which in turn might attract (these) women. Of course there are many other sources of inspiration but the male to female attraction seems to be a strong one. However I think that the main motivation for great artistic has in most cases been the love for their passion whether it be literature, painting, music or something else. Muses (and other similar things) serve as a source of inspiration rather than the actual reason why they love a certain art form. The same can be said for men who do great scientific discoveries or other similar things. Nikola Tesla for instance (inventor of AC motors, AC generators, AC transmission lines, radio, radio controlled devices etc. (basically the inventor of many key elements that allowed electricity to become a key part of society)) was passionate about what he did and he put his scientific endeavors above any attraction to women. Same with Isaac Netwon for instance.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have to reiterate my view that while evolutionary psychology may offer some insights, it seems to do so by reducing high-level activities to much more basic ones. I don't see how this is terribly insightful apart from in the broadest strokes.

Christine Lacroix said...

You're right, it offers some insights. When it comes to understanding human behavior and emotions I think we can't have enough of those!

Christine Lacroix said...

You've made the 'is,ought'problem clearer in two lines than Wikipedia did in one page. You must be a good teacher.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks!

I was a terrific teacher. (Ahem...) But my explanation undoubtedly leaves out all the subtleties. But what my two examples do do, is show how the problem with these sorts of claims is that they inevitably leave out the base assumptions, which are really where the argument must be centered.

Christine Lacroix said...

So would it be an 'is ought' statement if you say 'some musicians are demeaning themselves through money grubbing and unseemly self-promotion and they ought to behave with more dignity?

And when you say 'base assumptions' do you mean for example:
a/ the motivation behind their behavior is getting more money and notoriety. We could question that couldn't we? How do we really know why they're doing it? Maybe they're just flamboyant quirky individuals? of would that be a 'presupposition'?
b/ wanting money is a bad thing? wanting notoriety is a bad thing?
c/ There are good ways to get money and bad ways to get money and the same goes for notoriety

Maybe this absolutely proves I haven't understood your lesson?

Bryan Townsend said...

Just to clarify, Hume's point was that there are "is" statements, descriptions, such as "Lang Lang has issued a fragrance line" and there are "ought" statements such as "classical musicians ought to observe a certain amount of dignity". But there are not "is ought" statements. The argument is that these are two different kinds of statements and how you get from one to the other isn't obvious. To my mind, what is missing here, for example, is a statement of basic principle such as "much of the classical music repertoire is intended to take the listener to a transcendent realm outside of everyday life; performers who act too much like carnival showmen or hucksters risk diluting their aesthetic authority to perform this music." You might disagree or not, but the underlying principle has to be stated clearly before you can either agree or disagree.

What you are suggesting are psychological motives that we are not privy to. Sure, perhaps some artists are just flamboyant and quirky, but it is hard to tell if they are this way simply because this is the way they are or whether it is suspiciously convenient for marketing purposes to be this way.

Regarding money, a philosophical rather than psychological observation might be that money is an "instrumental" good, i.e., not something that is inherently good in itself, as opposed to those transcendental things such as the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks for the interesting explanations Bryan!