Name that Tune

From a study by Carney, Russell N. and Levin, Joel R.:

Students enrolled in music appreciation and music history courses may find it difficult to remember composers’ names and the titles of their compositions — particularly when retrieval is prompted by corresponding classical music themes. We sought to develop and validate a mnemonic approach in which musical themes were first recoded as more concrete referents, and then meaningfully associated with names and titles. Undergraduates were randomly assigned to either “own best method” or mnemonic conditions in both experiments. In Experiment 1, students associated composers and composition titles. In Experiment 2, students associated musical themes and composers’ names (Day 1), and themes, names, and titles (Day 2). In all statistical comparisons, students using the mnemonic approach statistically outperformed corresponding “own best method” control groups. Our positive findings are of special note in Experiment 2, where classical music themes prompted students to identify titles and composers’ names. To our knowledge, this is the first research to validate a mnemonic approach of this sort.

Woman in long white dress plays a harp-piano

Music, When Soft Voices Die, Vibrates in the Memory (Shelley)
Sir William Quiller Orchardson

I encountered this very problem in school, where we were given a list of compositions to identify, and then the instructor dropped the needle on the record, and said, “Name that tune!” We had 15 seconds to write composer’s name, work, and in the case of larger compositions, the portion of the work (first movement, second movement, the “B” section, or whatever applied). I saw my classmates make obvious mistakes, such as listening to Bach’s Ein’ Feste Burg and guessing a woodwind quintet by Elliot Carter. And sure, some themes can be memorized with the composer’s name and title of the work (ask any music student to sing you the mnemonic for Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony). However, I have always found that a more reasoned approach applies: what instruments are you hearing? What is the style (Baroque, Classical, Romantic)? Is the harmony dissonant or consonant, and what kind of dissonance or consonance is heard?

Although this is interesting in that the researchers attempt to validate the use of mnemonics for music (and mnemonics do work!), with large amounts of material to be learned, the best way is good old-fashioned reasoning and familiarity (in other words, do your homework, and listen with discernment).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Material is copyrighted and may not be rewritten, copied, or republished in any form without explicit written permission. Use the contact page to request permission.

Ready to take the next step? Find out more about private classical piano lessons, private classical singing lessons, private speaking voice lessons, or master classes, by scheduling an interview at no charge and no obligation. I respect your privacy and your email address will not be sold, rented, transferred, added to a list, etc. It will be used only to contact you for schedule changes.