Eric Clarke went to the University of Sussex to read for a degree in neurobiology and graduated with a degree in music. After an MA in music, he was awarded a PhD in psychology from the University of Exeter, and became lecturer in music at City University in London in 1981. He was appointed as James Rossiter Hoyle Professor of Music at Sheffield in 1993, and took up the post of Heather Professor of Music at the University of Oxford in October 2007.

Eric Clarke went to the University of Sussex to read for a degree in neurobiology and graduated with a degree in music. After an MA in music, he was awarded a PhD in psychology from the University of Exeter, and became lecturer in music at City University in London in 1981. He was appointed as James Rossiter Hoyle Professor of Music at Sheffield in 1993, and took up the post of Heather Professor of Music at the University of Oxford in October 2007.


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Eric Clarke: In terms of psychological distinctions, anything that isn’t held in current consciousness, that has to be retrieved, essentially, is within the broad category of long term memory. So the kind of memorising that is involved in the kind of piano playing that you describe is, in a purely categorical sense, thought of as a feat of long term memory.  

Now, long term memory is this extremely broad category, and one distinction within it, which I think is a useful one, is that between, what is called, semantic memory and episodic memory. The distinction runs like this. Semantic long term memory is that kind of generalisable knowledge of the world that we carry around with us and apply to an infinitely large number of different particular situations. The classic examples of it are knowledge of language, or knowledge of the number system, or, in the case of music, knowledge of tonal and rhythmic relationships. That is a kind of form of long term memory, or knowledge, that we carry around with us and which we can apply, so, you know, when you go and hear a concert and hear a new piece of, broadly speaking, tonal and metrical music, it’s not a problem to make sense of it because the semantic memory structures help us to interpret particular melodies, phrases, rhythmic structures, whatever, that we may never have heard before but which are like a million other ones that we’ve heard. So, semantic memory, in other words, is the kind of long term framework for particular memories that we develop and carry around with us the whole time. 

Episodic memories, by contrast, are memories for particular things that are located usually in time and place and which have vivid particular characteristics -  you know, yesterday’s breakfast rather than breakfast in general.  

I think that that distinction between semantic and episodic memory is one useful way to start thinking about musical memory. That, when you sit down to play the Chopin First Ballade, part of what you’re doing, of course, is having to remember precisely and exactly the particular notes and rhythms, and pedalling, and so on, that produces that piece of music rather than some other piece of generic, tonal music. But in doing so, you are massively supported by the semantic memory framework which you have developed over a lifetime of exposure to tonal and metrical music. I should think there are probably ten thousand notes in that piece.. Individual notes, you just count them up, literally, from the score. It is well known that a human being simply cannot remember ten thousand pieces of independent information. The only way in which we can do those kinds of things is because we have these powerful semantic structures that organise them into, kind of, objects and structures, which are familiar, and have a, what one might call, a kind of grammaticality about them. So that’s one distinction that I think is a useful one in starting to think about musical memory.

A second one is to think about the modalities of musical memory.   To think about musical memory in terms of visual memory, auditory memory, a kind of abstracted, structural memory, and, perhaps, very powerfully, a kind of embodied muscular memory.   Most performers are tremendously aware of this last one.   I don’t know what your experience of it is, but I know that, when I do try and play music from memory on the violin, it is, as people say, as if one’s fingers lead one on, sort of thing.   That all works absolutely fine until there comes perhaps a point at which you feel your fingers don’t actually quite know what’s coming next.   This distinction between a very muscular knowledge of things, and a more linguistic, prepositional kind of knowledge relates to a distinction between, what is called, ‘procedural’ and ‘declarative’ knowledge, or memory. 

