I just got back home last night from Folk College, a yearly get-together of music and mayhem in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. It's such a treat to get together with like-minded folks, who don't think less of me for playing the bagpipes and liking music in demented time signatures like 25/16.
I was fortunate enough to have company on the four-hour drive there and back, with my friends Kathy and Deb who also taught classes at Folk College this year. (In fact, Deb and I co-taught a class in Eastern European Music, which was a blast - she contributed the Klezmer tunes, and I contributed the Balkan ones.) Kathy is a Cornell physics professor, and teaches (amongst other things) a class called The Physics of Musical Sound. Deb teaches music theory and sight singing at Ithaca College.
As you might expect, the conversations in the car were fairly interesting.
It was on the way back that the discussion turned to muscle memory, a subject near and dear to the heart of any instrumentalist. I was commenting that there are a couple of tunes, most notably the English dance tune "Knole Park," that contain passages for which I rely almost entirely on muscle memory -- the progression is so unexpected or counterintuitive that if my fingers don't keep ahead of my brain, I screw up.
"I felt that way about the passage in 'Knole Park' until I realized that it was just a series of descending sixths," Kathy said.
"How on earth does that help?" I asked.
A lively discussion ensued regarding how we store and access musical memory, and resulted in the intriguing discovery that the three of us all seem to approach it differently -- despite the fact that we all have fairly similar backgrounds musically (classically trained, moved on to folk music later in life).
I will try to describe what each of the three of us said -- if either Kathy or Deb reads this, and I've misrepresented your views, please accept my sincere apologies, and chalk it up to the fact that while I was participating in this conversation I was suffering from music-induced cumulative sleep deprivation.
Kathy seems to recall music visually. Given a tune she knows, she can recall what the notes on the page look like; and even when she doesn't picture the written notation, she pictures tunes as having spatial contours (she visualizes the descending sixths figure in "Knole Park" as looking like a zigzag). In tunes with repeated phrases, she sees the phrases as blocks -- she even described teaching, in her Easy Scottish Tunes class, a particular tune as having a phrase ("let's call it the red block") followed by a new phrase ("the green block"), and then the red block again, and then an end phrase ("the blue block").
Of the three of us, Deb seems to have the most highly cognitive approach to music. Being an expert in music theory, she groks the whole structure -- and has the vocabulary to put labels on it, giving her a mental hook to hang the music on. ("This tune is in D mixolydian mode." "The B part begins with an ascending third.") Now, she's not hung up on exactly what you call it; it's the concept that counts, because the concept is what allows her mind to see what the music is doing. A deep understanding of the structure creates space for the music to be understood, recalled, and played. If you have a grasp of what a tune's structure is, the rest becomes a matter of creating sounds that fit that structure.
If Deb was the most cognitive of the three of us, I'm definitely the least. For me, music recall (and playing) is almost entirely auditory and intuitive in nature. I hear music in my head, and neither picture it as a sonic space nor do I usually have any particular sense of what the music is doing structurally. I understand a little music theory -- enough to where if I sat down and thought about it, I could figure out that the interval between the second and third notes of "Kopanica" is an augmented second. But I don't ever in performance think about that, and even if I did, it wouldn't help me -- if I thought, while playing "Knole Park," "Okay, remember that the next part is a figure of descending sixths," it would make me no more or less likely to flub it. Music is stored in a completely different part of my brain, I think, than any kind of verbal or spatial memory -- which is probably why I find it so difficult to remember the names of tunes, even ones I can play fluidly.
I commented that I would be really interested to see what a fMRI of our heads while we're learning a tune, thinking about a tune, or playing a tune. I'd bet that you'd see some significant differences between the three of us -- despite the fact that we're all folk musicians, with relatively similar backgrounds, playing in similar traditions. All of which makes me want to spend more time playing, thinking about, and discussing music -- especially with two such fascinating, talented, and deep-thinking people.