HOW TO: improve your musical memory

For players like Dave Navarro, memorising music is a stroll in the park
For players like Dave Navarro, memorising music is a stroll in the park (Image credit: RD/ Erik Kabik/Retna Ltd./Corbis)

Every month, Guitar Techniques attempts to answer guitarists' playing posers and technical teasers with expert and practical advice. Here's one about musical memory… or lack of it.

The question:

Dear GT,

The trouble I have is that my musical memory is not very good at all. I can learn a song, scale, or new chord and within a day or two I won't be able to remember it without looking back at the reference.

I read an interview recently where Dave Kushner said he thought he wasn't very good at retaining things, but that when Dave Navarro learned something he was able to remember it forever. Where is Dave Navarro going right and where am I going wrong? I want to be able to remember songs and scales forever when I learn them!

Ryan Warmington,
Auckland, New Zealand

"...In other words, if you were a quick learner at school, then the chances are that you'll remain so for the rest of your life"

The answer

GT: The thing about memorisation is that different people learn at different rates. Broadly speaking, all new information enters the brain via the short-term memory, only passing on to the longterm memory if the brain considers it important enough.

This is fine for remembering directions in a strange town that you have to visit only once; the information is called upon and is then discarded or overwritten. But if it is a question of learning a route that you're going to be taking frequently, then it should find its way into the long-term memory in order that it is available all the time.

Learning a new chord shape or scale is no different, we have to make sure the information ends up in the appropriate 'long-term' area. It's this act of 'processing' where people tend to differ.

The middle ground

At one end of the spectrum there are people with a 'photographic memory'. At the other, there are people with an extremely poor facility who have to look, look again and then go back and take a further look before anything sinks in at all.

Most of us seem to check in around the middle, either side of average, although recent research has found that even diet can affect attention span, concentration and the ability to input information.

Experience and techniques involving the science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming can help improve memory, but on the whole we're stuck with whatever was handed out to us at birth and a lot of us learn at the same rate throughout our lives. In other words, if you were a quick learner at school, then the chances are that you'll remain so for the rest of your life.

'Pen memory'

What you have to do is take a look at how you learn and set up a practice routine that will move at the correct rate. For instance, I've found that short, regular bursts of inputting new material suits most people the best. Limit the amount of new information you tackle at once - literally feed yourself according to your own particular rate of digestion.

Study whatever it is daily, revise it regularly and you should find that new musical data can be inputted successfully and remain useful to you. Another tip for memorisation involves writing the information down - so called 'pen memory'.

Take a scale pattern or chord shape that's giving you difficulty, write it down on a piece of paper and put it somewhere you'll see it every day. After a week replace it with something new, just to keep the brain engaged.

It's worth getting hold of an exercise book and keeping a running log of 'new data'; look at it at the beginning of your practice session, run through everything for maybe 10 minutes and then get on with the business of the day.