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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.”