Sunday, February 18, 2007

The singing memory

We’ve just had our half term break for a week, and then on Saturday it was back to rehearse for our forthcoming concert. Always after a short break from our regular weekly sessions, it’s as if people forget much of what they’ve learnt – even the songs they’ve known for years! Unlike, say, riding a bicycle, just a short break from regular singing and it’s as if that part of the brain ‘forgets’ everything that it’s known. Even if we’ve been going over a song every week for the last few weeks, just a week off and the singing mind goes blank.

It seems though that this mainly affects short-term memory for tunes. Sometimes we’ve really struggled with a song and never quite got it right. Then perhaps a year later, without re-visiting it at all in the meantime, we decide to sing it again and it comes out perfectly! There has been no extra practice or rehearsal or repetition, it’s just lain dormant in the brain, and yet the subconscious seems to have been at work in the interim.

These phenomena point to something about how the brain remembers melodies and lyrics, but I’m not sure what! A short break of just a week may have devastating effects, but a whole summer off and the choir often comes back sharp as nails. Understanding this better might help us find more effective ways of teaching and learning songs. After learning a new song for a few weeks, we then just sing it through for a few more weeks, then I allow a few weeks to pass before we try it again in the belief that the subconscious has been squirreling it away more effectively in the memory. But maybe I’m kidding myself??!!

There is definitely a different part of the brain involved in learning songs than that used to learn melodies for instruments and learning ‘lines’ (e.g. poetry, plays, etc.) off by heart (see The writing's on the wall!). Many times I can be asked what the lyrics to a song are and can only recall them by singing them. I can’t speak them or I’ll forget what’s coming next. The brain has stored the sounds and the words together, inextricably linked. Similarly, when someone is struggling with a tune, sometimes just reminding them of the first few words is enough for the whole thing to kick in. Many times, when singing a song we’ve not done for a while, I’m convinced I don’t know the words (or the harmony). But I trust the process and just open my mouth and – as if by magic – the whole thing comes out almost despite me. There is even a conscious part of my brain that can observe this process taking place and marvels at where the words and tune are actually coming from.

At our rehearsal on Saturday somebody asked for clarification of their harmony part so I sang it to them (believing that I knew it). Afterwards they said that they weren’t sure that’s exactly what I’d taught them. This sowed a doubt in my mind and I went to get the written score to sing it again. The second time round I realised that I had been absolutely spot on the first time! It was my subconscious brain that had remembered it. I just opened my mouth and trusted what came out. But as soon as someone asked me a question, my rational brain kicked in and I began to doubt myself.

I often see people singing hesitantly because their conscious mind is telling them that it’s not sure that they know what they’re doing. However, 9 times out of 10 they’ve got it right, if only they’d trust themselves and the learning process. At times like that I tell people to behave as if they know what they're doing and invariably it will come out right.

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Chris Rowbury


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