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View Full Version : Musicians: Easier to sight-read==> harder to memorize?


Spectre of Pithecanthropus
12-01-2006, 07:25 AM
I play guitar just for fun, mostly Renaissance and Baroque-era pieces on a Takamine steel string. Yeah, I know, I should be using a classical guitar, but this is the closest thing I have to one right now. Besides, I like the metallic tone.

Anyway, I've usually found that when I work through a new piece, I usually have it memorized fairly soon, long before I can play it fluently, so by the time I do achieve fluency, I don't need the music. Now, however, I've been working on a fairly easy Spanish fantasia which happens to be technically easy, in the sense that it takes very little effort to read the notes and play accordingly. They're mostly down in the first five frets of the guitar which are the first notes everyone learns.

But for some reason I find it hard to memorize.

Has anyone else noticed anything like this?

robertliguori
12-01-2006, 07:51 AM
It depends on the instrument, and on how you learned to play it. I was a professional musician for eight years playing the fife and pennywhistle in the Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps. We have to memorize a lot of music; when you're marching in front of the tourists, you can't consult anything written down. As such, I learned to be very good at memorizing music. However, I can't sight-read worth beans. My friends who play other instruments (piano and guitar) are both very good at translating written music into played music, probably because they will almost always be looking at the music as they're playing it.

Out of curiosity, how hard to memorize is 'very hard'? If you can play it, can't you just spend an hour or two playing it straight through repeatedly until muscle memory starts to set in?

WordMan
12-01-2006, 08:35 AM
For me it is all about the patterns in the music - if there are patterns that work for me, I memorize it whether I like it or not. If for some reason there are no patterns or at least they are hard for me to discern, it's hopeless.

Beware of Doug
12-01-2006, 08:41 AM
Certain melodies are slow and simple but subtle. They don't quite "follow" the harmony, repeat phrases with small changes, and there isn't much rhythm. These are right bitches to learn by ear.

Van Heusen's But Beautiful is a good example (but beautiful :) ).

tdn
12-01-2006, 08:54 AM
For me it is all about the patterns in the music - if there are patterns that work for me, I memorize it whether I like it or not.
Exactly. There was a point in my life when I had to memorize 2 symphonies (or ballets or whatever) per week. The movements in sonata form were easy, as they had a pattern.

Dvorak was easy. Stravinsky can suck my dick, the bastard.

Eureka
12-01-2006, 08:55 AM
I'm wondering if the problem with the easy to sight read song is that it isn't distinctive (enough). Another possibility is that with hard to sight-read songs you concentrate really hard, and so by the time that you get comfortable with it, you have a lot of the pieces memorized. But on the easy song, you can play it with the music without thinking about it, and so you have to make a separate effort to memorize it.

Kythereia
12-01-2006, 09:32 AM
Dvorak was easy. Stravinsky can suck my dick, the bastard.

You can have the Firebird Suite when you pry it out of my cold dead hands! :mad:

I get first kick at Kabalevsky, though. Sweet Jesus, his piano concertos are excruciating to learn.


As for memorization: are there any inherent patterns or shifts in the music? What's the contour of the melody?

sleestak
12-01-2006, 10:32 AM
I'm wondering if the problem with the easy to sight read song is that it isn't distinctive (enough). Another possibility is that with hard to sight-read songs you concentrate really hard, and so by the time that you get comfortable with it, you have a lot of the pieces memorized. But on the easy song, you can play it with the music without thinking about it, and so you have to make a separate effort to memorize it.

I used to have this problem if the song was really easy and there wasn't any stand out melody/rhythm. When I did a lot of covers I'd use a crib sheet on stage for some songs. I had a bunch of sheets discreetly stashed on the stage with really big letters outlining the chord progressions if I was having a problem memorizing the piece. On the birghtside, the bands I was in rarely did straight covers, we usually changed it up a bit and that made memorizing stuff easier.

Some of the etudes I learned years ago were really hard to memorize as well. They were pretty bland and it didn't help that you could randomize the chord progression and the pieces would sound just as good.

