Trouble Memorizing Tunes?

  1. HonketyHank
    Here is a new video from my favorite banjo instructor. I subscribe to his channel even though I haven't tried to play banjo in several years. Josh is a neuro-physiologist and bases his lessons on his professional knowledge of how the brain works to learn stuff. What stuff? Any stuff. Many of his lessons apply just as well to the mandolin as to the banjo. And in many lessons he rarely if ever mentions the banjo. This one is like that. I got enough out of it that I thought I would share it.

  2. NDO
    Thanks for that Hank! Great stuff. I’m blessed with good auditory memory thanks to my harp playing… but I’m cursed with lack of practice reading tabs or notation. I need to work on that! I’ve been learning all the songs-of-the-month by ear which makes memorizing them easy but I’m dependent on which version I listen to and I don’t always adhere to the author’s original score depending on who I’m copying.
  3. Sherry Cadenhead
    Sherry Cadenhead
    I can see that I need to watch the next episode. There are many threads in the Forum on memorizing tunes, one of which I started.
  4. HonketyHank
    I sure recognized myself in his descriptions. I played in the school band from age 12 to age 18. Failure to play exactly what was written was unforgivable. I never memorized anything. Add to that my engineer's mentality of "there is one right way to do something and many wrong ways". Plus, I never sing.

    Wow. And I am trying to learn to play by ear? I may be an old dog, but I really work on learning that particular new trick.
  5. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    Questions, I have so many questions!

    He is really interesting, and obviously has dug deeply into his knowledge of neuroscience and applied it to learning music.

    Why does he refer to reading music fluently as playing by rote? My understanding of "rote" is that it is the process of committing something to memory through repetition. This is pretty much the opposite of what, to use his example, a musician in a symphony does when confronted with 25 pages of Mahler for an upcoming performance. You ain't memorizing that anytime soon, honey! Does he use the term "rote" in a different way?

    If I remember correctly what he said, doesn't he maintain that both memorizing a tune by ear and by using tab creates problems when you are playing with others who use a slightly different variation on a tune you have memorized? What is the solution?

    He talks quite a bit about tab. Personally, I find tab problematic: it may be easier to learn that standard notation short-term, but it seems to have severe limitations in the long run. For someone who reads notation, a five-second look at a sheet of music gives you tons of information and a framework within which to play and learn it. If you are playing a tune you know well, but not completely by heart, a quick glance reminds you immediately where the B part goes. Is reading tab ever that fluent, or is it a means to an end, the end being memorizing the piece? Tab doesn't give the instant, graphic info that notation does: hills and valleys, patterns, intervals, note length, time signature and key signature.

    Yesterday I had a loooong lunch with a dear friend I haven't seen for many Covid-infested months. She is a classically trained violinist, and we got onto this subject. It's a big topic. She's potentially interested in joining the contradance band I play with, but has been put off by the expectation most local Celtic groups have that music is memorized. Like me, she doesn't memorize easily. (Side note: she's one of the most brilliant people I know, and an excellent musician!) Luckily for us, when you are playing a three-hour dance, there is no expectation that all those jigs and reels and waltzes and schottisches are memorized!

    Memorization sems to be a huge part of jam culture. I'm not sure how it fits in to what I am trying to learn vis-a-vis the mandolin. I wish I had more skill in playing by ear.
  6. Sherry Cadenhead
    Sherry Cadenhead
    Ditto to what Louise said.
  7. HonketyHank
    I too thought his use of the word "rote" was confusing. It makes me think that he may not really read standard notation. Or as some old timer (was it Hobart Smith maybe?) once said when asked if he read music -- "not enough to hurt my playing". I am pretty sure that Josh didn't start playing the banjo until just a few years ago and I think it could have been his first musical instrument. But I bet he could sing nicely.
  8. NDO
    I think he was a little sloppy using the term rote… he was referring to directly translating notes on paper to notes on instrument, without much internal processing. For jamming and playing in a band, the key skill is translating a SONG to notes on an instrument, in time with the others playing around you and in a way that fits and fills gaps in their musical parts. So the song needs to reside in your head, rather than the individual notes that make it up. Sort of like creating a meal vs. following a recipe.
    That’s my take anyway.
  9. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    Ah. This.

    A few months ago there was a borderline-vicious thread in the big kids' forum about standard notation vs. tab vs. learning by ear. The perception, in some quarters, is that sheet music turns a musician into nothing but an automaton or player piano: no thought, no emotion, no musicality, no ability to listen to anyone else or respond to what other players are doing. Where does this come from?

    My experience has been that there are good, bad, and indifferent musicians in all genres, whether the music is in their heads, hands, eyes, or anywhere else. I have seen string quartets and bar bands phone it in to fulfill the contract and get the paycheck, and I have seen orchestras and reggae bands give brilliant performances that just caught fire, leaving the musicians and audience shattered at the end.

    Any good music speaks of love, terror, joy, regret, and all the rest of the human experience. It's a musician's job to bring it all out. If you're playing for dancers, keeping an appropriate tempo and steady beat is most important. If you are singing torch songs or playing Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, the rhythm stretches in a way it can't in a polka to express longing and pathos. The framework of the piece is printed on paper or embedded in your brain, but it's the expression of it that counts. There is nothing about reading notes as you play that keeps you from engaging intellectually and emotionally with the core of the music, and there is nothing about playing from memory that ensures you find the soul of the music.

    At least as far as I can see.
  10. NDO
    Sorry if I gave that impression Louise- I am in no way intending to imply that reading sheet music causes inability to be expressive! Sometimes the opposite as you noted.
    From experience however in learning orchestra music in my youth (clarinet and sax), the teaching methods and brain connections I experienced then are quite different than what I experienced when I started playing harmonica and comping with live bands by ear. Not better or worse, but different. I fully agree that musical notation is the most efficient way to convey musical information, and I intend to regain proficiency at it.

    I would say that the terrifically moving orchestral experiences you mentioned are usually from well-practiced orchestras playing a piece they’ve been working on… so even there, there is an element of memorization of the soul of the song and its changing moods.
  11. Southern Man
    Southern Man
    My entire goal in learning to play is to be able to play improvisational styles of music (jam bands and bluegrass). So I am definitely making a good effort to learn by ear and to learn to improvise. Some things have helped me a lot. I took the Beginner mandolin course on Peghead Nation with Sharon Gilchrist and she taught entirely by ear. I've also paid some pretty careful attention to music theory (just sort of beginner theory, not any sort of advanced theory) and that has helped me to understand somewhat intuitively where the music is going. So that help me not so much memorize tunes as learn tunes, if there is a difference there. From there it is just a matter of playing them a lot...

    Not that I am very good at any of these skills, but it is the methodology I am following and I am seeing a little bit of slow progress now and then.
  12. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    So many ways to approach it, and no one is right for all.

    I wish school music programs, whether band/orchestra or a grade school general music class, gave more attention to some of what we are talking about. Basic theory, listening to each other along with following a conductor, music as conversation. Most are performance-oriented, which isn't a bad thing, but there is plenty of other learning that should happen too. Unfortunately, schools like things that can be quantified, graded, and presented to adoring parents on a regular schedule. Chamber music—string quartets, woodwind quintets, brass ensembles—would be a wonderful addition if time and supervision could be found. School programs can get highly competitive, the antithesis of what I wish they were.
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