The Role of Retrieval Structures in Memorizing Music

Written in Feburary of 2003 I think

The Role of Retrieval Structures in Memorizing Music

a peer-review study by Aaron Williamon and Elizabeth Valentine (Cognitive Psychology 44, 1–32 (2002))

This study investigated how the formation and use of memory structures change as musicians become more skilled as performers. Novice musicians may lack the required skills and experience to identify a composition’s formal structure, in which case their inept domain-specific knowledge base would force them to exploit other retrieval schemes or prevent them from explicitly using any such schemes.
The study addressed these questions by examining the practice habits of 22 pianists as they prepared an assigned Bach composition for a later piano recital organized by their music teachers. Interviews were conducted after the performances to find out if the pianists segmented and organized their assigned composition during practice and performance knowingly. Secondly, the musicians’ practice habits were studied to find out if their practice sessions were guided by their segmentation of the music. And finally, the extent to which performers structured their practice according to hierarchical principles of organization was investigated.
The 22 musicians were divided up into four groups, based on skill level, and each level was given a piece to practice for a recital. Their practice sessions, recorded on audio tapes, and their later recitals were both analyzed by three members of the “Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music” for quality. The music that was to be learnt by each level was divided up into the categories of “difficult” for pieces that the musicians thought were complex, “structural” for bars that began new sections, both defined by experts and by participants in the study, and “other” for all bars that weren’t “difficult” or “structural”. The practice sessions were analyzed and it was recorded when and on what kind of bar a musician would stop or start a practice session.
A Chi-Squared test was done on the results to level out within-group differences and between group differences in the data based on the expected sections a participant would start or stop a piece and the actual start and stop points. There was an extremely high correlation between the type of bar and when that a participant started or stopped a practice on it. There was also a high positive correlation between the quality of the performances and the chi-squared result of the amount of starts on structural bars.
These findings indicate the use of hierarchical structures to organize practice and to act as retrieval cues for the pianists. Also, the use of structural bars in starting and stopping practice segments increases with ability level and importantly, the earlier the participant began using the structural bars to guide their practice, the higher the quality of their performance.

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