Slee

Spectre of Pithecanthropus
12-01-2006, 10:49 AM
The thing with this particular guitar piece is that it's mostly whole and half notes, but intended for a fairly fast metronome* setting, so a half note here might be like a quarter note in another piece. So unlike most cases, I can simply count off and start playing it from sight, albeit slowly. The positions are so familiar I don't have to spend a lot of time figuring out where to put my fingers. It's also limited to the four highest-pitched strings, which may be another factor in how easy it is.

What I'm thinking is that if the piece is easier to work through, you spend less time thinking about the notes and that may be why memorization doesn't come as easily.

My first serious exposure to music was ragtime piano, and I always heard the pieces before trying to read and play them. I don't think I would have been able to play them if I hadn't heard the records first. With guitar, though, I usually don't get to hear the record.

GorillaMan
12-01-2006, 01:26 PM
Exactly. There was a point in my life when I had to memorize 2 symphonies (or ballets or whatever) per week. The movements in sonata form were easy, as they had a pattern.

Dvorak was easy. Stravinsky can suck my dick, the bastard.
I can sympathise. I (used to) know the violin concerto by heart, except for the moment in the first movement where the 'recapitulation' veers off into the coda after repeating the opening, exactly, for about a hundred bars. Never could do that without the music.

percussion
12-01-2006, 04:39 PM
Exactly. There was a point in my life when I had to memorize 2 symphonies (or ballets or whatever) per week. The movements in sonata form were easy, as they had a pattern.

Dvorak was easy. Stravinsky can suck my dick, the bastard.


why would you have to memorize 2 symphonies a week??

dotchan
12-01-2006, 06:52 PM
Heh. For years, I had the opposite problem - by nature I had a great ear for music (which meant I didn't care for most modern pop), but I sucked at sightreading.

It took being a pianist for my church and making myself sightread something like 10 hymns a day out of the 500+ hymn book (so by the time I started over, I'd have forgotten the tune) to pick up the skill.

gallows fodder
12-01-2006, 06:53 PM
I've been playing the piano since I was four (so make that 24 years) and I've never had an easy time memorizing. To this day, there is only one piece of music I have been able to play from memory without having serious brain malfunctions during the performance (and that's The Smiths' "Oscillate Wildly" -- I don't know how I came to memorize this, as I didn't deliberately try to). I've had two recitals during which I've had to stop playing and have someone hand me the sheet music (and one where I had forgotten the sheet music and had to just move on to another song, which I also forgot -- I blame this recital for my lasting stage fright).

And yet I am, if I dare say so myself, very good at sight-reading. If you put sheet music to any piece that's within my skill-level in front of me, I can play it at first glance. Unusual key signatures, time signature changes -- anything you want to throw at me, I can take. :) Except if you ask me to memorize the piece....then I'm screwed.

I think my problem is that I code the music visually in my brain, instead of coding it by the way it sounds or the way it feels in my hands as I play. (Actually, I think I must have done the latter with "Oscillate Wildly," as I can also play it with my eyes closed -- I can just sense where my fingers should go. Now if only I could do that on command...)

fishbicycle
12-01-2006, 07:13 PM
I started playing piano in 1962. I started lessons in 1965, and by 1968, three teachers had given up trying to teach me to read music. I could play by ear at a far higher level than the John Thompson Piano Method books they had me on. Fortunately, the last teacher had the foresight to know that if they kept punishing me and trying to make me fit the mould, The Method would suck all the creativity out of me. I was basically taught the mechanics of operating a piano, and learned the rest by doing. I went on to teach myself to play drums, then bass, then guitars, all without reading a note of sheet music. I learned to do it well enough to play in garage bands, then real bands, then in studios.

I have a great ear and a memory like a steel trap. If I haven't figured it out myself, you can show me how it goes. Following that, I'll play it back to you, verbatim. That's how the last piano teacher caught on to what I was doing. He showed me how the pieces were supposed to sound, and I played what he played, by memory. One day he played one wrong, and I played it wrong, too.

