Memorizing Contemporary Music

strategies and memory types

Pétur Jónasson and Tania Lisboa



It is commonly assumed that memorizing contemporary music is harder than with other repertoire. But is it indeed so? The aim of this study is to cast light on this topic. In a pilot study, three advanced guitar students were asked to learn two short pieces, one traditional, the other contemporary, within a restricted time frame and subsequently perform them from memory. The sessions were audio and video recorded in presence of the first author who, while observing the process, engaged in direct dialogue with the participants. Informed by the results, a main study was performed, using the same methods but involving only one, longer, more complex contemporary piece. Results from the pilot study showed that the participants found it easier to memorize the contemporary piece, in spite of its considerably greater rhythmic and musical complexity. All three were successful at memorizing the work in the main study but memorization was harder in sections where the musical material was similar and more tonal/familiar. It seems that the novelty of the contemporary material and the strategies needed for deciphering the complex rhythms made it easier to memorize the contemporary pieces than the traditional work. The development of meta-cognition through reflecting upon their own practicing and learning, functioned as a self-teaching method. Inspired by the study, two participants have applied their new-found skills by memorizing longer contemporary works for public performances.


1. Introduction

There has been growing interest in professional musicians researching and documenting their own practice[1] and applying their findings from expert practice to teaching.[2] This current investigation contributes to this field, portraying how Higher Education students may benefit from participating in a project led by experienced performers who also engage as musicians in the data collection and analysis.

Audiences prefer memorized performances to non-memorized ones and musicians seem to be freer to express themselves without the score.[3] Soloists, therefore, usually perform from memory, and are in fact expected to. However, this is different with contemporary music.[4] Perhaps the view that memorizing contemporary music is a more complex task has led to such performance approaches? But is contemporary music more difficult to memorize, or is it a case of finding different, more appropriate strategies from those employed in traditional repertoire?

According to Williamon[5] and Mishra (2004), four types of memory are used for music: the aural, visual, kinesthetic and conceptual memories. Performing involves complex interactions of all these, but the importance of each varies between individuals. In addition, Chaffin et al. (2009), have noted that emotional memory contributes to the process as well.

Mishra (2004) also defines four memory processing strategies. These are: segmented (fragments are practiced separately, then linked), additive (the same, but continually lengthening the segment), holistic (the whole piece is performed repeatedly, allowing for minor regressions) and serial (the same, but returning to the beginning when errors occur). Different combinations are used, the segmented being preferred by experts.[6]

As mentioned above, professional musicians have also studied their own memorization processes.[7] Results point to the use of performance cues; a series of landmarks which function as retrieval schemes.[8] Finally, mental practice has been shown to be effective for memorizing.[9]

Interestingly, none of the above-mentioned studies deal with memorization of contemporary music. Clarke & Doffman (2014) state that “there is only a tiny amount of empirical research on any kind of twentieth or twenty-first century music”.[10] Palmer[11] refers to unfamiliar music, suggesting that mental practice may help memorization and one study by Tsintzou & Theodorakis[12] looked into strategies for memorizing contemporary music, but the sole emphasis was on how pianists apply segmentation.

This present investigation focuses on the strategies and memory types that selected Higher Education guitar students use when memorizing contemporary music, also comparing the results with the memorization of traditional music.


2. Method

This study differs from previous ones in four ways. First, instead of studying oneself[13], the first author, an experienced performer, was an active observer, engaging in dialogue with the participants during data collection. This called for a qualitative, phenomenologically informed research design. Second, unlike the above-mentioned collaborations between musicians and psychologists, this study relied on the sole expertise of the musicians as researchers. Thirdly, the authors took part in composing the works for the project, manipulating the material to best answer the research questions. Finally, no research of the kind had been performed focusing on the classical guitar.

