The role of retrieval structures in memorizing music

Williamon, A. and Valentine, E. (2002) The role of retrieval structures in memorizing music. Cognitive Psychology, 44 (1) pp. 1-32. ISSN 0010-0285 (print) 1095-5623 (online)


This article explores the use of structure in the encoding and retrieval of music and its relation to level of skill. Twenty-two pianists, classified into four levels of skill, were asked to learn and memorize an assigned composition by J. S. Bach (different for each level). All practice was recorded on cassette tape. At the end of the learning process, the pianists performed their assigned composition in a recital setting. The performances were subsequently evaluated by three experienced pianists according to a standardized grading system. From the cassette tapes, values for the frequency with which pianists started and stopped their practice on “structural,” “difficult,” and “other” bars were obtained. Starts and stops on each bar type were compared across three stages of the learning process. The analyses reveal that all pianists, regardless of level, started and stopped their practice increasingly on structural bars and decreasingly on difficult bars across the learning process. Moreover, the data indicate that starts and stops increased on structural bars and decreased on difficult bars systematically with increases in level of skill. These findings are interpreted and discussed so as to elucidate characteristics of the retrieval structures adopted by musicians in their practice and performance and how the formation and use of retrieval structures develop as a function of expertise. Finally, the elicited values for starts on structural, difficult, and other bars are examined and discussed according to how they relate to the pianists' scores on performance quality.

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