Procedural memory, which is this more muscular one, is often, the classic example of it is riding a bicycle. Hardly anyone knows anything about how they ride a bicycle but millions and millions of people know how to ride a bicycle.   They know how to do it in this completely procedural fashion, you know, once the bicycle is in their hands, or under their bottom, then their legs go on and they ride and there’s no problem.   Furthermore, in riding from North Londonto the Guardian offices, I doubt whether you ever have to think explicitly or consciously very much at all about the route that you’re taking, or the signs around you, or the kerb around which you move and all those kinds of things.   It forms a kind of seamless, procedural understanding of negotiating a world with which you are very familiar.  I’ve begun to think that, actually, we don’t tend to… it’s, in some ways, unusual to use the word memory in relation to doing that at all.

It’s the kind of knowledge which is implicit in the act itself and is actually extremely difficult, often, to reconstruct and articulate in language.   I think playing the piano, when it’s working well, can be like that.   That one’s hands go to the keyboard and it’s as if you’ve got the bicycle under your bottom, and you just ride, and it’s all fine until you come to the kind of equivalent of a turning in the road when you suddenly think, ‘Oh shoot, I wasn’t expecting to see a traffic light there, what do I do now?’ sort of thing.   At that point, you need rather better to know what it is that you are doing in order to get around those obstacles.

The “landscape” that a musician, particularly a solo musician, has to react to is the creation of his or her own activity.   So there’s a kind of bootstrapping going on when you play music from memory that is rather different from cycling, as if you cycled a bicycle in a kind of virtual reality.   That you sat on a kind of virtual, you know, a thing that was likebicycle, and, as you peddled, by virtue of the kind of pedalling and turning that you did, the landscape was created around you, and as you saw it coming into view, you might then react to it properly.    But if you turned slightly the wrong way, you might bring into view the wrong landscape, and then you would be really puzzled, then you wouldn’t know where next to turn.   I think that playing music is a bit like that.   Whilst your own playing creates this kind of virtual world around you, the world of the piece, in a seamless and secure and confident fashion, you know exactly where to go next, but as soon as some bit of that world starts to look a bit shaky, then it can be disastrously difficult.

Alan Rusbridger: I know exactly what you’re talking about because I’ve felt that.   The way I would put it, or the way that it feels to me, is that I have this… I’ve just been back from Piano Camp and because I had had three weeks of adrenalin and Murdoch, I hadn’t been playing much so I sat down and tried to play the piece, and there were just moments where it went catastrophically wrong.   What it felt to me as though there were large moments when my, as a layman I would use the term unconscious.   I was unconsciously playing and then, suddenly, I would arrive at a moment where the unconscious deserted me, and I was jerked into a conscious moment, and I would find myself unable to know what happened next.

EC: I think conscious and unconscious is a reasonable way to talk about it.   Another way, again, the psychological literature talks about it, is ‘implicit’ memory and ‘explicit’ memory.   The tacit, or implicit, knowledge that you have when it’s all going fine at times needs to be rescued by an explicit or manifest knowledge of what’s happening. 

What musicians are often encouraged to do, is to develop a very tightly organised structural knowledge of the piece. The Ballade, it’s G-minor, isn’t it?    It starts in G minor and has certain kinds of structures and modulates in these directions.   It can be at structural breaks that people have memory breakdowns, because you get to the end of a section, which is unified in itself, and then one can have a moment of sudden terror and indecision about what is the next section.   And if a person knows in this very kind of clear way “it starts in G-minor, and then it moves to B-flat major and then there’s a section that’s in F”, or whatever, then, perhaps, there’s a feeling of that unconscious or implicit knowledge being just about to run out, strangely enough, before the crisis.

So that some of the advice that is given to pianists, is don’t spend too long at the keyboard with the music in your fingers, but spend an equivalent, or in some cases more time, looking at the score and thinking the music through and analysing it -  not necessarily in any very formal sense but analysing it in whatever way makes sense to you. So that’s the declarative, to use this declarative and procedural distinction again.

AR: Let me take you back, so you said there were four modalities. One was visual.

EC: One was visual.  Visual, auditory, sort of abstractly structural, which arguably is not really a modality in a bodily sense, but is more like an abstract knowledge.