I fail to comprehend the reading of music. It may as well be hieroglyphics. I would have to figure out the chords one note at a time: this is this note, on this line or space. I play it with this finger on this key. The next is this note, and this one, and this one. I play them together for two beats, and then there's the next chord, where the process starts again. By the time I'd figure out the first line, the band would be finished the song and have gone out for a beer. Just show me how it goes. Within minutes, I can come up with a head arrangement for full band. Give me some time, and I can come up with a really good one.

My wife, on the other hand, has two degrees in music and is a piano teacher. She can't improvise to save her life, and is loathe to try. The Method ruined her for life. With the sheet music in front of her, she can scare you to death with her brilliance. Without it, she is lost. For me, that's really frustrating. I have a world-class musician in the house with whom I can't jam. Oh well, them's the breaks.

Phantom Dennis
12-01-2006, 09:13 PM
It's starting to sound like some people are natural sight-readers while others have a much easier time memorizing.

I took a few years of piano lessons as a kid, and I almost always memorized my lessons. I found it surprising that the instructor actually expected me to be able to read music at all, much less sight-read it. No matter how many hours I spent doing exercises and studying the theory, written music always remained an incomprehensible garble of chicken scratches to me. I don't think my brain is wired to convert the horizontal visual axis into tempo or the vertical to pitch.

If you let me hear the song on the other hand, I could play it by ear after a few hours practice. This is how I learned to get through most of my lessons -- I'd memorize the pieces, and then pretend to read the music while I played for the instructor.

To this day I can't read music, but I can still play a few of the simpler pieces that I memorized when I was a child.

fachverwirrt
12-01-2006, 09:19 PM
It tend to learn better by hearing (hence my irritating tendency to remember everyone else's parts while struggling to learn mine) so generally easier to read=easier to learn for me. The theory there being that easier to read is easier to hear in my head, so it settles faster.

kittenblue
12-02-2006, 06:38 AM
I've never given much thought to the process by which I memorize music. I used to have to do a lot more of it when I was in marching band and choirs throughout high school and college. Now that I just sing and play in church choirs (choral, bell and world music) I don't memorize as much because it's not required. I sight read well, though I sometimes have frustrating problems with certain intervals, but once I hear them I usually have it down cold.

I get very frustrated with my current choir director because of the way he rehearses us. I really need to hear a new piece played through once to get a feel for it. But he likes us to sightread cold, and often times we may start in the middle, or at the end, and just work on passages he feels will need extra work, without having heard the piece through even once. On some pieces, it can take weeks to get through the entire work. It drives me crazy when he says, "let's start on page 14"! And for the people in the choir who don't sightread well, it's even more frustrating. I understand why he does this, but he seems to forget that he's working on these pieces for twenty or more hours a week, and he knows every part. We have never even heard it once!

I do find that most of the vocal music I have memorized is music I've listened to, rather than read. I have entire albums memorized, and am always amazed when I hear songs I haven't heard in years and I remember all the words, the music and all the tricky rhythym changes. When we perform a big cantata, I like to have it on CD so I can listen to it in the car and learn my part better. Since I obviously can't read the sheet music while driving, I have to rely on memory more, and usually end up with the whole thing memorized. But it's a struggle sometimes to memorize a short Nigerian tune for our world music group, because I usually only get two rehearsals to learn it, and it hasn't had time to get ingrained.

C K Dexter Haven
12-02-2006, 07:48 AM
I'm very much an amateur, on the piano, but I agree with the patterns comment. If there are clear patterns (like Mozart) it's way easier to memorize.

fachverwirrt
12-02-2006, 01:08 PM
I'm very much an amateur, on the piano, but I agree with the patterns comment. If there are clear patterns (like Mozart) it's way easier to memorize.
I find it easier to learn if there are patterns, but unless the patterns are precisely the same, I find them harder to memorize, as you must memorize the differences as well.

Then again, the vast bulk of music that I do is twentieth century, so I find Mozart somewhat harder to learn, simply because I don't do it as much.