Reconsidering memorisation in the context of non-tonal piano music

Fonte, V. (2020) Reconsidering memorisation in the context of non-tonal piano music. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


Performers, pedagogues and researchers have shared interest in the topic of musical memorisation for centuries. A large and diverse body of studies on this subject has contributed to the current understanding of musicians’ views of performing from memory, as well as the mechanisms governing encoding and retrieval of musical information. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, existing research is still highly based on tonal music and lacks further examination in the musical world of non-tonality. The convention of performing from memory is a well-established practice for particular instruments and musical genres, but an exception is often made for recent styles of repertoire moving away from tonality. No study to date has systematically investigated the reasons for such exception and musicians’ views on this matter. Moreover, the existing principles of memorisation that are thought to apply to musicians in the highest levels of skill are strongly based on the use of conceptual knowledge of tonal musical vernacular. Such knowledge is often obscured or absent in non-tonal repertoire. This thesis aims to extend the findings of previous research into musical memorisation in the context of non-tonal piano repertoire by documenting pianists’ views and practices in committing this music to memory. An interview study with pianists expert in contemporary music (Chapter 3) establishes the background for the thesis. A variety of views on performing contemporary music from memory were reported, with several pianists advocating benefits from performing this repertoire by heart and others from using the score. Memorisation accounts revealed idiosyncrasy and variety, but emphasised the importance of specific strategies, such as the use of mental rehearsal, principles of chunking applicable to this repertoire and the importance of different types of memory and their combination. The second study (Chapter 4) explores the topic in further depth, by thoroughly examining the author’s entire process of learning and memorising a newly commissioned non-tonal piece for prepared piano. This study extends findings from performance cue (PC) theory. This widely recognised account of expert memory in music suggests that musicians develop retrieval schemes hierarchically organised around their understanding of musical structure, using different types of PCs. The use of retrieval schemes in this context is confirmed by this study. The author organised the scheme around her own understanding of musical structure, which was gradually developed while working through the piece, since the music had no aural model available or ready-made structural framework to hold on to early in the process. Extending previous research, new types of PCs were documented and, for the first time, negative serial position effects were found for basic PCs (e.g., fingering, notes, patterns) in long-term recall. Finally, the study provided behavioural evidence for the use of chunking in non-tonal piano music. The third study (Chapters 5 and 6) extends these findings to a serial piece memorised by six pianists. Following a multiple-case study approach, this study observed in great depth memorisation approaches carried out by two of those pianists, who performed the music very accurately from memory, and by one pianist who performed less accurately. The first two pianists developed retrieval schemes based on their understanding of musical structure and different types of PCs, mainly basic and structural. Comparisons between the pianists revealed very different views of musical structure in the piece. Even so, both musicians used such understanding to organise encoding and retrieval. The pianist with the least accurate performance adopted an unsystematic approach, mainly relying on incidental memorisation. The absence of a conceptual retrieval scheme resulted in an inability to fully recover from a major memory lapse in performance. The findings of this research provide novel insights into pianists’ views towards performing non-tonal music from memory and into the cognitive mechanisms governing the encoding and retrieval of this music, which have practical applications for musicians wishing to memorise non-tonal piano music.

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