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A cow as dis­cussed in the lecture by Mellisa Knecht. Wiki­media Commons | Courtesy

Human short-term memory only has a capacity for five to seven items — like the digits of a phone number — yet expert musi­cians can learn and retain music they may have heard for the first time only a few minutes ago.

According to Pro­fessor of Music Melissa Knecht, these feats of memory involve the musician’s schema, the framework of expe­rience to which he or she compare the new music they encounter. Knecht shared her insights into musical cog­nition in her April 11 pre­sen­tation, “Cows, Chess, and Musical Expertise,” as a part of Mossey Library’s series on faculty research.

This schema, based on the extensive musical pat­terns they have pre­vi­ously played and lis­tened to, allows them to remember new music in rela­tionship to what they already know.

“When musi­cians mem­orize music, they rely on structure for their memory, and the details fit into that structure,” Knecht said. “Rather than mem­o­rizing every chord or note, we build up a framework within which many dif­ferent sounds fit, a kind of mental tem­plate which can accom­modate a large number of musical pieces.”

Just as a schema for a birthday party might include cake, candles, bal­loons, and singing the “happy birthday” song, a musician’s schema is based on the chord pro­gres­sions and pat­terns found in the music of their culture.

Expert musi­cians also use a skill known as “chunking” to remember a sequence of notes in groups, rather than as iso­lated, indi­vidual notes.

“As humans, we do this all the time,” Knecht said. “We’re always searching our brains for the most rel­evant cat­egory.”

For example, Knecht said the first thing that pops into many people’s minds when asked what cows drink is milk, though cows drink water, because of the cat­e­gorical orga­ni­zation of the infor­mation.

As a demon­stration of the impor­tance of schema and chunking in music cog­nition, Knecht com­pared mem­o­rization of  pro­fes­sional vio­lists from the Chicago Sym­phony to novice vio­lists from a high school sym­phony. Knecht used a com­puter program to gen­erate eight-note sequences which varied in sim­i­larity to a Telemann violin con­certo. The musi­cians heard the sequence of notes and were then asked to play it back from memory.

The experts sig­nif­i­cantly out­per­formed the novices when the sequences most resembled the pro­gression of notes found in the con­certo. Note sequences which lacked sim­i­larity to the original con­certo, however, pre­vented both the novices and experts from suc­cess­fully repli­cating the sequence. Knecht said these results suggest the expert’s musical schema sets their memory apart from that of a novice.

“Novice group learns more by rote, while experts remember pat­terns which make sense within har­monic systems they had expe­rience with,” she said.

Similar studies have also been done in other fields such as spelling, chess, physics, and math. For example, master chess players were able to replicate board posi­tions from memory when the pat­terns were similar to those found in the games they had just watched, whereas novice players struggled to remember. When the board pat­terns did not resemble the games, both novices and masters struggled to replicate them.

“The results of these studies indicate what makes an expert unique is the extent, quality, and avail­ability of their schema,” she said.

Junior Delaney Lehmann, a student of Knecht, said the con­cepts of schema and chunking have helped in her musical studies.

“This is def­i­nitely some­thing that Dr. Knecht inte­grates in my violin lessons, fre­quently helping my analyze tech­ni­cally dif­ficult pas­sages of music by looking at the basic rela­tion­ships between notes,” Lehmann said in an email.

Another student, senior Stevan Lukich, said in an email that learning about the sub­con­scious asso­ci­a­tions made by the brain was inter­esting to compare to his con­scious thoughts while prac­ticing music.

“Overall, her talk did a great job of breaking into parts some­thing that’s really com­pli­cated and not straight­forward — all the ele­ments of a great musician — and gave me some inter­esting new ways to think about music,” he said.

A large part of building an expert’s schema is his or her expe­rience with many dif­ferent pat­terns of infor­mation, which comes with practice. Many studies have shown that 10,000 hours of practice is required for mastery of a subject, Knecht said.

“In study after study of com­posers, bas­ketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, chess players, master crim­inals, what have you — this number comes up again and again,” she said.

She also said factors such as varied levels of moti­vation or natural dex­terity can help account for dif­fer­ences in student aptitude for new skills. The more a person cares about a task, she said, the more neu­ro­chem­icals are asso­ciated with the memory.

“The stu­dents will attach neu­ro­chemical tags to each aspect of the memory that label it as important,” she said. “The sounds of the piece, the way they move their fingers, all these will become part of the memory track they will encode as important.”