Music for memorization

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#1 25 February, 2012 - 08:56
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Music for memorization


As I noted in another thread just a few minutes ago, I was recently reading Oliver Sacks's book Musicophilia. I have also begun reading into the technical literature on music in cognitive neuroscience and similar areas, for professional reasons I won't get into here (you don't want to know!). I stumbled on something quite striking.

We all talk about “muscle memory” as though this were a known and real phenomenon, but if we think about it, we presumably realize that there is no such thing. Memory as such, in whatever form, happens in the brain. But that’s not to say that all memory is alike, of course: there are all kinds of different systems that operate in intersecting ways dependent on what’s memorized, how we go about it, and so on.

Now it turns out – and this is fairly recent research – that the brain deals with music quite differently than it deals with other things. Nobody really knows what’s going on here, but music and the brain have a very strange relationship.

The dimension of this I want to bring out here, of course, has to do with memory. When a musician memorizes a piece of music for performance, there are many different ways of going about it, as you’d expect. But the ultimate result is very strange. When you run through a piece in your head, having memorized it for performance (in the sense that you can play it from memory), your brain starts flashing systems all over the place in ways that are largely unexpected and unlike other kinds of memory. Most notably, areas of motor function flash strongly, although the muscles are not triggered, which is basically very weird and not expected from comparisons with athletes, dancers, and whatnot. It seems as though musical memory actually does embed “in the muscles,” which is to say in motor areas of the brain, as well as in lots of other places.

What’s more, these musical memories are fantastically durable. We all know, to our sadness, that forgetting is all too easy. But it seems that musical works, once memorized in this way, are remarkably difficult to forget. For example, Alzheimer’s-type dementias can shred any kind of memory, but it is quite common for afflicted musicians to be able to play extremely complex pieces they have memorized despite massive dementia in other areas. In fact, there are well-documented cases of musicians actually learning new pieces despite such conditions. There are cases of people who have had strokes and such that destroy the ability to form long-term memories, who nevertheless are able to learn musical works and retain them perfectly.

Nobody really knows what’s going on here. This is a pretty new field of neuroscience. But there can be no question that musical memory is powerful and different.

Now here’s why I mention all this.

There is some indication, though so far as I can see it is very little studied, that musical memories can be deliberately attached to other kinds. Too, we all know, here at this forum, that sequence is one of those crucially powerful devices for mnemotechnics. For example, in the Method of Loci, you memorize something like a deck of cards by placing 52 card images (or combined chunks, of course) in a sequence of memorized locations. Now part of what memorizing music entails is an extraordinarily extended control of sequence. If you memorize a 5-minute piano piece, you need a huge amount of encoding in a tight sequence, and once you’ve memorized it, you don’t forget the sequence – you just run through it, and it sort of unfolds automatically.

So let’s suppose you decided to memorize a sequence of something non-musical by attaching it to the sequences in a given musical piece. How would this work? How would you go about it?

I don’t know, but I have a few guesses. I would think that the main difficulties are going to be to figure out (a) what you’re going to memorize, (b) how to break that down into a sequence that can be mapped onto the music, and then (c) how, other than pure repetition, you’re going to encode that mapping.

A few notes:

A) Don’t memorize decks of cards this way. I have an intuition that if you do it, you’ll never forget that one deck of cards, which is pretty much useless. If you actually wipe a deck off a musical work, as it were, I suspect you’re going to screw up the music. Even if that doesn’t happen, I suspect you’ll end up with a lot of confusions. So memorize something you want to know permanently – because if this works, it’s going to be permanent. (Who knows: it might even survive brain injuries!)

B) Music often breaks pretty smoothly into phrases, bars, and so on. Bear in mind that the various layers of architectonic meaning in the music are going to impose cross-conceptual meanings onto whatever else you memorize. So it’s probably best to map this stuff very carefully, by conscious planning, note-taking, and whatnot. (This may also mean that this is a system best adapted to memorizing large blocks of text, such as whole books, or something similar.)

C) I don’t have a lot of suggestions here. It’s too dependent on A and B for me to generalize.

There are all kinds of questions here. I have no answers. I’m hoping people will be interested to discuss.

25 February, 2012 - 09:33
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Are you talking about being able to recognise music, or being able to reproduce music?

I'm inclined to believe that muscle memories are different from "imaginational" memories and would be effected differently by various brain diseases.

And only because of the mistaken belief that all types of memories are the same are the differences remarkable.

25 February, 2012 - 11:46
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Geoff wrote:

Are you talking about being able to recognise music, or being able to reproduce music?

Memorizing a work for performance, i.e., to play it.

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I'm inclined to believe that muscle memories are different from "imaginational" memories and would be effected differently by various brain diseases.

