When students in my music history classes first approach the earliest forms of Western music notation, they are struck by how little information is provided. Contemporary notation provides specific instructions for pitch, duration, loudness, articulation, among others, but the original neumes of the 9th-century monastaries gave so little detail that one could not perform chant from the source without already knowing the melody. These sources, I explain to students, provide just a point of reference; they are something to jog the memory and not used to preserve the performance details of a piece for individuals who had no familiarity with the repertoire. An extensive practice of memory and recollection was the norm, and the Gothic monks had developed the tools to access material deep in their memory banks, which explains the limited need for notation. Futhermore, bound manuscripts were extremely expensive and slow to produce.
A former professor of mine drew an analogy to the story of Red Riding Hood to make this point. Most students can recreate the narrative from memory, even if slightly different in delivery, because they know the key ingredients of the story (Oh, what big __________ you have). Students do not study the story of Red Riding Hood on a regular basis; however, they’ve developed the tools for reproducing it at will.
Today’s students are rarely required to memorize long texts and this practice seems as arcane as Gregorian chant. But memorization is more than rote; it requires deep focus and attention. When I was in 5th grade, I had to memorize all of the U.S. presidents in chronological order. I eventually accomplished this feat by learning some historical facts about the presidents and grouping them by major U.S. wars and events in territory expansion. Thus, in order to master an accurate delivery, one is encouraged to develop tools for recollection: symbolic words, relevant analogies, structural patterns, underlying meaning, etc. Students can recite the text and understand appropriate contexts for its reference.
A few years ago, Mark Bauerlein encouraged this activity in his blog for several benefits it provides. Search engines may have removed the need for storing information, but the extensive benefits of memorization are still relevant for our students. Courses on historical and global cultures that engage in oral traditions may find that rich discussions lie in the various practices of memorization and their dwindling use in the 21st century, digital age.