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Not-so-total recall

20 October 2017


THEY used to appear in the broad­sheets, in the days when the ink came off on your hands: adverts featuring a man with a furrowed brow, and the caption “Embarrassed by your memory?” In return for your £9.99 postal order, you would receive a book telling you how to construct an imaginary house, into which you placed the names of all your most important clients, their children, pets, and birthdays.

Move on several decades, and we come to The Musical Memory Palace (Radio 3, Friday), in which the “Grand Master of Memory” Ed Cooke was teaching an entranced audience how, by constructing an imagin­ary palace, we can memorise the most complex information.

It will have seemed a neat idea at the commissioning stage: to include, as part of Radio 3’s Why Music? The Key to Memory season, a pro­­gramme that linked the Aurora Orchestra — noted for the fact that they perform without music — with someone who is capable of mem­o­r­is­ing a pack of cards in 45 seconds.

But it quickly became apparent that whatever Cooke does to im­­­press people at parties is very dif­ferent from what a musician will do to remember a score. His efforts to teach the audience how to remem­ber the first movement of a Mozart symphony were fascinating for the way in which he dissected the musical information into tiny units, but it was unclear to what end this process was leading. The ability to sing or play an entire piece? For that, you’ve actually got to be able to sing or play.

What the experiment ignored was the fact that musicians tend to mem­­­o­rise as much through motor memory — fin­­­­gers, lips, and breath — as through aural memory. That, plus the fact that music is far more pre­­dictable than Pi to 1000 decimal places, makes the Aurora’s accom­plish­­ments admirable but hardly as­­ton­ishing.

Altogether more informative was Professor Adam Ockelford’s contri­bu­­tion to Seven Ages of Memory (Radio 3, Friday), in which he ex­­pertly summarised, in a couple of minutes, the ways in which memory and ex­­pectation collaborate to form musi­­­cal experience and apprecia­­tion.

Professor Ockelford explained to the presenter, Philip Ball, how an acquired memory for the general­ities of musical language, combined with memory for particular musical features, enable listeners to make predictions of future musical events. The great composers will then play with and against those predictions.

Or, as the neuroscientist Pro­­­fessor Adam Zeman stated in his con­­­tribution to The Essay: The strangeness of memory (Radio 3, Monday of last week), memory evolved in the service not of the past but of the future.

It would be wrong to suppose that memory is like a library or a floppy disc, however, whose con­tents are simply added or destroyed. In the most memorable phrase of Radio 3’s weekend, Professor Martin Conway talked of the complex interaction of brain areas involved in recollection. When the brain energises all the cir­cuits required to summon up a con­scious memory, it is as if it breathes.

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