Thursday, February 13, 2014


I began memory training in a rather naive, almost unconscious, manner: through music. Of course, when I was young, I learned ABCs from the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star melody. And that was just how I learned it. There was no question about it being learned without music. And the music is still there, I can hear it under my breath, if I am ever called upon to recite the ABCs (cf. Now I know my CBAs).

When I was in 6th grade, I heard a pop novelty song on the radio, "Life is a Rock but the Radio Rolled Me,"  that fascinated me with its rapid fire recitation of different music groups. I decided I wanted to be able to do that, more to impress my friends than for any other memorable reason. I started to write down all the words, then realized that I had actually almost memorized that song in the process through listening to the song over and over.

Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me) 
Paul DiFranco (music) and Norman Dolph (lyrics)

B.B. Bumble and the Stingers, Mott the Hoople, Ray Charles Singers
Lonnie Mack and twangin' Eddy, here's my ring we're goin' steady
Take it easy, take me higher, liar liar, house on fire
Locomotion, Poco, Passion, Deeper Purple, Satisfaction
Baby baby gotta gotta gimme gimme gettin' hotter
Sammy's cookin', Lesley Gore and Ritchie Valens, end of story
Mahavishnu, fujiyama, kama-sutra, rama-lama
Richard Perry, Spector, Barry, Archies, Righteous, Nilsson, Harry
Shimmy shimmy ko-ko bop and Fats is back and Finger Poppin' 
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
Gotta turn it up louder, so my DJ told me (whoa whoa whoa whoa)
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
At the end of my rainbow lies a golden oldie 
FM, AM, hits are clickin' while the clock is tock-a-tickin'
Friends and Romans, salutations, Brenda and the Tabulations
Carly Simon, I behold her, Rolling Stones and centerfoldin'
Johnny Cash and Johnny Rivers, can't stop now, I got the shivers
Mungo Jerry, Peter Peter Paul and Paul and Mary Mary
Dr. John the nightly tripper, Doris Day and Jack the Ripper
Gotta go Sir, gotta swelter, Leon Russell, Gimme Shelter
Miracles in smokey places, slide guitars and Fender basses
Mushroom omelet, Bonnie Bramlett, Wilson Pickett, stop and kick it 
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
Gotta turn it up louder, so my DJ told me (whoa whoa whoa whoa)
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
At the end of my rainbow lies a golden oldie 
Arthur Janov's primal screamin', Hawkins, Jay and
Dale and Ronnie, Kukla, Fran and Norma Okla
Denver, John and Osmond, Donny
JJ Cale and ZZ Top and LL Bean and De De Dinah
David Bowie, Steely Dan and sing me prouder, CC Rider
Edgar Winter, Joanie Sommers, Osmond Brothers, Johnny Thunders
Eric Clapton, pedal wah-wah, Stephen Foster, do-dah do-dah
Good Vibrations, Help Me Rhonda, Surfer Girl and Little Honda
Tighter, tighter, honey, honey, sugar, sugar, yummy, yummy
CBS and Warner Brothers RCA and all the others 
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
Gotta turn it up louder, so my DJ told me (whoa whoa whoa whoa)
Life is a rock but the radio rolled me
At the end of my rainbow lies a golden oldie
Listen--remember, they're playing our song!
Rock it, sock it, Alan Freed me, Murray Kaufman, try to leave me
Fish, and Swim, and Boston Monkey,
Make it bad and play it funky.
(Wanna take you higher!)
Freddie King and Albert King And B.B. King and frolicking...

Melody plus rhythm work a magic spell in the brain that facilitates the ability to memorize a text to an extraordinary degree - even with the relatively monotonic delivery in the song.

Another example of monotonic memorization was the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag - which the entire class had to recite every morning in grade school. Our chorus of uninspired children's voices worked like music to make it so it took nothing to memorize the Pledge. We got so good at it that we could, like most schoolchildren, improvise our own nonsensical punny lyrics in the midst of the recitation.

