Unconscious musical memory

There’s a weekly programme on BBC Radio 3 called Discovering Music. It involves a studio, an orchestra, an audience, a presenter, and a piece of music. The presenter talks in depth about the piece and how it works, illustrated with extracts played by the orchestra. Finally, after the talk is finished, there is a full performance of the piece discussed.

Today, the programme startled me with a phenomenon which seems to happen quite regularly, so I thought I’d blog about it. It’s about time I wrote something about music.

I spent the afternoon upstairs, NOT listening to any music but preferring silence and space. When it came to teatime, I went downstairs, where the radio was on, playing what I thought was some quite unfamiliar music. I didn’t pay any attention to the music, since I still wanted quiet. By the time I got to the radio, ready to turn it off, the music had changed to speech. I wasn’t listening to that either, but a “tune”—well, a snatch of Violin 2 orchestral part of something—was going through my head. Some symphony I’d played in years ago. Maybe ten years, maybe more.

Then I heard the word “Prokofiev”, and thought “Oh! Well I think this tune in my head IS Prokofiev! I wonder . . . ” and started listening to the radio instead of turning it off. After about half a minute, the radio presenter stopped talking so the orchestra could play their next extract. What they then played was almost exactly what had been in my head: the same tune, but from a different part of the movement. What was in my head was in fact part of Prokofiev’s 5th symphony, and it they happened to be discussing it on Discovering Music.

The point is that I didn’t think I knew what the tune in my head was, if you’d said “Sing a bit of Prokofiev 5!” I wouldn’t have had a chance, and if you’d said “Sing another part of the music that’s just been playing!” I wouldn’t have been able to do that either—but nevertheless, the right tune presented itself.

The next extract they played was from the last movement. That hadn’t been in my head, but my instant reaction to it was “Oh, good grief, I remember how fiendishly difficult that was!”, together with a vague feeling that I needed to go and practise that passage some more.

A few other fragmented memories of the piece surfaced: handwritten music on large, rather yellow paper; inaccurately-spaced leger lines, so that notes which at first sight appeared to go up or down actually went down or up; and a bizarre situation at one point where a correctly written pair of notes actually moved in the opposite direction to the way they looked. There were a few bars’ rest between them, and I can’t remember the precise notes, but it was similar to this: play a B sharp, then after the rest, start again on a C flat, which looks higher but is actually a semitone lower. Or it might have been a B-double-flat going up to an A sharp. Something along those lines.

I find this happens quite a lot: maybe I’m talking to someone, a composer’s name or a piece of music is mentioned, and shortly afterwards I realise that music by that composer, or an extract from the piece mentioned, is going through my head. Often if you asked me to consciously remember how the piece goes, or to think of a tune by that composer, I wouldn’t be able to. Or if you asked me what a particular piece of music was, I wouldn’t know. But it seems there is a part of my brain which does know, and gently presents it to me almost without my noticing.

A related phenomenon happens when I’ve been rehearsing a particular piece at orchestra, then find that what’s going through my head isn’t what I was rehearsing, but tunes from another work by the same composer.

I’m quite tired at the moment and don’t have the energy to start getting all analytical about this, or even all editorial about it, so I’ll just present it to you as it is. I’d be really interested, though, to hear whether other people have similar experiences of “uncoonsiously remembering” things which you thought you didn’t know, or unexpectedly remembering little details about a piece of music. So if you’ve read this far, feel free to comment! ;-)

6 responses to “Unconscious musical memory

  1. Music runs in my bloodstream.

    I do not seek to understand it.

    It just is.

    • I think that’s a big disadvantage musicians have: the more we learn about music in order to play it, the more difficult it is to let it just be.

      Incidentally I think that’s why I play far more orchestral music than I listen to: orchestral music is associated with playing and orchestras and rehearsing and technique, and it’s hard (or impossible) to keep those associations out of it.

      So for my own relaxation, I tend to listen to music which is totally different from what I play. Mari Boine is one favourite: her music is based on traditional Arctic joik but with elements of jazz and even rock. Another is Sheila Chandra, who found a way to integrate elements of English and Indian traditional music into exceptionally beautiful unaccompanied singing.

  2. So glad you wrote this and posted it right away! I still have Beethoven’s Ninth playing in my head, so I can’t really comment on other unconscious musical memories at the moment. I agree with Sally, though. Those memories are there!

    • Well at the moment for me it’s Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, for no relevant reason whatever! I have played it, but that was over a year ago. (In a rather unusual custom arrangement for clarinet quintet.)

  3. i often find myself walking along with a song stuck in my head, and the most obvious explanation for its being there is that the rhythm of my step perfectly matches the rhythm of the song. once i settle in to a steady pace (without even realizing it), my brain plucks an applicable tune from every song i’ve ever learned or heard often enough. i haven’t noticed a correlation between the songs and my mood, but wouldn’t that be interesting?…

  4. Sorry, I don’t have your name at the ready as I’ve just found your blog site. Just to say regarding the music unconscious memory – it is surely just the same as your point on words and language – it’s all about connections and the way things (not simply music and language) have been laid in our neural networks at the time we learnt them. I also experience such unexpected recognitions in various subjects and I do agree that our motives, or at least interest, will affect our will to connect and therefore recall in one way or another. I also feel that the connections we unconsciously make all go towards forming our character. But conversely, perhaps they are unconsciously driven by it, till we finally consolidate and confirm ourselves?

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