This article highlights the importance of Visual Intelligence - the photo memory of the written notes - and constitutes post 3 of the 7 part series on the types of intelligences that are called upon in studying music.
When we utilize a visual learning of the actual notes on a page, a picture of the notes is formed in our brain.
Some people have what is known as a “photographic memory” and can see an entire piece on what amounts to a virtual movie screen in their mind’s “eye”.
However, even those with terrible visual memory, like myself for example, can improve and develop the skill. It’s too easy to wimp out and play by ear or finger memory for me. With a little application and patience, you will be surprised how much you can learn to “see” of the music as you play from memory.
Visual memory comes in handy. As a skill, playing from memory encourages a deeper grasp of the notes by adding a layer of experience of them.
I encourage committing to memory directly anything you play. That way you will hone the memory skill constantly. Besides the obvious applications, visual memory can come in handy in the event of a panic - for example: if your music falls off the stand.
You might wonder if this type of memorization skill is too simple or obvious to be separated from others. This may well be true for some people but for others, like me, that division is necessary so that a specific weakness can be identified. Conversely, you might find that it’s one of your strengths.
I memorize music mostly by the “feel” of the notes and by their pitches. I am not particularly adept at memorizing visually. It follows that I would be a good candidate to benefit from practicing visual memory as I learn music.
Shape, position and color are among many useful visual cues-
Learning music visually in a natural way, you "note" (pun intended!) the position of passages on the page, how many phrases per page and where in the phrase there may be a page turn. Visual cues add to your knowledge base of the music.
In addition, I suggest you also pay attention to all aspects of the visual page, including the color of the paper, unusual markings or creases, weight of the ink, even the direction of the “tails” on faster notes. Those steps can be a bit more playful. Though not critical cues, they may feed the memory of a visually more sensitive musician.
By way of a working example, let’s look once again at the opening passage of the Rondo from the Mozart Clarinet Concerto:
To begin from a playful angle, glancing at it I see numerous cues having nothing to do with the music:
- the page number
- the bar numbers
- the listings of number of bars rest
- two dynamics - piano at the start which changes to mezzo-forte at the second phrase.
While these are not all critical to performance, noticing little insignificant markings warms up your visual observation to greater detail, leading to a better “image” as you recall it.
There is also the visual shape of the phrase: almost horizontal the first two bars, then descending from high to low, then flat again, reaching up and descending again. It runs for a line and a half. All the tails of eights and sixteenths are pointing downward in this first phrase.
The first phrase begins with the top space note, e and hovers around the top line note, f. Then ascends to 2 lines above the staff, and concluding by floating down the scales to dip to middle line, b. Seeing those staff placements in your mind as you play will bring up the entire phrase.
It’s not necessary for all these details to be committed to memory immediately. Observe a few key visual points as you “map” the music in your mind’s eye. Those will serve as triggers to the rest.
You could also begin the memorization process at the end of the piece and work backwards to the beginning. Memorize the last bar and play it. Then add the second to last bar and play through the last again, etc through the piece. That way the notes are progressively more deeply committed to memory as you play through it from the beginning.
Consider the exercise like the game for kids on cereal boxes: how many animals (visual cues) can you find hidden in the picture?
Memorize line by line, page by page, movement by movement in order to successfully “map” the music in your mind.
Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? You could do so at the Practice Café.