A, B, C, D, E, F, G… Next Time You’ll Remember Me!


Pamela Pauls reads more than just about any other person in America. As the the editor of the prestigious New York Times Book Review, she consumes words the way most of us consume air. Pamela has merged her passion and profession into an all day (and sometimes night) consumption of all things printed, 

As one of America's foremost literary scholars, you would think she would have a highly developed sense of memory and recall, but she doesn't. In fact, she admits that she remembers very little of what she reads once she is done. 

“I almost always remember where I was as I was reading it, and the physical object of the book itself,” says Paul, who reads, it is fair to say, a lot of books. “I remember the edition; I remember the cover; I usually remember where I bought it, or who gave it to me. What I don’t remember—and it’s terrible—is everything else.”

And it turns out she’s not alone.

The “forgetting curve,” as it’s called, is steepest during the first 24 hours after you learn something. Exactly how much you forget, percentage-wise, varies. Unless you review the material, much of it slips down the drain after the first day, with more to follow in the days after. This leaves you with a fraction of what you originally took in.

Except when it comes to music.

Music and songs are different from books in that they aren't just the consumption of information, they’re part of the tapestry of life. They combine and attach themselves to experiences and become woven in with the events of our lives and once they are intertwined, they are virtually impossible to separate. 

Don’t believe me?

Just think of one of the first songs you learned decades ago: “A,B,C,D,E,F,G… Next time won’t you sing with me.” Try and say the previous sentence without singing it (and speaking the letters in rhythm counts as singing!)

I wonder if “reading” printed music is as forgettable as reading the printed word. I know that for me, I remember very little of what I played in high school and almost nothing from college. However, as a student and as a teacher, I remember with great clarity the “feeling I had” and the “place I was” when I played/conducted it. As someone who read scores as Ms. Pauls read books, I must admit that my “forgetting curve” when it comes to reading music is just as steep. 

I suspect that it is similar for the students in our ensembles.

What makes music different? It's the fact that the harmonies and melodies are intertwined with the moments and memories of our lives. In fact, once memories and music are combined, they are inseparable. Music allows us to recall our memories faster and with greater clarity. I could cite research studies about the frontal cortex and the temporal lobe, but for both our sanities can I ask you to take my word for it?

Just yesterday, after a workshop, I had the experience of rehearsing a band on two of my favorite pieces, Festive Overture and Children’s March. And while the surroundings and students were unfamiliar, the memories and feelings they evoked were immediate and endearing as if they occurred yesterday. 

We KNOW that the act of learning WITH music increases comprehension. So imagine what learning while MAKING music does for the young people in your classes. If nothing else, you know you will be remembered!

Have a great week!

p.s. I just wonder why reading ABOUT music doesn’t create long term retention the same as learning WITH music. That would have made music history much easier.

p.p.s. If you are at TMEA, you should check out my two sessions on Friday. I am packing some cool stuff to give away and I promise you won't disappointed! How do I know? I don't. But, since you are reading this text without music, it's likely you won't remember my promise anyway!