The Pledge Of Allegiance 
by Francis Bellamy

I pledge allegiance to the Flag 
of the United States of America, 
and to the republic for which it stands, 
one Nation under God, indivisible, 
with liberty and justice for all.

became something like this for me:

The Fudge of a Sneeze Us

I fudge to sneeze us at the rag
of the poonited feces of Americuss
and to the re-dumb-lick which I can’t stand
butt naked under the dog that's invisible
with liver and dust lice for all

I have to admit that I actually thought for many years that the word was "invisible." Because God, as I understood it at the time, was invisible. Still every morning I would stand with the chorus and recite The Pledge. To this day, I still "know it by heart."

In 7th grade government class we had to be able to recite the Preamble to the Constitution from memory. And I just couldn't get it. Partly because the language was difficult for me: "establish Justice," "insure Tranquility," "provide Defense," "ordain this Constitution." I mean, the word "insure" was connected to my mother's car, in case she got into a wreck. I couldn't connect this to Tranquility, which was associated with a tranquilizer dart to me at the time. 

We the People of the United States, 
in Order to form a more perfect Union, 
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, 
provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, 
and secure the Blessings of Liberty 
to ourselves and our Posterity, 
do ordain and establish 
this Constitution for the United States of America.

And even though I had memorized the much more word-dense song with music the previous year, this piece of ponderous and serious prose seemed distant from any sort of musical adaptation. It was as if each word was on a bland block of wood. As I tried to memorize each phrase, I placed each block, one at a time, into a my "Box of Memory." Then I would concentrate on each word-block inside the box, saying the phrase it combined together to make a larger single block. Once I felt I the phrase had become its own unified block, I would move it into a larger box, deeper in my brain. I then began the process over with the next set of words that made up a phrase.

Most people try to memorize like this: analytically, dividing a thing into smaller elements. Each element is disconnected from the rest and the work is to burn it into the memory with brute repetition.


This is the most difficult way to memorize a sentence made of words. They might as well be in any order: states we united the people of the. And to emphasize the point, they might was well be numbers for letters: 2 3 6 2 3 6 6. There is no attempt to understand the connection between the "word-blocks." And with no connection, no understanding, no meaning, no music, it is extremely difficult to get the brain to hold on to it, to place it within the interior world of your mind and be able to remember it, to recognize and recall it whenever you need it.

Through the ages of evolution, the most successful species are those that have the best survival strategies. For humans, being able to remember and learn and not repeat past mistakes has obviously been critical. Furthermore, being able to invent sounds and symbols to express thought; being able to communicate it to another human being is what defines us as humans.

The cave entrance surrounded with bones might attract a curious exploration by some unfortunate early hominid. Then a bear comes out and eats him alive. And his friend, Grog, in the woods watches, helpless and in horror, as screams pierce his hearing and this huge monstrous bear rips his friend's flesh from his bones for what seems hours.

I like to imagine Grog inventing a sound that meant: "Do not go anywhere near that cave that is surrounded by bones!" Let's say that sound was: "Dah An Grrr!" And this sound is very meaningful to Grog. He saw what happened to his friend. And whenever Grog is hunting with anyone, he points out the cave and bones and says: 'Dah An Grrr!" And over time, everyone learns this sound and what it means regarding the cave. Then, eventually, some bright hominid philosopher figures he can also use that sound to point to the place where the beast will drop out of the tree and devour you. Soon enough, a small child is getting to close to the fire and it's mother cries: "Da an ger! Danger!"

Now, of course, this is a cartoonish example. But the point is that language stores meaningful memories. Each of us doesn't have to experience the occasion for the memory that the word contains - although with words like beautiful and love and ecstasy, we most certainly would like to.

Language is a mnemonic device for experience.

The word stands in stead of, in the place of, the thing, the experience. And Lo! Abstraction and the number 1 and everything from Shakespeare to 6 million people exterminated.

What is most amazing and relevant here is that we have the ability, through imagination and association, to make something memorable that the brain would not normally want to hang on to. The current record holder for memorizing the number of digits of Pi is Mr. Chao Lu from China who spent 24 hours and 4 minutes reciting Pi to 67,890 places. I can imagine a world where Mr. Chao Lu’s memory skills might be advantageous to survival, but it is certainly not this one. 

