Home » How I Memorize Piano Music: Jocelyn Swigger at TEDxGettysburgCollege (Transcript)

How I Memorize Piano Music: Jocelyn Swigger at TEDxGettysburgCollege (Transcript)

But it happens that the stuff in the blue boxes. (Plays notes inside blue boxes) is the same, just a little higher. And if I collapse them all down to their closest position, I can really think of all of those as being this chord, and I have a name for it, which is C major. So I’m thinking of one piece of information instead of all of those pieces of information. Sometimes there’s a little more noise thrown in.

Here, this is a Chopin nicknamed “Wrong Note” étude (Plays piano score) So he kind of wrote in these wrong notes that then resolved to the right notes. And if you try to memorize the information of the wrong notes, that’s really hard to figure out, just like our alphabetical ordered pairs and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. But if you accept that the wrong notes are just kind of these mean downstairs neighbors and you think about this this I can actually think of as being one chord, (Plays chord) which is E minor. So I can think of it that way.

So then, what do you do when you see something like this? Well, first you cry, and then you start looking for patterns. So you might see that it goes (Plays piano score) in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out. So let’s look at that very first little in-out pair (Plays piano score) So the top notes of the right hand are B, F, D, G#, and it so happens that those are also the top notes of the left hand (Plays) B, F, D, G#.

The bottom notes of the right hand are also the same as the bottom notes of the left hand, and actually, just this, (Plays) those notes together are B, F, D, G# (Plays). So actually, we can think about all of this as being this chord, (Plays as chord) which is easier to think about than this (Plays in-out pattern). So I won’t walk you through all of this, but the next red box is exactly the same thing, (Plays chord) a step lower, and then it changes and changes and changes (Plays chords). So instead of thinking about all of this information, (Plays in-out pattern) I can think about (Plays sequence of single notes) which is much easier for my poor brain to handle. So, what I just showed you is between the first blue arrow and the second blue arrow I won’t walk you through it, but trust me that between the second and third blue arrow is the same thing a step down, and then at the third blue arrow, it’s the same thing as step down again. So it’s very much worth my while to be good at starting at the first blue arrow, and also good at starting at the second blue arrow, and also good at starting at the third blue arrow.

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So that if panic strikes, or something happens in between two arrows, I can jump to the next place, so that’s building myself a safety net. So once I’ve chunked my information, then I’m ready to think about the larger structure. And it so happens that a lot of classical music is an A-B-A form. It’s just shaped like a sandwich. You have a thing and then a different thing and then a thing that’s similar to the first thing.

Once I have like overall structure, I make a theory map I actually write out all the chords; I make my students do this too. And then once I have my theory map, I have to memorize the map, and one way that I do this is by playing the music while saying the name of the chord. So I might do something like A minor, D minor, A minor, (Plays piano score) E7 A E.

And if I want to emphasize the chords’ or the harmonies’ relationships to each other, rather than their individual identities, I can throw numbers at them. So I can say: 1, 4, 1, (Plays piano score) 5, 1, 5 1. So by the time I figured out how to do that, all four of my memories are in place – how it looks, how it sounds, how it feels, and how it’s shaped. And here’s the really cool thing: when I say that the memory is in an actual place, it’s an actual place! With every repetition that I have to do, my brain is building myelin, which is the unbelievable protein that wraps itself around neural pathways and makes them go faster.

So I’ll leave you with a quotation from somebody who had a lot of musical myelin and a question.

Einstein said,

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I think in music, I live my daydreams in music. Our next generation of scientists has a lot of problems to solve. Here’s my question: What kind of discoveries might they come up with if we make sure that they know how to think in music?”

Thank you.

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