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:
Some long-debated questions come up: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.
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.