 2.1 Participants

Three guitar students at a major UK conservatoire were selected: Participant A (PA), a 25 year old female finishing her Masters degree; Participant B (PB), a 23 year old male attending a first year of a Masters degree; and Participant C (PC), a 21 year old male, finishing his first year of a Bachelor program. None had significant experience of memorizing contemporary music.

Both authors are experienced musicians and conservatoire teachers, interested in applied research. The first author, a classical guitarist, performs regularly as a soloist and with a contemporary music ensemble. The second author, an experienced cellist and researcher, has engaged in several memorization studies.

 2.2 Materials

Three pieces were composed in collaboration with the composer Kjartan Ólafsson, aided by the computer composition program CALMUS. First, a tonal piece with regular rhythms, referred to here as traditional; and an atonal piece with more irregular and complex rhythms, referred to as contemporary (Figure 1). Both contain the same number of notes, are in similar tempo and of comparable technical difficulty. Their compositional structure is static, i.e. no development takes place.

Subsequently, a longer, more rhythmically and musically complex contemporary piece was composed (Figure 1). Having no bar lines nor time signature, the melody is formed of two cells of differing characteristics. As the piece progresses, it gradually metamorphoses from the first cell to the second.

Figure 1: Material used in the study.

2.3 Procedure

Two studies were performed. First, a pilot study, with the purpose to:

a) Ensure the methods’ efficacy and validity.
b) Observe whether one piece was more difficult to memorize than the other.
c) Note whether different memorization strategies and memory types were used between participants and genres.

This served as a baseline for the subsequent main study. One hour was given to learn and memorize both pieces in the pilot study. While marking the scores, they commented on the process and finally performed the pieces from memory. The sessions were audio and video recorded in presence of the researcher.

The main study, employing the same procedure, aimed at delving deeper into the process of memorizing contemporary music. The time frame was longer, i.e. 1h 45min.

Given the greater complexity of this piece, the following questions were raised:

a) Would the participants memorize the piece successfully?
b) Would they use the same strategies as in the pilot study or any musical aspects to facilitate memorization (e.g. bar marks, dynamics, phrases?)
c) Were the same memory types used as in the pilot study and was their conceptual memory used to a greater extent?

To answer the latter, participants were asked whether they had analyzed the following compositional elements: rhythms, intervals, pitch, note durations, chord tension, phrases, important notes (as in Schenkerian analysis, see Temperley[14]) and the metamorphosis of the melody.

Questions were also raised as to whether memorization would be more difficult in two places (see Figure 1):

a) Between A and B, a section characterized by consonant intervals, regular rhythms and similarity of the musical material.
b) Between C and D, where the two above-mentioned cells meet and the musical ideas become more complex.

Finally, the marked scores were kept as part of the data collection procedure.

For the pilot study, a thematic analysis was performed on the practice data¾i.e. the complete verbal and observation transcripts. For more in-depth analysis, an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (Smith & Osborn[15]) was also performed on the main study data.


3. Results

3.1 Pilot study

The pilot study ascertained the validity of the method and provided relevant material for exploring the differences between memorizing the two pieces. A large amount of data derived both from the participants’ comments and the practice data, providing scope for exploring the research questions.

Two of the participants found the contemporary piece easier to memorize. All participants spent considerable time deciphering the rhythms of the contemporary piece, but no differences were noted in use of memorization strategies between the two pieces.  The segmented practice strategy was predominant in all participants.[16] However, memory types differed between participants, but not between pieces. PA relied on aural, kinesthetic and emotional memory, PB on aural and kinesthetic memory and PC on visual memory. Examples of the individual approaches for each participant are given below.


PA memorized both pieces well within the time limit, making no mistakes while performing. She considered the contemporary piece easier to memorize: “[it] was easier because it’s weirder, so it sticks in my mind more”. However, its rhythmic complexity was an obstacle: “deciphering [the rhythm]…that’s hard”. PA employed the segmented strategy: “[I] divide into phrases or shapes that I can remember” and described her use of kinesthetic memory as: “If I don’t play it…just do that [moves hand from one position to another] then it will go into my automatic memory”. The similarity of the material in the traditional piece was confusing to her: “there are lots of notes the same…whereas…things [in the contemporary piece] are more distinct”.


