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I have weak musical memory. I hear a line and I can sing it back almost immediately, but I can't retain it back a few minutes later. It is not imprinted in my head, and I have to listen to it a lot. My goal is to improve my ability to store a melody or a line in my head faster and more permanent and I was wondering what you guys think about it and if there are ways to improve it.

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    I am almost the same, it just takes a lot of practice and repetition. – Kyle Jun 29 '16 at 11:20
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    As Kyle says, the only thing you can do is practice and repeat. But your ability to remember will improve with practice. – Scott Wallace Jun 29 '16 at 11:25
  • I'll echo practice, practice, practice. I suppose you could try humming (as you seem to be talking about singing). Find a way to obsess a little about what you're learning. Listen to it, play it (if you play an instrument), run round it in your head in idle moments. It's the only way forward. – AJFaraday Jun 29 '16 at 16:14
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It gets easier if you can do a lot of analysis and comparison on the fly. If this part sounds like that, or makes use of such and such pattern, etc., then these extra bits of knowledge about the passage help reinforce the memory of it. If a passage makes use of some patterns you can "chunk" the passage into those patterns rather than having to remember every single note.

I'm reminded of a test done with professional and amateur chess players memorizing board positions. If the position was just random pieces on the board, the pros and amateurs did about equally well. If the position made sense (followed rules of the game, and probably could have resulted from a real game) the pros did much, much better. They weren't storing individual piece positions, but patterns based on their knowledge of the game.

  • This is very true. I was trying to learn a piece in an unfamiliar style last week, and it was far more difficult than a tune in the style I know best because the patterns in the music were different. – Karen Jun 29 '16 at 16:12
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In my experience, the best way to improve musical memory is to start small (that is, short). Find a 5 second clip of a melody that you don't know and listen to it as many times as necessary until you can sing it back. Then:

  • Sing it to yourself a few times on "la."
  • If there are words, sing it a few times with words. If there aren't words, sing it a few times to some words that you make up. Or just give a consecutive number to each pitch and sing those: "one twooooooo threefourfive siiiiix," etc. (If you have any solfége training, try that too.)
  • Clap the rhythm of the melody.
  • Sing the first pitch, skip the middle pitches, and immediately sing the last pitch.
  • And here's the real tricky one: try to sing it in your head without making any noise. (This is a skill, called audiation, that far too few musicians ever develop.)

Basically, just try to interact with the melody as much as possible.

Do this for a handful of 5 second melodies. Try to find some in several different styles and on several different instruments (that includes voice).

Then, try it for a melody up to 10 seconds long, gradually increasing the difficulty until you reach the length of time that your playing environment requires. With time, you'll develop your ear so that you can recall melodies as you need.

As an aside, always be weary of anyone that just says "practice more," and instead seek out individuals that will actually tell you how to practice. Way too many hours have been wasted in the practice room by people who were told to "go practice," never realizing that they were practicing the wrong way in the first place.

  • Wait, about this audiation thing, is it a rare thing that I am able to "sing / listen to" a song in my head without any actual sound (not even moving my mouth)? I thought anyone could do that. Never thought it was some sort of skill. Or did I read it incorrectly? – Pedro A Jun 29 '16 at 23:13
  • I think everyone can do it at some level of fluency, but the ability to do it as successfully as one can sing out loud isn't as common. In my experience, little flaws here and there in your audiation get you "off-track" much more quickly than they do when you're singing out loud. – Richard Jun 30 '16 at 9:03

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