All those words! Accounting for singers’ memory

Joel Katz


Classical singers face a formidable challenge. Not only must they fulfill the complex musical demands of the score and its associated technical difficulties, but (uniquely among performing musicians) they must also remember words. In a major operatic role or full length recital, this can mean thousands and thousands of words, which must be expressed in an affecting, characterful manner, according to a set rhythm that does not allow for hesitation. Singers are able to step in and replace ailing colleagues on short notice, even in a part they have not recently sung. To accomplish all of this, they must have verbatim recall of words and music over long periods of time. In this graduate forum, I propose an experiment investigating the optimum distribution of study events for the long range retention of sung verbal materials. Whereas distributed practice effects are well documented in the psychological literature, there have been few studies to date of distributed practice in musical performance, and none on the effect of distributed practice on singer’s learning and memory over long intervals. An experimental design is proposed that compares the effects of ’massed’ and ‘spaced’ learning on memory for a song after a six week period. As a further condition, lyric text without music is compared to a folk
song setting to see if the constraints offered by melody can enhance the retrieval of words. Finally, current cognitive theories of singers’ memory are examined and evaluated for relevance to singers’ actual performance practice.

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