Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Training the Musical Brain: Explicit and Implicit Memory in Learning Music

topography of brain cortex
topography of brain cortex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Found a great blog on music and neuroscience.  The blog talks about memory, attention, and music practice.  It is written by an adjunct professor in neuroscience who also happens to be a musician. 

Here's some tips on memorizing pieces.   The trick is to tie in some analysis of the piece being played along with practice and repetition.   She has a lot of good things to say about motor memory.  
When we perform music, we need to use both implicit memory and explicit memory.  Many pianists have had the experience of playing the piano using implicit memory only; it seems like the hands can play the piece without any input from the brain!  That’s actually not true: unconscious parts of the brain like the cerebellum and basal ganglia are telling the motor cortex what commands to send to the muscles, but it feels like the brain is not involved because these are unconscious processes.  The downside of this automatic type of playing is that often pianists find that if they start thinking about what they’re playing, they make a mistake and are unable to continue playing the song.  What’s happening here is that the conscious parts of our brain are sending commands to the motor cortex that interfere with the commands coming from the cerebellum, and so we get mixed up.  The solution to this problem is that we should not let the performance of a piece get too automatic.  How can we accomplish this?  The best way is to form explicit memories of the piece alongside the implicit memories.  For instance, you could analyze the chord structure of the piece and memorize that, so you would know what chord you should be playing at each moment.  Or you could form an explicit memory of what notes you should be playing at the beginning of every fourth bar (or each phrase).  Or whatever works for you.  The key thing is to at least have some explicit memory of the song, even if it is just every few bars, that way if you lose your automatic train of thought, you have an explicit landmark to go back to, so you can get back into the song and continue playing.

This was my first main point of the talk:  When learning music, it is important to form explicit memories along with implicit memories.