When we think about teaching music theory, do we consider the roles of short term, long term and working memory or schemas? What are the implications of memory for how we teach? What is a schema? In the latest episode of Notes From The Staff, Dr. Leigh VanHandel, author of The Routledge Companion to Music Theory Pedagogy, talks about the science of memory and learning and how it can help us better structure our teaching. Here are four things to know from the conversation:

  1. Long term memory is knowledge that’s readily available for retrieval and doesn’t need to be rehearsed all the time.
  2. Short term memory holds a certain amount of information for a short period of time, such as when remembering a phone number long enough to write it down.
  3. Working memory is manipulating information from short term memory, such as repeating a phone number you just heard backward.
  4. A schema is an interconnected network of all the things we know. When a new piece of information comes in, our brain organizes it into categories and builds connections to other relevant information.

Knowing the function of each type of memory, should we have students memorize theory material until they’ve built a repertoire of terms and facts? That might be impressive, but science says it’s not the most effective. We can tell any learner, even a non-musician, that A Major has three sharps. That person will then know that A Major has three sharps, and they’ll hold that information in their short term memory (or maybe even long term memory if repeated enough), but that student will have no context for what the information means. Our students need a network that allows them to connect A Major to other knowledge about scales and key signatures to understand the significance of sharps in a given key. Although we want our students to eventually have immediate recall, we need to teach them to build strategies for understanding new concepts, developing a schema.

To hear further details about learning and memory, and specific examples of how this informs teaching strategies, listen to the full episode of Notes From The Staff.

Notes From The Staff is a podcast from the creators of uTheory. Join us for conversations about pedagogy, music theory, ear training, and music technology with members of the uTheory staff and thought leaders from the world of music education. Subscribe to Notes From The Staff on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.