I REALIZE by now that I'm never going to learn anything very interesting from my friend who studies memory. He studies it the high-tech way, clinically, with lots of computer screens and imaging devices. "We basically watch the brain send off sparks," he tells me.
No doubt there are tomes of useful data to be had, processed and fitted into emerging theoretical structures. But after many conversations, I realize that the reason I find the memory a fascinating subject is fundamentally different from why he finds it fascinating.
As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, knowing that thoughts happen "in the brain" doesn't tell us a thing about why we find thought itself such a difficult and eternal problem.
So too with memory. Knowing the how of it all tells us nothing that we find compelling about the why. For that, we hunt for metaphors, or systems of metaphors.
After a recent lunch with a conductor, during which the conversation turned to music and memory, I wonder if music itself is - if not a metaphor - perhaps a mirror image of how memory functions.
Anyone who's ever given a recital knows the terror of playing from memory - terrors that are inequitably distributed (pianists and vocalists always memorize, while other recitalists can get away with playing from music).
But if memorization is a major bogeyman for young musicians, the self-discovery that goes along with memorizing is intriguing. As one memorizes music more and more thoroughly, it's as if levels of memory are discovered.
The first and most perilous is a kind of unconscious muscle memory that dissipates like smoke in a breeze when players first feel the pressure of concert nerves. They stop, midway through a passage, paralyzed with fear; the only solution, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, is to start somewhere a few yards back and take a running jump across the memory chasm. Prayer may help.
After making that mistake exactly once, most musicians discover the next level of memory, which is, when thoroughly mastered, the ability to play a piece through, note by note, in the mind. …