AR: That would be declarative?

EC: That would be declarative, yes, exactly.

AR: And visual is, I’m guessing, a mixture of a sort of photographic imprint of the score,… ?

EC:  It is this sense of seeing the score in one’s head, almost like a screen behind the eyes. But it does seem that there are people who say that they know exactly where, on the page, the music they’re playing is.   They’ll even say things like “my memory broke down just at the bottom of page 2”.   They know where, on the score, it was that their memory lapse happened.

AR: And the auditory bit, now there’s a phrase about a sort of feedback loop, is that what you mean by auditory?  You’re in some way responding…

EC: Also that you have the sound of the music coming up ahead of you in your mind’s ear.  This is particularly the case, of course, for people who are playing by ear, as it’s called, of which there are some extraordinary cases.   There’s a man called, there was a programme on television a couple of years ago now, a bit more even, a man called Derek Paravicini, who actually is giving a concert in London at the end of September, who is profoundly, who was born blind, is profoundly, had a profoundly low IQ, but has an extraordinary musical memory, and musical ability.   He plays the piano and he can play a lot of music, a lot of even quite complex music, back, almost note perfect even after one hearing.   The programme explored a little bit about how he does that.

Certainly, there are people around who can pick up music incredibly quickly by ear and then play it.   They are being, you know, people have clearly no visual clues by which to go, they must be doing that either on the basis of a sort of slightly prescient sound that leads them on, or some way in which that sound just gets, in a rather broad way, directly turned into movement.   I think there’s still quite limited understanding of really what is going on there.   Of course, it is not limited to people like Derek Paravicini, most of the oral musical cultures of the world are based on that kind of capacity, of people handing on, you know, songs and instrumental sounds, and so on, by ear, and people picking it up and knowing what to do with it.

AR:  When I’m playing now, I have no sense really of what key I’m. So, the big crashing chord section in the middle of the Ballade, which is either in E-major or A-major -  I can’t really predict whether the next note is an A or a B or a D.   I’m lacking that harmonic sense or that ability to relate notes to …

EC: I very much doubt, in fact, I’d put 99% certainty on it, that you don’t lack that harmonic sense. If someone came along and played the wrong chord within that sequence, you would notice it, I’m absolutely sure.   You would not only know that it was different but you would also be able to tell whether it was a substitution that was reasonable or a substitution that was completely wrong.   So, actually, I’m sure you do, actually, have a great deal, again, of this implicitknowledge of the tonal system.   But what you, as most people who haven’t had a lot of training, find difficult is turning that into note names or into the name of an interval.   You know, you can play someone an interval and they don’t know whether it’s a Fourth or a Fifth but they will tell you that’s one of those kind of stable intervals.   Then you play them a Diminished Fifth and they say that’s one of those weird intervals.   So they can hear that it’s, they can hear actually the tonal attributes of the interval, they just don’t know which name to give it.   That’s a kind of declarative knowledge of music that is of a very peculiar, in a way, a very peculiar and idiosyncratic kind, and which is a bit like knowing, you know, whether you’re drinking a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio, or something, it’s just a name.  

A lot of people find themselves more attracted to a language which expresses these relationships between parts in music in something that is closer to a sense of how they feel rather than how they are named.

AR: Finally, can you tell me your own journey.  You started as a neuroscientist.  So tell me a little about yourself and how you…

