Shabbat Shirah: Musical Memory and A-Ca-Power

Musical memory- where does it come from? 

In utero, a child sits in what one might describe as its easy-chair-position- easy living for the child, not so much for the mother. It encases itself in a world of surround sound- listening to the motions and rhythms on the outside. After birth, the baby remembers certain rhythms, and even shows a preference for certain sounds. In fact, studies have shown that within the first three days of life, newborns already recognize and prefer hearing their parents’ voices over others.

This musical muscle memory, of rhythm and sound, continues throughout our lives. When walking down the aisle during a wedding procession, one could easily speed up the process by, of course, speeding up the music, as the body instinctively wants to follow the rhythms it hears.  Athletes use songs with different tempos during interval training, alternating between periods of high and low intensity.

This is muscle memory for rhythm. When it comes to listening for and recognizing musical intervals, our brains work a little differently.

For terminology, I’d like to simplify our use of a major scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) by using a number system. Do is 1, Re 2 is, etc. See below


While studying music theory and sight singing, a teacher of mine presented a list of what he referred to as “Musical Mnemonics.” Looking at a scale of notes, how do you sing the interval of a minor second up, the 7th and 8th notes, the ti-do of a major scale? Our list suggests the theme from “Jaws.” And what about the opposite direction? What about Do-ti? “Kol Nidre.” For a fun read, you can try to read an article entitled, “Temporal entrainment of cognitive functions: musical mnemonics induce brain plasticity and oscillatory synchrony in neural networks underlying memory. “

We find an interesting musical lick from today’s Parsha. “Ashira Ladonai Ki Ga’o Ga’a, Sus V’rochvo Ramah Vayam”

Breaking it in two, we start off  having “Ashira Ladonai”, “1, 2, 3” or “ya da dai”- taken from the traditional melody for Ashamnu, “we have sinned.”

Shira Melody

Second half “sus v’rochvo Ramah vayam”-“ Shir Hashirim Asher Lshlomo” –cantillation for our festival megillot.

At a time when we are rejoicing our freedom when our enemy perished, our musical tradition subtly combines remorse/repenting/sadness with the festive nature of the moment.

Of course these musical mnemonics only mean something to us if we recognize these melodies. Our reference points are influenced by our childhood, our environment growing up.

I’d like to focus on 3 notes and the intervals that connect them.

Do Mi Sol, The 1st 3rd and 5th note major triad of a scale. A Major Triad. We’re going to try a little musical interval training.

5 3 1 Major Triad: High Holiday Aleinu

Other direction: Jesus Christ Superstar

Patriotic aficionados: You’re a grand old flag, Star Spangled Banner

In this case, Rhythms/tempos/meters dictate our interpretation of music



Friday Night nusah: Arbaim Shana,

Tu Bishvat standard: Hash’kediyah porachat veshemesh paz zorachat,
tziporim merosh kol gag mevarshot et bo hachag,

Some nights I wake up

High Holiday fans: Hallelujah,

Classical music fans: Opening of Mozart “simple sonata”

3-5-1 Circle Game: Yesterday, a child came out to wander. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar

We could go on and on dissecting  3 1 5,  1 5 3, 1 3 5, 5 1 3. Mnemonics get a song in our head, they take us back to a place and time, but if we are to go the next step, to be moved by these 3 notes, there is a simple action to transform them into a meaningful music moment. In the Shira melody it too was unclear as to how to interplay the 3 players: the prayer leader, the congregation, and instrumentation in one meaningful music moment. The simple action is to combine all 3 notes as one. A chord with the foundation of a bass, the coloring of the Major 5th, the defining character of our Major 3rd.

Let’s try for a moment. (No video to post- imagine this created by a congregation of singers)

Chorale music, notes working together rather than separate entities, is a powerful vehicle for Jewish musical expression. We are blessed this morning to have the A Cappella group Pizmon with us.  Having sung with Pizmon a number of years ago, traveling t communities across the Jewish world with other energetic and creative college students, I am a believer in the “a-ca-power.” I would prescribe it to anyone.

A cappella music fills those voids- choral singing, instrumentation, soloists all in one. Our musical muscle memory may not instinctively recognize the chords we build. We may only recognize a triad as 3 separate notes. But if we work hard, my hope is that through these examples, we will start to remember, we will feel the music, feel the harmonies, as we continue to build musical bridges whenever we join together in song.


Posted on January 28, 2013, in Hazzan's Monday Morning Quarterback. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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