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Memorisation of atonal music

Soares, Alexander (2015). Memorisation of atonal music. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, Guildhall School of Music and Drama)


Research on musical memory has focussed on the organisation of practice to develop and implement retrieval cues: locations in the music that trigger memory. Cues are distilled during extended practice. Those features of the music that still require attention in performance remain as Performance Cues (PCs). Scholarship demonstrates that theories of expert memory in other fields are also applicable to musical performance. The formal structure of the music provides a ready-made framework that can be used as a hierarchical retrieval scheme. This structure allows for content-addressable memory to meet the demands of performance. Landmarks remain in a musician’s long-term memory, relating to structural boundaries and PCs established in practice. Existing research has largely focussed on tonal music, with musical structures that are apparent to the musician. This thesis adopts established methodologies from this body of literature to extend insights on musical memorisation in complex atonal piano repertoire.

Using a range of atonal music, the thesis initially questions how more complex structures affect the development of a retrieval scheme. The argument demonstrates that a musician uses a wide range of intuitive responses to the features of the score to establish a conceptual framework. It is helpful for performers to think in structural terms. Yet in reality a wider range of musical dimensions informs the practitioner. Secondly, the thesis questions how atonal music is memorised by performers. It argues that a wider range of kinaesthetic and conceptual techniques is needed for memorisation of atonal music in comparison to tonal equivalents. Finally, the thesis extends the discussion of replicated use of PCs across performances. Analysis focusses on the acoustic realisation of performance through the use of spectrograms. Examination of the changes in expressive execution of various PCs and musical features provides further insight into the role of memory in the creative act of performance.

The thesis seeks to extend analysis into the complexities of musical memorisation. Examination of intricate, unusual structures provides a great deal of insight in assessing how musicians adapt their wealth of domain-specific knowledge to tackle the challenges presented. As specific memorisation strategies for musicians remain an under-researched area – particularly for atonal music – the detailed examination of techniques is valuable in developing wider methods that can be applied across all types of repertoire. It is surprising that the teaching of memory technique remains largely absent in higher education institutions. As such, this analysis has broad implications for the educational environment, to develop more formal and integrated didactic procedures. Finally, examination of the varied acoustic realisation of retrieval cues provides original insights into the way in which memorisation can function in a spontaneous, creative manner: a fundamental aim of performance.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
Departments: Doctoral Theses
Text - Accepted Version
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