This is not muscle memory, insofar as that has any normal meaning. Example: a professional athlete struck down by parkinsonism is going to be impaired in performing as an athlete. A professional musician, perhaps (though this is not entirely clear) especially a musician who works in the "classical music" tradition, will often drop all symptoms of parkinsonism when she addresses the instrument (sits at the piano, lifts bow and violin, etc.). Touretters stop ticcing, and so forth. This is quite specific to music, and not at all well understood.

Quote:

And only because of the mistaken belief that all types of memories are the same are the differences remarkable.

No. This is pretty solidly documented. The brain handles music quite differently from other information, and embeds it into memory differently as well. It's not a question of sequential, imaginal, conceptual, or whatever different kinds of memories. We're talking about different regions of the brain, essentially different systems working in very complicated coordination with one another. There's not a lot of question about this: music plays with your brain oddly, or perhaps the other way around, or both.

Another example that might help. Take someone congenitally deaf and compare to someone who became deaf a few years ago and to someone with normal hearing. It is possible to detect that all the same systems are present and functional, but wildly atrophied in the first case and significantly so in the second. There is good reason to think that these systems can be stimulated to reactivate fully, i.e. that given the right techniques and technologies it should be possible to make the deaf hear. (There are of course some exceptions to this, but the principle holds.)

Now take someone with a radical amusia, for example someone who hears crashing, grinding noise instead of any sort of music. (Yes, that's for real, well-documented.) There is good reason to think that these people's brains are incapable of making sense of music. Ever. We don't know why, but we're talking about something quite deep in the brain.

25 February, 2012 - 13:13
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You seem to know way more about this sort of thing than I do, so I'll just pose more questions:

How is music different from other sound, like speech?

What are the athletic examples you are comparing to?
Being a quarterback or a 100m sprinter is much different to sitting at a piano and wiggling your fingers a bit.

25 February, 2012 - 14:20
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Geoff wrote:

You seem to know way more about this sort of thing than I do, so I'll just pose more questions:

How is music different from other sound, like speech?

It appears to be remarkably different, in terms of brain processing. People with severe aphasias do not generally have corresponding difficulties with music, and conversely amusias -- even in the case of severe tone-deafness, the inability to distinguish distinct pitches -- do not usually provoke difficulties in terms of accent and such. The old idea that stutterers should try to sing their speech is actually often true: simply by shifting from speech to music, the ticcing that we often perceive as stuttering simply goes away: the singing happens in quite different brain systems.

Quote:

What are the athletic examples you are comparing to?
Being a quarterback or a 100m sprinter is much different to sitting at a piano and wiggling your fingers a bit.

I don't have that article at hand, unfortunately. My recollection is that the comparison was to a number of cases of high-end athletes afflicted by parkinsonism; at least one was a basketball player, I'm pretty sure. Basically the parksinonism interfered with both fine and gross motor skills: running, dribbling, shooting, all that. But the symptoms of parkinsonism simply drop away when musicians sit down at the piano. Again, it appears that the brain processes music very differently from what one would expect.

This stuff is wildly counterintuitive. It's a very new field in neuroscience, as well, for exactly this reason. Although a number of great neurologists over the last century or so have described specifically musical phenomena, it was until pretty recently assumed that these things were just the same as what one would find in other conditions -- speech, hearing, vision, gross and fine motor coordination, memory, and so forth. Turns out it's not so: music is weird, somehow very deeply wired into the brain.

What's more, nobody knows why. For example, a lot of the nouveau evolutionary guys who try to explain everything in those terms have a hard time with it. What is music for? It appears to be almost uniquely human: other apes manifest things like drumming and such, rather irregularly, but there is increasingly strong evidence that this isn't the same as what happens in the human brain in relation to music. Same with bird song: it's music to us, but it doesn't seem as though it's music to them. In fact, there is some serious speculation that this whole music thing may be older, evolutionarily speaking, than speech. But nobody knows why.

In any event, I was only bringing all this up because it appears that human brains are capable of extraordinary feats of memory, relatively easily, so long as the sequence is specifically musical -- and, probably, architectonically structured. So it should be possible to use this to memorize other things...

but how, precisely?

27 February, 2012 - 16:23
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Well, all this is quite interesting to me too. I play the piano (at Beethoven sonatas level), and I too don't care about memorizing cards.

So if there is a way to map a corpus of scientific knowledge, instantly retrievable, onto a musical piece I already know by heart in every possible way, and remember it better than if mapped with loci, then I'm all for it.

As for the neuroscience and the evolutionary biology behind all this, you bring forth a lot of interesting data and phenomena. It would be really cool for me to read your sources (I study chemistry, and neuroscience is a subject I am interested in -think of it as a second or third hobby).

Let's keep the conversation going, I am very curious as to what could come of this

28 February, 2012 - 20:03
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Sources: start with Sacks, Musicophilia. He gives a lot of sources for various dimensions of the material. At this point I haven't found a lot of especially interesting things in the neuroscience end that he doesn't cite at least indirectly, but to be fair I have only just begun digging in this region. There are other kinds of sources -- music semiology, philosophy, and so on -- that I could list, but on the neuroscience end I've basically started with Sacks.

