Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Trauma-Related Dissociation as a Factor Affecting Musicians' Memory for Music: Some Possible Solutions

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Trauma-Related Dissociation as a Factor Affecting Musicians' Memory for Music: Some Possible Solutions

Article excerpt


Handling the demands of complex mental processing of musical material is essential for any musician. The requirement of highly developed memory skills applies most evidently to performers, but also to music teachers, researchers and composers.

Regardless of whether a performance is done entirely 'from memory' (1), processes that require highly specialized memory skills are involved in any form of musical activity. The possibility of memory failure is a common cause of anxiety amongst musicians. Therefore it is not surprising that many musicians will go to great lengths to attain what they believe to be the best method of preparation as well as the optimal mental and physical states to maximize the chances of achieving secure performances. The authors of this paper regard adequate preparation as the most important prerequisite for successful performance. Yet they postulate that not all other aspects impacting on performance quality are fully understood. This article explores trauma-related dissociation, identified as a factor contributing to memory problems in an extensive study about the influence of trauma on musicians (Swart, 2009). Memory difficulties experienced by participants in this study included examples of these on stage, during practice and lessons, as well as temporary amnesia for music due to severe trauma.

In what follows, a few characteristics of the nature of memory function in the musician are discussed before exploring the complex ways in which trauma can influence memory for music.


The aim of this article is to shed light on the impact of trauma on aspects of musicians' music-making, particularly on its effects on memory during music performance and study. Effects on musicians' memory are considered, explicated and discussed in the light of the rapidly expanding body of knowledge about factors involved in the trauma response, most notably that of dissociation. A further aim of this article is to increase awareness of possible effective therapeutic intervention strategies among performers and teachers.


This study presents research findings that formed part of a larger study--a qualitative research survey on the influence of trauma on musicians (Swart, 2009). Ashworth (2003, p. 4) proposes that behind each different approach to qualitative psychology is "a concern with human experience in its richness". He further states that some qualitative researchers attempt to describe a person's experience within the realm of what they term the personal 'lifeworld, all facets of which may be specific but share universal features (Ashworth, 2003, p. 4, 23).

The study is also exploratory in nature. According to Marczyk, De Matteo, and Festinger (2005, p. 151), naturalistic observation is useful for exploratory purposes. As regards this study, the wealth of existing literature on the subject of trauma, as well as personal accounts of musicians who have experienced trauma, strengthens its empirical roots.

Questionnaires were sent to music teachers as well as healthcare professionals who indicated that they have worked with musicians, and case studies were conducted. The results relevant to the effects of trauma on memory are extracted and presented in this paper. This constitutes responses of teachers to the questionnaires, self-reports of teachers, as well as three of the case studies in which information was given about the effects of trauma on memory. Possible therapeutic solutions that featured most prominently in the research survey were selected and discussed.

This paper reflects the same approach as that of Swart's (2009) investigation of the effects of trauma on musicians, but narrows the scope to effects on memory specifically. As orientation to the topic, relevant concepts are explicated and discussed in light of a literature survey.

Memory function in the musician

The exact nature of memory for music is not completely understood. …

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