Performing from Memory

Dynamic Performance through Expert Memorisation

Performing from Memory links the ways in which musicians memorise with spontaneity and expression in performance.

Concert soloists are expert memorists. They can recall thousands of notes in sequence to perform whole recitals from memory. These abilities are learned over many years of practice; rarely are musicians explicitly taught how to become expert memorists. Music teachers often find that memory differs widely from one student to the next and, as a result, leave each student to discover their own methods for memorising. Such approaches to memorisation can lead to anxiety and a fear of easily avoided memory lapses in performance.

Longitudinal case studies of professional musicians have shown that, during the learning process, experienced musicians constantly start, stop, back up, and repeat, making split-second decisions and regularly evaluating aspects of their technique, interpretation, expression, and performance. This behaviour has been used to develop and test psychological theories of expert memory, problem solving, and motor control, providing a new understanding of processes involved in performing from memory.  Findings have shown that experienced performers practise to develop landmarks in their mental map of the piece (i.e. performance cues) that allow for both automaticity and cognitive control to work in parallel in memorised performances: a safety net for memory so that the musician can attend to the interpretation of their performance and leave room for spontaneity.

Performing from Memory is based on an understanding of how the memory of expert musicians develops during practice. Drawing on previous findings it explores: (1) how practice and memorisation strategies are connected to spontaneity in musical interpretation and (2) how previous findings on expert memorisation can lead to new and effective practice strategies for novices. The research involves a close collaboration between performers and psychologists, bringing together theoretical and practical knowledge to determine how performance cues can be taught and developed throughout a musician’s career, resulting in polished performances that allow spontaneity and expression to flourish.

Project team

Tania Lisboa, RCM (PI)
Roger Chaffin, University of Connecticut
Alexander Demos, University of Illinois

Learn more

Jónasson P & Lisboa T (2019), Professional musicians as researchers: leading changes through a study on memorization, in D Bennett, JL Rowley, & PK Schmidt (eds.), Leadership of Pedagogy and Curriculum in Higher Music Education, Routledge.

Demos AP, Lisboa T, Begosh KT, Logan T, & Chaffin R (2018), A longitudinal study of the development of expressive timing, Psychology of Music [DOI].

Lisboa T, Demos AP, & Chaffin R (2018), Training thought and action for virtuoso performance, Musicae Scientiae, 22, 519-538 [DOI].

Demos AP, Lisboa T, & Chaffin R (2016), Flexibility of expressive timing in repeated musical performances, Frontiers in Psychology, 7 (1490), 1-9 [DOI].

Lisboa T, Chaffin R, & Demos AP (2015), Recording thoughts while memorizing music: a case study, Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (1561), 1-13 [DOI].

Lisboa T, Chaffin R, & Demos A (2012), Preparing memorised performance: the transition between childhood and expertise, in J Weller (ed.), Proceedings of the Nineteenth International Seminar of the Commission for the Education of the Professional Musician (pp. 74-79), International Society for Music Education.

Chaffin R, Lisboa T, Logan T, & Begosh K (2010), Preparing for memorized cello performance: the role of performance cues, Psychology of Music, 38, 3-30 [DOI].

Lisboa T, Chaffin R, & Begosh K (2010), Learning and memorizing in music performance: the role of performance cues, in M. Hannan (ed.), Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seminar of the Commission for the Education of the Professional Musician (pp. 73-76), International Society for Music Education.

Lisboa T, Chaffin R, & Logan T (2009), How memory fades: very-long-term recall of Bach, in A Williamon, S Pretty, & R Buck (eds.), Proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science 2009 (pp. 315-320), European Association of Conservatoires.

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