As to evolutionary biology, I've seen very little. Sacks mentions (and I've looked up -- he cites accurately) that Pinker finds music irritating because he can't account for it evolutionarily. I have colleagues who've noted similar things in other work. But I haven't seen much beyond this. One colleague who's quite up on cognitive neuroscience and buys into the evolutionary stuff in a way I don't tells me that there has been some serious speculation about whether musical processing may have evolved prior to speech in the human brain, but he has yet to get back to me with references.

15 March, 2012 - 16:06
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ChrisLehrich wrote:

As to evolutionary biology, I've seen very little. Sacks mentions (and I've looked up -- he cites accurately) that Pinker finds music irritating because he can't account for it evolutionarily.

haha, I told the middle school choir I teach about this a few weeks ago. They started telling me how Pinker is an idiot ... hey, it gets them thinking and to practice formulating arguments.

ChrisLehrich wrote:

One colleague who's quite up on cognitive neuroscience and buys into the evolutionary stuff in a way I don't tells me that there has been some serious speculation about whether musical processing may have evolved prior to speech in the human brain, but he has yet to get back to me with references.

This is interesting. It always bugged me when people like Daniel Levitin would say that bird songs and whale songs are music and present it as such. Im just a music teacher but it seems to me that it is more vocal inflection of speech without the vocabulary or syntax ... though Ive heard that prairie dogs are able to communicate size and color worn of a human approaching their burrows through their chirps.

16 March, 2012 - 01:09
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Fascinating stuff.

I guess most of us at some time or other have come across the suggestion that different people learn best in one of three different ways; visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), or kinesthetic (doing). Now, does this suggest that memory linked to music will work better for some people than others? Will the benefit for a master musician always be greater than for somebody that is, er, musically challenged? Does it matter - is the effect so strong that even the musically challenged will find it useful?

26 April, 2012 - 12:21
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Richie_UK wrote:

I guess most of us at some time or other have come across the suggestion that different people learn best in one of three different ways; visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), or kinesthetic (doing). Now, does this suggest that memory linked to music will work better for some people than others? Will the benefit for a master musician always be greater than for somebody that is, er, musically challenged? Does it matter - is the effect so strong that even the musically challenged will find it useful?

As far as I understand it, there are too many factors here to reduce in quite this way. But roughly speaking:

1. With very rare exceptions, all human brains are capable of ludicrously complex musical processing. Your uncle Herman who can't carry a tune in a bucket -- but insists on singing at the top of his lungs regularly -- processes music just fine in this sense. To be so "musically challenged" that the systems don't really work more or less at all is exceedingly rare and doesn't manifest in any one manner. For example, there are a few people here and there who simply do not hear music as coherent sound at all -- it is genuinely nothing more than unpleasant noise, akin to dropping pots and pans on a floor. All music, all the time, always. Then you have people who hear music just fine but don't seem to be capable of comprehending it at all, sort of like someone who cannot understand any sort of human interaction (emotion, empathy, whatever). This sort of stuff was until recently thought to be basically anecdotal and mythological, but good work is now demonstrating that it's for real. And really, really rare.

2. There is surely a strong spectrum of processing ability here. While some of it is "built in," the majority appears to be learned. The power of neuroplasticity is so extreme here that it is not entirely improper to compare any kind of musical processing -- listening with attention, practicing an instrument, singing, etc. -- to weight-lifting, in the sense that you get stronger and stronger. We don't know what sort of upper limits there might be here, nor how to measure that. I think memory is a great parallel: lots of neuro guys will blandly tell people about the limits on the human memory, but everyone here knows that a lot of those limits just aren't there.

3. There are a huge number of intersecting systems involved in musical processing. They extend from very ancient lower cerebellar systems all the way to the frontal lobes, and span pretty much everything. There may not be any set of systems quite this complex in the brain other than linguistic systems, which overlap but are apparently not the same thing. (Example: a stroke can make someone totally aphasic but still perfectly able to sing, or the reverse. In some cases, such a stroke might make the person a better musician.) There are endless and fruitless debates about why the brain is so good at music, but one interesting speculation is that language may be a side-effect of musical processing, evolutionarily speaking.

4. So, a short answer to your question. My understanding, which might well be incorrect, is that the kind of effects you're describing -- visual learners vs. auditory learners, etc. -- are likely pretty trivial here. The comparison to language is worthwhile: you may be a visual learner and I an auditory one, but that doesn't mean you learned to read before you learned to speak, nor that you are a radically superior reader and I a radically superior lecture-listener. Language is the fundamental here; these other things are minor approach things. Music is at least on the scale of language -- and possibly even deeper.

Hope that helps!

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