Music and Memory


While researching the effects of music on memory for an article I recently wrote for my local newspaper, I had the opportunity to speak with a participant of an adult day program in the area. Like most of the other participants, he has Alzheimer’s. When speaking with him, he shared with me his life-long passion for classical music, and invited me to listen to one of his favorite albums that he just happened to have with him at the program that day. He slipped it onto the 1940’s turntable situated in the center of the homelike furnished room, then lowered the needle onto the record. He started humming to the piano solo, snapping his fingers, sweeping his arms through the air, performing a music conductor’s dance.

The music did something for him, to him. Perhaps you know what that feels like. When you hear a specific song from your past, what happens? You can’t help but time-travel in your mind, linking that song to a long-ago, meaningful event, like the day you got married, or your high school senior prom, or the one, and only, time you sang Karaoke. Research indicates that listening to music activates regions in the brain responsible for motor activity, emotions,  creativity, and autobiographical memories. Listening to music is particularly beneficial to those suffering from memory loss, whether it’s from a traumatic brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.  Music calms ceaseless brain static, helping one to focus on the present and recall  long-term memories.

Dan Cohen, a social worker who founded the non-profit Music and Memory, recognizes the benefits of music, particularly for those suffering from memory loss. His wish to be able to listen to his favorite 60’s music if he were living in a nursing home was the driving force behind his idea to bring iPods, or other digital music technology into elder care facilities, with the  goal of delivering personalized music to the residents, thereby improving quality of life. The miracle-like effects of Music and Memory are evident in the documentary “Alive Inside.” The film features a nursing home resident wearing an iPod, listening to his favorite Cab Calloway songs. Within seconds of hearing the first song, he re-awakens, the music stirring him from his sedate, nearly unresponsive state. His eyes snap fully open, his voice singing in a clear vibrato, as if someone just reset his memory’s circuit breaker.

When I told my husband and two of his adult daughter’s, Rachel and Hannah, about Music and Memory during a recent family gathering we decided to make a list of our favorite songs to share with one another. We each took turns playing them on our iPhones, and, as we did, something remarkable happened: a flash-flood of melodic memories. “Hobo’s Lullaby!” Hannah called out. “Remember, Rachel, Dad used to play it all the time.” Then it was Rachel’s turn: “I learned this Fleetwood Mac song on my guitar. When was that, like ten years ago?” When I played “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, I felt as if I was back in high school again, singing out loud with my friends, “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon …”

Which songs jump start your time-travel engine? Where do those songs take you?




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Music Session Etiquette


Now that fall has, well, fallen upon us, and the sun is hovering a bit lower in the sky, are you thinking ahead and starting to plan how you’ll spend the long, cold winter months (especially if you live in Vermont)? Are you a budding musician looking to play music with others? If so, you might be interested in joining a traditional session this winter. But, before I launch into music session etiquette, for those of you who don’t know what one is, let me define it for you here: Simply called “session,” it’s a term that describes a gathering of musicians who typically play Irish, Scottish, or old-time music. They can take place at a bar, restaurant, hotel, or a private residence. These are unpaid gigs, though some musicians  (usually those with experience) may be paid to “lead” a session. Some of the most common instruments played at sessions are guitars, violins, mandolins, whistles, and accordions.  Musicians usually play without amplification, or “unplugged.” I recall the first session I attended eight years ago – I thought my heart would burst through my chest. So, yes, sessions for newbies can be intimidating, but they are somewhat casual events where musicians play for pleasure. A certain amount of etiquette, however, is expected, and worth noting.

Guidelines, and tunes, vary form one session to the next, so it’s a good idea to listen for a little while if you are new to the session. In advanced sessions, where the musicians are experienced, you might not be as welcome to sit in the circle as you had hoped. I understand this may sound pretentious and unwelcoming, but these “closed sessions” typically cater to familiar, more respected musicians. And sessions are not places for practice, or “noodling.” If you don’t know the tune, don’t use this time to learn it. You might want to record tunes you don’t know so you can learn them at home when you’re not feeling under great pressure to play perfectly the first, or second or third, time around.

In a session, musicians typically play 2 to 3 tunes in succession. Tunes with multiple parts, like hornpipes, are usually played fewer than three times through. If you start one, make sure you can play it in its entirety without stopping, or faltering. It’s okay to play tunes that others don’t know, but be courteous and also play more common tunes. If you know the name of the tunes you are about to play, as a courtesy, ask others if they know it before starting. But there are an uncountable number of tunes to memorize, and many have similar names, so it’s not uncommon for session musicians to not know the names of them. The individual who starts the tune sets the tempo, which should remain the same throughout the set. If the speed is above your skill level, don’t try to keep up. It’s better to play slowly and well than quickly like hell.

If you are a novice fiddler, guitar player, whistler, mandolin picker, or accordion squeezer, don’t fret. There are beginner sessions out there that are more structured, with leaders who start the tunes and who may be open to handing out a list to participants. If you don’t know of a venue that holds sessions in your area, how about starting one with a few musical friends in your home? Or reach out to other musicians on social media.

To learn more about session etiquette, I invite you to click here and here. The Session is a user-friendly website where you’ll find a variety of tunes from which to choose to learn, and it’s a great place to engage in all kinds of discussions about music.


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Need Inspiration to Play the Fiddle?


