How to Use Colors to Enhance Your Memorization Process
By Kate Prestia-Schaub

In 1997 when the Lowell Liebermann piccolo concerto was first published, I happened to be studying beginning piano with Samuel Lancaster. Sam was the pianist with the Colorado Symphony and the composer in residence with the Colorado Children’s Chorale. He was fascinated with the brain and how it collected data, processed it, and then manifested in the process of making music. He studied the brain with leading scientists and his research was way beyond anything that I could grasp at the time. I only remember a fraction of what I learned from him in regard to the brain, and it’s probably because I didn’t learn it on colored paper!

Sam began a lesson teaching me about pattern recognition, which I attempted to grasp, and then he went on a tangent about colors. He said that scientists believe that one remembers more when learning in color rather than black and white. According to Aura Hanna, in her paper, The Representation of Color and Form in Long-Term Memory, “…color is part of the long-term memory representation. Subjects performed better when color cues were present at encoding and test. These results are consistent with those of experiments measuring differences in accuracy between colored and black-and-white stimuli.” (p.329). Of course, as a senior in high school, flailing about trying to learn piano for a proficiency entrance exam at IU, I cared nothing about what Sam was trying to impart to me. It was not until I won a concerto competition and needed to memorize the Liebermann that I really did try to allow what he was telling me to sink in.

“Sam, hi, it’s Kate…remember when you were saying something about colors…can I come over?!”

I called Sam in hopes that we could revisit this process that he had taken and developed in memorizing music. Even now, I wish I had paid better attention to his process, but with additional research over the years, the following is what I have learned and cultivated with my own students.

Not only is color part of the long-term memory representation in the brain as Ms. Hanna wrote in 1996, it is also widely studied that color is used to represent psychological states. For musicians, expressivity in music is a key factor in a convincing and emotionally charged performance. We cannot hope to pull the music from notes on the page without including a story, image, or emotion. When memorizing, the brain needs as many links to the music as we can possibly give it. Think about it like spokes on a bike wheel, or the 360° viewpoint. How many things can we feed the brain to create a beautiful and polished final product? It needs things like the sense of sight, touch, and hearing, obviously; but it needs intangible things, such as feelings as well. When we use the sense of sight to incorporate colors, we coincidentally include the psychological states, or emotions, as an additional “spoke” on that learning wheel.

Our teachers all tell us to change our tone color. As students, we fumble with this concept and wonder, “Well, what does that even mean, and physically, how do we do that? How do you play “blue” or “yellow?” We can start by taking a look at science, to see what research has been done in the brain and how our emotions are affected by particular colors. Eric, John, and Paraag of TheVisual PercpZone website state: