Music and memory: Preparing for a test.

While most of the world has been on school holidays this week, New Zealand has still been going. In fact we don’t get a break until July 12th and then there are still two terms until the end of the school year, so I’ve had to dig a little deeper as a teacher this past week, and you know what, I’ve had some great teaching moments I’d like to share with you.

My year 11 class have a non-compulsory exam in December which requires them to know a thing or two about reading musical scores, which is something they really REALLY hate doing. I think their main barrier to completing the test has simply been a lack of understanding in how to study, so for the past couple of weeks I’ve been giving them some study tools that my dad (a former languages professor and chess player) had drilled into me from a young age and that I’d also read about in journal articles. I’ve outlined them below…


I read somewhere that our brains can remember up to about seven things and that beyond that it becomes too complicated, however each of those seven things can become a branch for a further seven and then a further seven, and so on and so on. It makes sense therefore to compartmentalise what you know into branches of seven,

e.g. 1st seven =  Elements of Music- Timbre, Texture, Structure, Expressive Techniques, Duration, Harmony, and Melody.

Next seven (actually six, but you get the idea) = Timbre (Instruments) – Brass, Woodwind, Strings, Percussion, Keyboards, Voices.

Next seven = Brass – Tuba, Trombone, Trumpet, French Horn, Euphonium.



Often you need to learn information or terminology forwards and backwards and writing the information on a flashcard (or typing into a series of powerpoint or keynote slides) is a great strategy to learn the information. Also colour and pictures/ symbols on the flashcards can also help. Being an avid public transport user, I often have half an hour of sitting on a bus where I can pull out flashcards to revise information and I encourage my students to do this. (I’ve also read that changing study locations can help information sink in too… something to do with remembering the location and then the information flooding back when you think about being in that space.)

e.g. For Italian terms in music have one side of the card say the Italian word and the other side the English meaning, therefore when you study you can flash from either side to the other. I’ve used this when learning Japanese characters, musical note names and the first 20 elements of the periodic table and I can still remember all these things.

Put it to song!

How great is it when you can turn an annoying song into a way to study? Most of the Indonesian that my husband remembers from his time in high school (poor guy, my dad was his teacher) comes from the annoying songs my dad would make the class sing and dance to or that other students had made up (Philip Korare, if you’re out there, your Nasi Goreng song has become infamous!).

Bizarro word and image association

Can’t remember the meaning of a word? You need to link it to a picture that has something to do with the word, and often the more bizarre or funny, the better. One of my teachers from school, Mr. Tracey, used this to great effect when teaching the periodic table of elements. Here are a few gems from that lesson…

5 = Boron Why? Imagine a hand, the hand has five fingers, the fingers spread and tense (now here is the bizarro part) suddenly each finger is giving birth to a baby (told you it was weird, now the babies are born. Born sounds like Boron.

It also works the other way around.

Boron = 5 Why? Boron sounds like born, imagine birth, for some bizarre reason the image of the fingers giving birth pops into your head. How many fingers are on a hand? 5. Boron is the fifth element.

Here’s another. Aluminium = 13 Why? It’s night time. All the loonies are out with aluminium helmets they’ve made, it must be a full moon, you look up at the moon, there’s a witch flying past on a broomstick wearing an aluminium mini skirt (I’m still scarred by that image!), Witches and full moons make me think of bad luck, so I think of the number 13. And now the number 13 in my mind is forever linked with aluminium.

OK, so let me give you a music related one. The following memory tool I attribute to my mother, she may seem sweet and innocent, but sometimes her mind could go to the gutter! “Miss, how will I remember the difference between p and f?”, Mum: “Well you p softly and you f loudly!”

Brain dump

So you’ve made it to the day of the test and you’ve got all this information stored in your head and you’re about to explode with nervousness. Good! As soon as the exam starts, before you’ve even read the exam questions, use all that nervous energy to write down all the things you have stored up in your brain on a piece of paper. Don’t even look at the exam questions until you’ve done it. It’s like a wonderful emotional release that will actually end up helping you on the exam. As you read each question refer to your ‘brain dump’ piece of paper, it will also help you to remember to carefully read each question before giving an answer. I used this technique for both music tests and physics tests (too many formulas that I couldn’t remember when to apply!) to great success in my final years of high school.

Leave me a note in the comment section about your secrets to studying for exams! Alison.

About Alison Armstrong

Alison Armstrong BMus./BEd. (Queensland University of Technology), Dip. ABRSM (Performance- Singing) I have trained to teach Music (Elementary, Middle and High School) and Drama (Middle and High School). This is my 7th year as a teacher.
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3 Responses to Music and memory: Preparing for a test.

  1. Joe Peters says:

    Perhaps a heuristic approach may excite your students. I understand that you have used Variations 2 that Indiana University produced. I am using that in graduate classes in Thailand and it seems to get more done. Everything is focused on sound and not on the tools that guide one to understand the sound.

    • Unfortunately the score reading test my year 11’s are preparing for is not based on their ability to hear music at all. It’s question like “What is the difference between Pizzicato and Arco when written next under the notes of a violin part?”. I wish I was back teaching the IB instead of the NZ Curriculum, then I would be using that software!

  2. 80s Songs says:

    This is great information! Thanks!

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