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How do you memorise an entire symphony?

29th April 2015

In a feat of musical memory, the Aurora Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony without printed scores at the BBC Proms 2015. Neuroscientist Jessica Grahn explores how musicians manage to remember highly complex arrangements.

The extraordinary ability of musicians to recall millions of musical notes over a lifetime is undoubtedly one of the most impressive feats of human memory.

For scientists, such feats provide an opportunity to understand how human memory works – but, for musicians, having to achieve this on a regular basis can be terrifying.

Most musicians will have to perform from memory at some time in their career. Some, especially singers or soloists, have to perform from memory most of the time.

Feelings about the practice are divided. Some musicians feel that performing without a score allows them to be freer and more expressive. Others feel that memorisation is time-consuming and less reliable than using a written score.

Moreover, the fear of memory “slips” can hamper expressive performance, or worse. Debilitating stage fright may cause a musician to withdraw from the profession entirely.

Most ensembles escape the burden of memorisation – with notable exceptions being the Kolisch Quartet in the 1930s and the Chiara and Zehetmair Quartets today. An entire orchestra playing from memory, as the Aurora Orchestra will do this summer at the Proms, is all but unheard of.

Read more on the BBC website