Chunking Music – Shapes at the Piano

Our skills are dependant on our memories.  Improving our memories and skills is dependant on our ability to chunk information.

For example, try memorizing this passage:

Chunks Scale

For musicians, this is simple.  It’s easy to chunk a sequence of eight notes into one scale.

This one’s more difficult:

Chunks 12Tone

Your ability to memorize this passage depends on your experience in analyzing, finding patterns and chunking a 12-tone row.  It’s very doable, but the chunks may be smaller and we may use different methods of chunking, especially with extremely complex passages.

We mostly use and teach music theory as a means to chunk information.  With one or two words learned from music theory, I can communicate many complex sequences, systems and patterns found in music.

Locrian, triad, deceptive cadence, swing, rhythm changes, diminished scale, turn-around, vamp, Urlinie, Autumn Leaves – These are all examples of chunks.

When we practice and study music, one of our goals is improved memory and improved chunking.  Music theory provides a consistent framework for musicians to chunk music materials and to communicate them to other musicians.  However, when individuals are at home practicing, I would encourage them to explore every chunking method available to them.

For example, for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen shapes at the piano.  When you play a melody or a chord, the combination creates a distinct impression on the keys and in your hand.  For example, take a look at a Bb7 in 2nd inversion.


There’s a rough symmetry here.  For me, the two black notes, surrounded by white notes create a shape that helps me visualize and recall this chord from memory.  To my eye, those two black notes, side by side seem very distinct.  Look at what happens when you add the 1st and 3rd inversion, it creates a mirror image, anchored together by the Ab and Bb.

Bb7 2

Here’s another shape that jazz pianists are familiar with:


Notice how similar it is to this:


I think that another reason it’s challenging for pianists to explore “more difficult” keys is because they have a weaker foundation of shapes and visual patterns.  For example, once a pianist learns this C7 #5#9 voicing, it’s much easier to figure out F7 #5#9.  It’s more difficult to chunk Ab7 #5#9 or Db7 #5#9 because they require pianists to recognize and internalize a different shape:



These are just a few basic examples.  This can also be applied to scales, chord progressions, melodies and voice leading.  I know it’s pretty unorthodox, but I think pianists use these visual cues more than we think.  At the end of the day, I think we should be open to all methods of chunking.

I thought of another method, from the 12-tone row above:

Chunks 12Tone Line

Chunks Line

I read that Erroll Garner had colour synesthesia.  He also couldn’t read music.  I can’t even fathom how he chunked music.  I wonder how much it relied on shapes and colours to recall music from his memory.  Instead of “EbMaj7” maybe he thought “Love” or “Yellow.”  It’s fun to think about.

How about you?  Do you use any other unorthodox ways to memorize and chunk music?  What about on other instruments besides the piano?

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