EC: Well, as a child and teenager, I always thought I would end up in the biological sciences, really I wanted to be Gerald Durrell again, and spent most of my youth collecting all kinds of animals and enjoying them very much, and so on.   But I also played the violin and was actually a chorister at New College School in Oxford, well at New College.   I sang in the choir at New College for a while.   Music was something that I always did.   And then I played in a rock band as a teenager, and went to university to do this degree in neurobiology having done very little formal musical education.   In fact, I did Music O-level but I didn’t even do Music A-level.   Then, when I went to University, I decided I wanted an Arts education.   I wanted the style of an Arts education rather than a Science education, so I transferred into the Music Degree just because I was already playing in the orchestra and, you know, I did Music to a sort of post Grade 8 standard and all that kind of stuff.   Sussex University, in those days, was very flexible about people changing from one thing to another.   So I did a Music Degree and found that I really enjoyed it and got very interested in the more structural aspects of musical material.   And then, through a Masters and a Doctorate, I gravitated more and more back towards trying to understand something about music and the mind.  
The thing that really attracted me was, I suppose, the temporal aspects of music, how we experience time in music in various ways, the extraordinary ways in which time is organised by music, in which we have the most incredible compressions and dilations of chronological time whilst listening to music.   Through that, I got interested in musical performance as a way in which people structure time in music.   But, in a sense, I’ve really always been more interested in the experience of music.   I wrote a book in 2005 called ‘Ways of Listening’ which is about trying to understand music perception and musical meaning, actually, through, a kind of, broadly psychological perspective.   A book on ‘Music and Consciousness’ that I co-edited with a colleague, has just come out, because I’m very interested in that.   And I’m working on a book on ‘Music and Human Subjectivity’ at the moment.

AR: Which means?

EC: Well, yes, the term subjectivity is difficult. In what way does music itself have a kind of subjectivity that we can engage with and become transformed by?   And in what ways do composers experience their own music as a kind of outpouring or structuring of their own subjectivity?   To what extent do performers consider, you know, if a performer plays a piece, if you play Chopin, then you are both Alan Rusbridger, and, to a small extent, in some sense, you are Chopin whilst you are playing that music.   Or you are Chopin’s Ballade, perhaps, to make it even more specific and less personal.   And if I’m a listener deeply engaged to hearingyou playing Chopin’s Ballade, then I both, I have some insight into your subjectivity as the performer because it is you that is making the sound, and, at the same time, you have become kind of mixed up in the world that Chopin has created through that piece and, thirdly, it is a projection of my own subjectivity into this whole situation.

AR: Are you interested in the chemical changes in the brain?

EC: A bit. The chemicals in the brain are themselves an extraordinarily sophisticated chemical system but, I think for me, the really challenging thing is how do we make a connection between the biology of the brain, which is, indeed, a fantastically interesting thing, and the complexity of the human cultures that have been created by that brain and with which it continually engages.   So what we experience is partially determined by the chemicals in our brain and then hugely shaped by everything around us, and most particularly, the less tangible things, like the languages, and musical systems, and art worlds, and ideologies, that we constantly inhabit, and which shape those and channel those chemicals in unbelievably complex ways.

AR:  I have a sense that, if I play Chopin for twenty minutes in the morning, I’m going to feel somehow different

EC: Yes, definitely. I mean, clearly, some chemical things have been happening during the twenty minutes, and they may last for, I should think, probably, only a few seconds - literally, chemically, last only a few seconds after you’ve stopped playing in the morning.   What remains with you for the rest of the day, ideally, or certainly for a few hours, is, I think, much more to do, is actually much more to do with the structuring of your subjectivity.   The sense that you have done something which is constructive and creative and re-creative, and which has a worthwhile end, in which you have been in control rather than being, you know, at the mercy of endless emails and meetings and God knows what, all those kinds of things.   I think it’s much more about the sense of having a degree of control and creative control over one’s life, at least for twenty minutes, that can last throughout the day.

AR: It’s not like going to the gym and releasing lots of endorphins?

EC: I don’t think so. I think there is probably an element of that. But, even the kind of endorphin account of the gym, you know, those endorphins are metabolised pretty quickly.   If the person feels good, after they’ve been to the gym, for the whole of the rest of the day, it’s probably, very locally, for a short time, due to endorphins, and for a much longer time very obviously to do with the fact that they are simply fitter and they probably sit better at their desk and do all those kinds of things slightly in a more fit way.   But I think, again, it is something to do with that sense of doing something good for yourself that is most important.