PB dedicated most of his time to learning the traditional piece and hadn’t memorized the contemporary piece when it came to performing. When asked which strategies he would use to memorize, if he were given a few more minutes, he said: “[get] it into my aural memory…[then] take a single bar or…phrase…meticulously fingering it…memorize that bit…and build them up block-wise”. Having applied this segmented strategy he gave a remarkable performance of the contemporary piece. Most notes were correctly played, suggesting that had he dedicated the same time to it as did the others, his memory recall would have been correct. The performance of the traditional piece was however correct. PB relied on aural memory: “[I] try to…get a reasonable sound” but also kinesthetic memory: “when it comes to finger memory…I don’t need to redo anything”.


For PC, the familiarity of the traditional piece raised questions about interpretation. This interfered with memorization, and as a result he skipped a whole bar during performance. He found the contemporary piece easier to memorize, making no mistakes while performing. He used the segmented strategy, often together with musical imagery: “it’s…small segments of colours…that are…connected”. Mental practice also figured strongly: “If I can play through the piece in my head…I…can play it…from memory”. He distributed his time equally between the pieces: “[I’ll] determine how to play each…to have two [separate] chunks of work”, his visual memory clearly being dominant: “[it’s a] visual memorizing thing…to see the notes and the fingers…I think of shapes in the left hand…a clear image”.

3.2 Main study

All participants memorized the second contemporary piece successfully. Strategies and memory types employed by each participant are reported below, combined with results of the IPA analysis of observations and practice data. Table 1 illustrates the main emerging themes.

Theme Subtheme Participant
rhythms rhythmic complexity A, B, C
recognizing the rhythms C
memory types aural memory A, B
kinesthetic memory A, B
visual memory A, B, C
emotional memory A
musical aspects shapes and gestures A
feel A
internalizing A
colours and dynamics C
strategies segmented A, B, C
holistic C
mental practice C
memory cues C
musical imagery C
sections defining sections A, B, C
linking sections A, B
phrases A, C
contemporary music preconceptions, illusions A
meta-cognition working under pressure A
self-efficacy, self-assessment A
importance of taking a break A
basic technique fingering and ringing B
“modes” performance mode C
memorization mode C

Table 1. Emerging themes


Emerging themes


For PA, rhythms emerged as a major theme: “[They] look quite hard…I need to work [them] out first”.

She quickly began playing, using aural memory “to get the sound in my head” her visual memory lasting only a short time: “I can’t quite remember…how the rhythms look on the page…[it’s more] like a mechanical memory”. Kinesthetic memory was strongly engaged through expressive gestures and movements: “If you give something a shape or think about the gesture it makes it easy to memorize…”.  She also referred to “feel” in terms of expression, indicating her use of emotional memory: “I’m trying to get it more…musical…I remember things…if I feel something”. She often used the word internalize for her kinesthetic, or “other” memory: “when you [don’t] remember what’s on the score…that’s ‘cause it’s…internalized in your other memory”.

PA’s practice strategy was based on segmentation, but defining and linking the sections seemed hard: “I’m not sure…what the sections should be…I can play it starting from [a new section] but…starting from the section before is harder”. She also had preconceptions of how it would be to memorize a contemporary piece: “I always have this…feeling that contemporary music takes way longer to learn than everything else”. However, describing a duo project involving new pieces she commented: “It was weird how quickly things did become familiar. I don’t know why it’s so scary…I think it might be…an illusion…I don’t know if it’s really that much harder”.

As with other expert performers[17], PA recognized the importance of resting: “My brain gets tired quite easily…[taking a break is] more efficient”.


PB’s main focus was on fingering and “ringing”, i.e. making notes sound for their designated time: “have to see…whether all the rings work…a very basic fingering idea first”. Nevertheless, much focus was set on rhythms: “No bar lines…no tempo marking?…I need to…rearrange my head”.

