Background Noise

A teacher I had in school used to tell us not to study with the radio on. His reasoning – simple – when we were in an exam situation, not having the radio on would impede our ability to recall the relevant pieces of information.

In my undergraduate degree in psychology, I learned he was right. I read about Godden and Baddeley’s study in relation to context-dependent memory. It showed that divers were more likely to remember things underwater if they had originally learned them underwater.

It’s a useful thing to know.


As I write this blog I’m listening to a beautiful live version of Bridge Over Troubled Water (thanks Sarah Crummy!) and it reminds me of struggling to learn it as a 16 yr-old. Back then my ear was pretty undeveloped and so I relied on sheet music to learn it.

And even now, more than 20 years later, the fact that I originally encoded this music visually not audibly makes it harder for me to improvise with it as I would other pieces that I originally learned by ear.

The context of how something enters your mind affects how you can use it at a later stage. Remember that next time you’re trying to learn something.

2 thoughts on “Background Noise

  1. Hey Matthew – yes it is interesting for sure. Especially when I noticed the difference in my playing depending on whether a piece was learned from dots or by ear…let me know how you get on!


  2. This is a really interesting idea, Kieran. One I hadn’t thought about before. Perhaps if I want to memorise a piece that I’m learning from a score, I should try adding an aural component to my learning and memorisation. I could play a section while following the dots a few times, then perhaps listen to it and try to play it back without looking at the music. I’m going to experiment with this. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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