Songwriter with guitar and paper

Songwriting, and the Tricky Task of Remembering Patterns

When I taught ear training at university, I had students of widely varying abilities. Some could, as they say, hear paint dry, while others “couldn’t hear a bus.”

One of the tasks my students had was to notate melodies as I played them at the piano. (I won’t go into the technique I used for making this easier (or possible), but if anyone’s interested I might write a post about that someday.)

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Typically, I’d play an entire melody — either 4 or 8 bars in length — and then play shorter fragments, repeating them 4 or 5 times. The students had to convert what they were hearing to musical notation.

Many of the students who struggled had an interesting problem: They found it difficult remembering what I had just played once I was finished playing it. It wasn’t so much that their ear was bad, it was just that once the room was silent, they remembered little to nothing of the tune.

The inability to remember music once the room is silent might have any number of causes. It could be that the listener isn’t picking up recognizable patterns, and patterns, at least as far as songwriting is concerned, are a key ingredient of musical memory.

Simon Says..

SimonI’ve known students who have used an online version of “Simon”, a late-70s computerized game that you may know, as a way to improve their musical memory. It has four coloured buttons, each one associated with a specific pitch. Simon plays one musical tone and one of the buttons lights up. Your job is to tap that button, and then wait while Simon plays that note, plus a new one.

The challenge of course is to see how many of these notes you can remember in a row. Try the online version and see how far you can get. (Feel free to do a screenshot of your highest score and post it in the comments below.)

I don’t know of any student of mine who claimed that it helped their musical memory, however. Why? My guess is that Simon is playing random notes, not patterns of notes.

Improving Your Musical Imagination

Remembering melodies is important to songwriting because ideas can fly in and out of your musical brain with alarming speed as you compose. You play a combination of chords, and you instinctively concoct a melody that sounds wonderfully paired with those chords.

Then you try to replicate what you just did and… it’s gone! Paul McCartney had a humorous take on melodies that he couldn’t remember the next morning: they probably weren’t any good in the first place.

But in fact, your inability to remember melodies isn’t at all an indication that the melody was bad. It may simply have to do with a diminished ability to remember aural patterns.

If you want to improve your ability to remember melodies that you’ve come up with, you need to train your brain. Here is one activity that can help:

  1. Go to YouTube;
  2. Find a song you’ve never heard before (doesn’t matter which genre, but obviously should be a song with a clear melody).
  3. Click Play, and stop it after a few notes of melody have passed.
  4. Sing the melody that you just heard.
  5. Then click Play again, then Stop, then sing again.

You’re basically echoing what you’ve just heard. The difference between this activity and the Simon game is that these notes are all parts of patterns, and so you aren’t remembering notes as much as you’re remembering patterns.

Don’t despair if you find this hard. And keep in mind that our memories are better on some days, worse on others.

By the way, I did notice on this YouTube video that the real Simon game apparently has the ability to allow you to program your own sequence of notes. (I’ve not seen that capability online, but maybe it exists.) Perhaps that would allow Simon to be more relevant to the challenge that songwriters face.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.


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