MTNA 2017

Lois Svard, DMA, NCTM
Professor of Music Emerita
Bucknell University

The Art and Science of Memorizing Music

We have all had students experience memory problems during a performance in a piece that we thought was securely memorized. Memorizing music is a challenge for many of us, students and professionals alike, and fear of memory slips is often a major factor in performance anxiety.

Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have discovered a great deal in the past two decades about the brain mechanisms underlying memory, and it turns out that much of what we think we know about learning and memory is wrong.  So what do we need to know to help our students – and ourselves – feel more secure about our memory and therefore more confident about performing?

This session will cover:

  • How the brain wires itself and how it changes as we learn – neuroplasticity
  • How learning and memory are related
  • Why motor memory, contrary to what most of us have been taught, is extremely important – as are auditory and visual memory
  • The impact of neuroplasticity on performance anxiety
  • The best ways to practice to ensure reliable learning, memory, and performance 

Why is memorizing a science and an art?

Neuroscientists have discovered how the brain wires itself as we learn.  That’s hard science.  Cognitive psychologists have explored the best ways to study or practice to promote learning.  That’s behavioral science.  But how we utilize those scientific discoveries – how we design creative ways to practice that will allow us freedom and security in performance to express what we want to say – that’s art.


For more information about subjects covered in this talk, go to Categories in the right-hand column of this blog site, and scroll down to  Neuroplasticity, Learning and memory, Memory, Practice, Music cognition, and Sleep.  (Information about exercise is found under Learning and memory; terminology for kinds of memory in music is found under Memory.)

And below are links to books, articles, websites and videos – some of which I mentioned during the presentation, and others that I didn’t mention but that may be of interest:


Flippy Cat.  Starry Night


Allen, S. (2012).  Memory Stabilization and Enhancement Following Music PracticePsychology of Music, 41(6), 794-803.

Cedernaes J. et. al. (2015). Short Sleep Makes Declarative Memories Vulnerable to Stress in Humans.  Sleep, 38(12), 1861-1868.

van Dongen, E.V., et. al. (2016).  Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval.  Current Biology, 26(13),1722-1727.


Barbara Arrowsmith-Young.  2012. The Woman Who Changed her Brain.
Arrowsmith-Young changed her brain long before the term plasticity was in use, transforming herself from a child with extreme learning disabilities to an adult with above normal cognitive skills.  A fascinating read!

Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel.  2014.  Make it Stick: the science of successful learning

Benedict Carey.  2014.  How We Learn:  the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens
Neither the Peter Brown nor Benedict Carey books are about music, but musicians can make use of the information.  Both look at recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines to show how much we think we know about learning is wrong.  Both give techniques for more productive learning and memory.

Roger Chaffin, Gabriela Imreh, and Mary Crawford.  2012.  Practicing Perfection:  Memory and Piano Performance.    Part of a research series intended for both psychologists and musicians, this book details how an experienced pianist organizes practice, identifies stages in learning, characteristics of expert practice, and practice strategies.

Daniel Coyle.  2009.  The Talent Code:  greatness isn’t born. it’s grown. here’s how
This book is about extraordinary levels of talent, and how they occur.  Coyle is really talking about the myelination of axons in the brain, although he rarely mentions the term.

Norman Doidge.  2007.  The Brain that Changes Itself: stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science.
All about neuroplasticity; a collection of case histories detailing stories of individuals who have changed their brains – and their lives – under extraordinary circumstances.

Kay S. Hooper.  2005.  Sensory Tune-ups: a guided journal of sensory experiences for performers of all ages.    The journal provides a guide for exploring and developing the kinesthetic, visual and auditory senses, to incorporate them more fully  in learning and performing.

Daniel Levitin.  2006.  This is Your Brain on Music:  the science of a human obsession. The best-selling book about how we experience music and why it plays such a unique role in our lives.

Julie Jaffee Nagel.  Nagel has two degrees in piano from Juilliard and a PhD in psychology from the Univ. of Michigan.  In her clinical practice, she works with musicians suffering from performance anxiety as well as other issues.  Her book  Melodies of the Mind  (2013) is an exploration of “the power of music to move us when words fall short.”  Check out her blog about performance anxiety on her website.

Rebecca Shockley.  1997.  Mapping Music: for faster learning and secure memory
Written for piano teachers and students, but the ideas apply to any musician.

Websites     Website developed by Rebecca Shockley and flutist Melissa Colgin about visual mapping for music.

Neuroscience for Kids   Website from the University of Washington.  Aimed at kids, but great for everyone.


New York Times article on use of imagery by Olympic athletes.  

presented at the
Conference of the Music Teachers National Association
Baltimore, Maryland
20 March 2017