PB used his implicit aural memory to mentally hear a correct, well-sounding performance, while engaging his kinesthetic memory through careful planning of fingerings and positions. Kinesthetic memory was dominating during his performance, his only memory slip being due to a recent change in fingering. And like PA, he used the segmented practice strategy related to phrasing and found it difficult to link sections together: “It’s the transition…I can’t get right”.


At first, PC focused on the rhythmical complexity and the absence of bar lines. But soon, he began recognizing the rhythms: “You…see the rhythmic motive clear enough”.

The position of his music stand allowed him to create a picture of the note-hand combination. He also employed mental practice, envisioning the score with closed eyes. During performance, his reliance on visual memory was obvious: “basically, [I] had a picture of the page in [my] head”.

Using both holistic and segmented practice strategies, he repeatedly played the piece through, while also “[grouping] it in smaller things and longer phrases” additionally finding places which served as memory cues: “points where you can…catch up…landmarks”.

While performing, there were memory slips, which, according to him were related to a shift from concentrating on memorization to focusing on delivering an expressive performance. Having stopped for a moment, he then performed again with success, later explaining that he had: “[kept] the ‘performance mode’ [while going] back to…‘memorization mode’”.

Common features

a) All three participants were successful at memorizing the piece.

b) The same strategies as in the pilot study were used, mainly segmentation, although one participant used the holistic approach. None annotated bar marks and the use of musical/expressive tools such as dynamics for memorization was limited. All defined phrases, differing noticeably only at one point, i.e. just before the second melody cell enters (see numbered points, line 4 of main study piece, Figure 1). Here, PA started a new phrase at point 1, PB at point 3 and PC at point 2. These results coincide with with Lefkowitz & Tavola’s theory of segmentation[18], where three possibilities for section markings are predicted: after the longest note (as PA), after the largest interval (as PC), or a purely musical decision is made (as PB).

c) All participants used the same memory types for both studies. Greatest emphasis was set on deciphering the rhythms and compositional elements such as intervals, pitch, duration of notes and chord tensions were analyzed as well. However, they did not define important notes or notice the metamorphosis of the melody. Thus, compared to the pilot study, conceptual memory was used to an increased, albeit limited extent.

Difficulties in memorizing specific sections

a) All participants had trouble memorizing between A and B (see Figure 1), where the rhythms become regular and the music similar and more tonal. This is concurrent with the results of the pilot study and earlier research findings.[19]

b) Difficulties were also experienced between C and D (see Figure 1), where the two melody cells meet, the music becoming more complex.


4. Conclusions

Results showed that the participants used the same strategies for memorizing the contemporary pieces as have been reported in previous studies on traditional repertoire, i.e. mainly segmentation. However, their dominant memory types differed, which is concurrent with Hallam’s (1997) study.

Two participants found it easier to memorize the contemporary work as compared to the traditional piece, where they experienced difficulties due to the similarity of the material and questions regarding interpretation. The conclusion may be drawn that the more unlike, or varied, the musical material, the easier it is to memorize even though the musical idiom is unfamiliar.

In summary, the question as to what strategies guitarists use to memorize contemporary music can now be answered to a certain extent: First, for these participants, in order to hear, see or “feel” the music, they needed to decipher the rhythms. Then, they turned to traditional methods of memorizing, such as segmenting and phrasing. There are indications that memorizing contemporary music may not be more time-consuming, nor more difficult than other types of music, and in some cases, easier. Three factors may be contributing to this:

  1. The cognitive demand of having to focus on complex rhythms.
  1. The slow, repeated playing of the musical material over a length of time.
  1. The novelty of the musical material and the freedom from having to play according to set rules or conventions.

These assumptions, however, apply to the particular participants in this project. Further studies are still needed to fully explore how different types of musical material influence memorization processes.


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