The musical memory

“Of course, almost anybody can memorize things, especially music. It’s like the ABCs and, for most, fun to do. I’ve taught music in middle school programs and have been surprised at the hefty repertoires of popular music that 12- to 16- year olds commit to memory. To boot, they knew when I made a mistake in my part and could, with very little prompting, sing the harmonies and/or antiphonal back-ups of their material. (We are definitely hard-wired for music and should take better advantage of it in our educational institutions.) But it’s still considered a sign of extra-special talent when jazz musicians play from memory. Maybe this is because the craft of reading music forces one to engage memory to different purposes when performing. When I read music, I concentrate on remembering fingerings, clef assignments, default key signatures and the like and, because I don’t have to remember the melody that I’m playing, I’m flexible; I’m guided by whatever notes and indications are on the paper in front of me. When I play from memory, I’m more rigid and tend to play the same things that I believe belong in an idealized performance.”

Ratzo B. Harris, “Try to Remember”, New Music Box, 16 November 2012. Accessed  05 April 2014.