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!