Do you need inspiration to play the fiddle (or any instrument)? I’ve been playing the fiddle off-and-on for more than ten years. I used to practice every day, for an hour, sometimes longer. I was obsessed with learning new tunes. But, because of other commitments, that changed. I’m embarrassed to admit how little I’ve practiced over the past few years. Okay, I’ll admit it: once a week, for thirty minutes. Playing the fiddle is not how I earn my living; it’s how I escape everyday stressors. I play because I enjoy it, and do perform in local coffee shops and for residents of assisted living facilities once in awhile. If you’re are interested in expertise then you might consider following the “10,000 hour rule,” that is if you believe in it. Similarly, if you’re a music student, or a performer, practicing once a week is not enough for the brain to learn new concepts, or to form muscle memory. If you play the fiddle for pure enjoyment, then in may not matter to you how often, and for how long, you practice. Some say that practicing for brief periods several days each week is better than practicing for long periods less frequently. Sessions may be as short as twenty minutes for children and as long as an hour for adults. Studies have shown that gains begin to decline after two hours of practice.

If you’re looking for inspiration to pick up your fiddle more often, here are some tips:

  • Leave your fiddle where you can see it
  • Listen to music you enjoy and are interested in learning to play
  • Join a music group, or attend sessions
  • Take lessons on a routine basis
  • Attend music camps
  • Set up a date with a friend who also plays an instrument and practice together – do this once a week, or every other week, as much as your schedule allows
  • Write down a reminder to practice in your date book
  • Set goals: “I’m going to learn tune X by the New Year”
  • Follow other musicians on social media for support and inspiration
  • Practice during a time of day when you are most alert and motivated

If you have other suggestions, please share!


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Hum It, Sing It: Learning a Fiddle Tune

When learning a new tune on the fiddle, how do you begin? I start by listening to the tune, or song, again and again. I hum it – sometimes I try to sing it (because I’m not a very good singer, I prefer humming). I do this until the melody keeps me awake at night, joins me for breakfast, for every meal, when I’m washing the dishes or while I’m driving or taking a shower. Then I pick up my fiddle and play the tune (Okay … I admit that sometimes I try playing it before my brain is well-oiled – I can’t help it).

I’m no musical prodigy, so I won’t make any false claims here and tell you that, once the tune is etched into my brain, I pick up the fiddle and play the entire piece all at once. I focus on one phrase at a time. For instance, if I wanted to play The Silver Spear, a reel in the key of D, the first phrase includes the following notes: F, A, three A’s bowed as a triplet, B, A, F, A. I would play that over and over until my fingers moved from string to string as if they possessed their own nervous system, or what is called “muscle memory.” In other words, you want your fingers to be able to dance along the strings without conscious effort. Then I would move on to the next phrase.

Years ago, at the Irish Heritage Festival in the Catskills, I participated in a workshop lead by master fiddler Kevin Burke. He told us that, when practicing a tune, he plays a phrase over and over while reading the newspaper. I’ve tried it, but I’m not very good at multi-tasking, and found myself getting too absorbed in the headlines, the news of the latest winter storm barreling our way silencing the melody in my head.

If you haven’t learned the tune yet, here’s a link to The Silver Spear. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.


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How to Change Fiddle Strings


The first time I changed the strings on my fiddle, I started by removing all four of the old ones at the same time, thinking that would be a good time to give my fiddle a thorough dusting. But what I hadn’t considered was the sound-post, until it collapsed after I removed the strings (fortunately, it did not slip into one of the F-holes – the long, curlicue-like openings in the top of the fiddle). That’s why it’s strongly advised to change one string at a time. Which string to start with is not critical, but most fiddlers prefer to start with the G-string (I start with the E string, because that’s what my fiddle instructor taught me after I confessed to her my oversight). You never know when a string will pop out of its slot and break, so it’s a good idea to have an extra set of strings in your case. Hope this helps.

For steps on how to change fiddle strings, go to:

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Teaching Children to Play the Fiddle


Whenever I spent time with my three-year-old niece, she would bounce and clap to the Irish tunes I played for her on my fiddle (note: the fiddle and violin are the same instrument. The style of music differs: fiddlers typically play traditional music like old time, Celtic, and Klezmer, and violin players typically perform classical and jazz music. Since I play traditional music, I prefer the term fiddle). When I stopped playing, she’d yell, “Let me, let me play!” I certainly was not going to allow her, or any three-year-old, even touch my 1920’s one-of-a-kind fiddle. But she’d reach out for it, and try to yank on the neck of the instrument. I’d put it away, hide it in the closet, but she was developmentally on target and had a full understanding of object permanence. So she’d run to the closet, and attempt to pull the fiddle out of its case – but I knew enough to lock it. She’d follow me around the house, and do what a three-year-old does when she doesn’t get her way: jump up and down, cry, and scream, “Why not? Why not? “I want to play!”

I had never taught a child how to play the fiddle, but wanted my niece to learn. After all, learning an instrument improves academic skills in children, fosters their social skills, and helps them develop motor coordination. Learning an instrument, especially the fiddle, also teaches children how to be disciplined and patient. You don’t just pick up a fiddle and suddenly play a Bach concerto, unless you’re a Mozart musical prodigy.

So how do you teach a young child to play the fiddle? First, let’s start with when to begin teaching. Each child is unique in terms of her behavior and cognitive abilities. Some children are more cooperative than others, and can focus longer. A five-year-old might throw a tantrum when asked to sit for more than two minutes, whereas a three-year-old might be perfectly willing to sit for fifteen minutes as you hold the fiddle under her chin while she practices plucking the strings.

In The Strad, a magazine devoted to string instruments, Anne Bacon offers advice on how to approach a child’s first fiddle lesson. She reviews the proper fiddle hold, and how to teach children to handle the bow and pluck the strings.

On the website, Music in Practice, Sue Hunt, a teacher with 25 years of experience, offers tips on when to begin teaching your child the fiddle, and how to make the process fun and engaging.

Other resources:

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