The Mind, Music and Memory

Rembrand as Shepherd -1636-

Rembrandt as Shepherd -1636-

School started again recently and my husband and I are in our last semester at college before we graduate. I decided to restart my music studies after so many years away. My vocal progress is going very well, but my piano progress is so slow. Today, my piano teacher showed me some things that started to spark some memories. I told her that I believe I will make much better progress as I figure out how to link up the new knowledge with the old. Currently, my brain is not retaining enough of the new knowledge from week to week, between lessons. The old knowledge is competing with the new and not cooperating. Midterms are already here. So, I need to get to the bottom of this problem.

Last week in my psychology class, we learned about the famous Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus studied memory by testing his own recall of lists of nonsense syllables like ROH, LEZ, SUW. Once he learned them, he tested himself for lengths of time after ranging from 20 minutes to 31 days after. He plotted the data on a chart called the forgetting curve and it shows that most of our forgetting happens within the first 20 minutes of learning. With my vocal class, the instructor habitually records each session and sends home the recording with the student to listen at home and take notes. This isn’t the same for piano, but after a number of weeks, I started recording the piano lessons on my phone recorder app. This has helped a lot, but I’m still having trouble. Maybe because vocally, I can listen and receive the exact same class experience, but with the piano, I can’t listen and experience it in the same way, even if I’m sitting at the piano. I might do better with a video, but logistically, that won’t work. Perhaps I could make a point of listening to the recording less than 20 minutes after class. This is possible. I could listen to it on the way home from class and then again when I got home and could take notes right away. That would probably help much more than waiting 2 days to listen again.

A second issue where I believe I am failing with piano has to do with what psychologists call “encoding failure”. This is the prevention of new information from making an impression on the long-term memory. These failures occur when attention is divided, rather than focusing full-attention on one thing at the time learning is taking place. My life is very full and I can almost never sit and play the piano uninterrupted. The piano is right in the middle of the living room, where everyone congregates. What are my choices? Well, I have been thinking about using my son’s keyboard with headphones. That would definitely cut down on extraneous noise, both for me and everyone around me.

The third issue that seems to apply here is decay theory, where we forget because we don’t use our memories. It is normal for the brain to shed or repress these unused memories. When a new memory is being formed, it creates something called a “memory trace”, but unless this memory is refreshed by regular rehearsal, the brain erodes the memory trace. This theory has been shown to have some flaws, as the brain can often recall memories many years after they occurred without rehearsal, however it has been determined that decay theory does play a role in forgetting. So, consistent rehearsal naturally plays a role in remembering.

The fourth issue that is described in our textbook is the one of interference theory. I already touched on this one above when I mentioned that my old knowledge is competing with the new. How interesting that my own independent observation of how my brain is working is so accurate, and not only that, it has a label of its own! “Interference Theory”. Well, what does that mean? According to our textbook: “…the interference of forgetting is caused by one memory competing with or replacing another memory.  The most critical factor is the similarity of the information. The more similar the information is in two memories, the more likely it is that interference will be produced.”

Wow! ~ This is exactly what I am dealing with. Shaking up the old information in my brain and coaxing it to join forces with the new is really challenging for me. I need to find a hook or link to make this possible, so that the old way, the stubborn old lady in my memory, will sit down for tea with the new lady and her newfangled ideas.

So, lets review my strategy for improving my piano performance:

1. Record class time and listen to the lesson in the car, on the way home from class. Listen again at home, at the piano, and take notes.

2. Practice in a focused manner, without distraction or interruption. Use the electronic keyboard and wear headphones, if necessary.

3. Practice everyday. Even a small amount of focused practice is enough to nurture the remembering process.

4. Start practice by playing pieces stored in my long-term memory. Use new knowledge to analyze and improve the old. (ie. What key is the old piece written for? What new posture and fingering techniques can I use with this familiar favorite?)

Fall break begins this weekend. My next piano lesson is two weeks from now. I will conduct a scientific study and observe my own progress in piano skill. Besides using the memory techniques I learned in the memory chapter of my psychology textbook, I am also going to use the hypnotic suggestion techniques I learned in the consciousness chapter of my psychology textbook by starting with this script:

  •  I will dedicate a minimum of 15 minutes each day to my new focused approach to my piano lessons.
  • My instructor’s response during my next lesson will reveal my level of improvement.
  • This is going to be more fun than what I’ve been doing!



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