Nicole Dieker wrote this last night and has already come up with all kinds of ideas for the next installment. (A few of those ideas came from L, gotta give credit where credit is due.)

L and I have recently started watching (or, in his case, rewatching) Silicon Valley on HBO — which means that every episode begins with the HBO logo and that WAAAAAAAHHHHHHH sound.

(You know that sound.)

(I know you know that sound.)

Anyway, I used to go WAAAAAAHHHHHHH along with the HBO logo, except I was never quite on pitch; I was guessing, essentially, at what the WAAAAAHHHHHHHH should sound like.

And then one day I decided to pay attention to the pitch and memorize it.

Now I know what it is.

(It’s a C, if you want to know too.)

The funny thing is that L was the first person who showed me that I could listen to a pitch and memorize it — back when we first knew each other, twenty years ago, we were in this production of Into the Woods and I was playing Little Red Ridinghood and I had to pull a pitch out of essentially nowhere in order to sing “And perhaps a sticky bun… or four…”

I asked L, who was subbing for the rehearsal pianist, if he could help me find my starting pitch. He played the ridiculous pianissimo tremolo completely unhelpful chord cluster that came right before I had to sing, then the single note that was meant to be mine — and I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t have to bother with picking it out of the chord cluster.

I could just memorize it.

Or, you know, learn it.

(It was a D flat, by the way.)

And now I’m trying to figure out whether those two actions are always, necessarily, the same thing.

The thing that I can’t figure out is why I can memorize some pages of music the first day I look at them and other pages take, like, a week.

If learning = memory, and if memory = going from guessing to knowing, why can’t I get to know one measure of music as quickly as I know another? It’s all the same stuff, just notes on a page, extremely limited options within a system that relies heavily on patterns.

Either certain combinations of notes are “more difficult” to memorize, perhaps because they don’t follow the established patterns for some reason, or my ability to memorize things varies based on — I don’t know, sleep? Motivation/willpower? The number of other problems I have to solve that day?

While we’re on the subject of problem-solving: the blog post where I coined the phrase “going from guessing to knowing” was about problem-solving, not memorization. Does that mean all problem-solving is necessarily memory work? No, it can’t be, plenty of people solve problems on whiteboards and stuff, they don’t memorize all of the numbers they put up there (and they certainly don’t keep all of the individual datums in their heads while they’re doing the solving), but they might have to memorize the process of solving the problem before they can do the work of putting all those numbers on the whiteboard.

(When I read this to L, he’s going to tell me that he loves me for using the word “datums.”)


Where was I?

It could be that learning has to come before memorization, and the reason that I can’t memorize a page of Ravel or Bach or whatever is because I haven’t learned it yet. I’m still in the “where do fingers go” stage (especially with the Bach, that six-voice fugue has a lot of tricky finger work).

But when you read books like Peak and Moonwalking with Einstein, you read about these people who have rock-solid anchors in place that allow them to memorize music or strings of numbers or city grids very, very quickly.

So it could be that I haven’t got my anchor system on lock.

You might remember — and if you don’t, I have an 18-minute video explaining it — that the four steps to memorizing something are:

  1. CHUNKING (picking a section to memorize)
  2. ANCHORING (using anchors to help you get from guessing to knowing)
  3. CONFIRMING (proving that you can reproduce whatever it is you just memorized)
  4. OVERLOADING (adding something [like a previously memorized section of music] to see if what you just memorized made it into long-term memory or if you lose track of it as soon as you give your brain something else to do)

Which means that if I am failing at memorizing a particular section of music, I’m either failing at the CHUNKING section (picking too much to memorize at once, maybe I need to go two measures at a time instead of four) or the ANCHORING section (very, very likely, especially since I recently started to try to anchor without writing my anchors on the music).

Either way, I need to pay better attention to what I’m doing.

Well. That problem seems solved, or at least hypothetically solved, which is to say I think I know what I need to do next. I’ll have to test my hypothesis in tomorrow’s practice session.

But back to my original question.

Is all learning necessarily memory work?

Can you learn something without memorizing it?

Can you know something without committing it to memory?

Why is it that the last question seems like an obvious NO (you can’t know something that isn’t already in your memory somewhere) but the first two questions seem like an I’M NOT SURE YET?

Maybe because I’m getting confused by the idea that you can learn a process (e.g. how to make cinnamon rolls) without having to memorize every detail that goes into that process (how much flour, how many degrees to preheat the oven, everything else Betty Crocker included in her recipe).

But the process itself — the knowing of how to do (or, in this case, how to dough) — is memorized.

I’ll stop there for now.

More on this next week. ❤️

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