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Memory and music

I find the hardest thing about learning an instrument is keeping the songs I learn in my head.  On button accordion, I’ve found I can keep the ones I play all the time in my little brain no problem, but if I stop playing one for a while it becomes kind of fugitive. Usually there are memory triggers, like a starting point or a catchy riff and if I remember that but lose the rest from my conscious mind, the rests flows back when I play the familiar lick. I can increase the number of songs in my memory by have more of these mnemonics. Sometimes my conscious mind can’t pick up the mnemonic, but my fingers just do it. Other times, I have to listen to the melody in my head and imagine my fingers playing it, and often they cooperate. If I’ve memorized a song and then lost it, usually it only takes a quick review and it comes back.

Whenever I have to do any public speaking, I go through a specific process to remember what I want to say. First I’ll type it all out and read it over a few times. Then I’ll take a piece of paper and choose a single word or a short phrase to represent each paragraph, thought or idea. When I speak, I’ll have my notes but I’ll normally just look at the key words or phrases that I’ve put in the margins. Usually each key word triggers the idea. I might say it a little differently each time, but that’s usually OK.

On clawhammer banjo, I’ve decided to group the songs I want to learn by memory by tunings. So for instance, right now I’m working on a few tunes that are played in double C (or with a capo double D) tuning. A lot of the songs I’m learning in this tuning share basic licks and fills. Like most folk music, old time music is simple music played to sound complicated. Maybe my focus in memorizing songs should be to simply concentrate on learning the melody and then add in slides and hammer-ons and pull-offs and what-have-you to give the tune the flavour I’m imagining. It could be though that I need to build my chops more before I can do this. I’m really not sure.

I’ve given myself a goal of having a repertoire of about 20 old time tunes completely down by the end of my first year playing banjo. Some people think learning 5 or 6 songs in a year is more like what one ought to expect, but I can’t help but thinking, hey I should be able to do this. I’d like to find fiddle player (or even a guitar player) who is at about the same level as me and then learn tunes together with that person. I’ll bet that would accelerate my learning curve. (if you’re that person, contact me and let’s get together). It’s going to take a while to really build up my skills in any case and I know I shouldn’t feel I have to rush. On the other hand, I’m just beginning to learn this instrument and I’m in my early 50s. I’d like to be able to learn to play it very well, and I don’t have the advantage of starting as a kid, at a time when learning is fast and easy. I didn’t start button accordion until I was in my early 40s, and I enjoy the idea that I can keep learning things through my whole life.

When you need to commit things to memory, how do you go about it?


  1. A

    This is about how my brain works! Just keeping a significant riff or a few favorite measures of most favorite songs keeps them available in my head, as long as I play them once every six months or so. I’m sorry I’m so far away… I’ve got a year of the fiddle under my belt and have been hoping for a chance to have lessons, but haven’t had time. Someday! It’s nice to know one can still learn new instruments over 40. I don’t have far to go and would still love to pick up the banjo and accordion. I can play the piano and almost every wind instrument but stringed things are much harder for me! Trombone is still my favorite. : )

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