We remember what is most meaningful to our life. All too often, it is difficult for us to understand what is most meaningful. Through the practice of memory, our own meaning becomes more transparent to us, and we attain a vision into an inner world that was hidden to us before. 

So there I was in 7th grade with my word-blocks and my boxes of memory, trying to puzzle out all the pieces. And I was going about it in the most wrongheaded manner possible. Despite Mrs. McBride's best intentions, I didn't know what The Preamble meant. Why was I learning this? I didn't understand what I was doing. Every word seemed disconnected and meaningless. I was bored and uninterested.

My brain was waiting for a bear to come out of the cave or some sort of exciting mental event that meant it really needed to hold on to this information. My attention was like a dog waiting for me to throw the ball. But, contrary to most dogs, it needed to know that what I was shaking in front of it was worth going after. I needed to make it understand what The Preamble was saying was important; that it was, in fact, vital for me as a person living in the United States to have this preamble committed to memory. As it was, I sat there cutting the ball into little pieces and dropping them in a hole to be forgotten.

I eventually did memorize The Preamble. But not because of its intrinsic meaning. I memorized it because if I didn't, Mrs. McBride would give me a low grade and my parents would get mad at me. I memorized it because that was what all of us in the class had to do to get a good grade. We memorized it because we were told it was important. However, we didn't learned why it was important.

I loved Mrs. McBride and don't hold her to any fault at all. She was doing her job. Who amongst us would be able to explain the meaning of The Preamble to the Constitution and the rationale for memorizing it to a group of hormone addled, easily distracted 7th graders?

But this was the Great Failure of my education - from grade school up through the highest levels of the University: I was conditioned like Pavlov's Dog to learn what the teachers and professors taught, to memorize when needed. But I was rarely, if ever, taught to learn why. Why were the subjects I was being taught important or vital to my survival?

Why did what I was being "taught to learn" matter?


For example, what is so important about The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States?

Go back to Grog's sense of the word "Danger!" Anyone can see how important it is to understand and remember this word "Danger!" To not do so is to wander into a cave and be eaten alive by a bear. You feel it down to your bones, how important it is to know about "Danger!" You learn this word really quick and so vividly that it probably never will be forgotten.

These days are not so simple. And words now get chewed over in our speaking like a piece of meat that is never swallowed. Few words have the visceral immediacy of Grog's "Dah An Grrr!"

But in the right context, even the tiredest, most chewed-over, and bland word is given new life. Stare into another's face and quietly say, "I love you." Even if you don't, this most overused word in the English Language will get you a laugh or a slap or punch in the face. Context. Meaning.

I recently returned to The Preamble, to refresh my memory of it. And almost 40 years later, Mrs. McBride's sweet soul will be happy to know that I finally understand why we were taught to memorize it.

Christian Monotone

When I was younger, I had no idea what oppression and intolerance were. I came from a broken family and my mother worked as a teacher to support us. We were barely Middle Class. But this was Middle Class in the United States in the mid-1970s. We were white, lived in a nice rented house, had good food, plenty of clothes, a car, a television. Life was good. We had more freedom that we knew what to do with. A happy white middle class broken family in late 20th century U.S.A.. Life was good - even if I didn't know it was.

Being a regular kid, I didn't necessarily care much at the time, but I knew I could believe in anything. I had a vague sense of freedom to believe in whatever I wanted and the freedom to live according to those beliefs - as long as I didn't break any laws. I knew I had the freedom to say or write almost anything. I knew people could print and publish whatever they wanted - as long as it wasn't lies that would damage another person. I grew up with a vague awareness of these freedoms. I took it for granted. That was just how the world was, the way the world should be. I couldn't imagine a better way to live, to be... governed.

But the older I got, the more I became aware that most places aren't like the United States I grew up in - even the United States. I read about terrible oppression and intolerance towards others. In fact, the more I read, the more then entire history of man was long series of brutal acts of inhumanity and horror against other peoples. The 20th century alone revealed itself to be a slaughterhouse of horror.


When I was in 7th grade, struggling to care in the least bit about a preamble to a government document, millions were being killed in the Cambodian Killing Fields for what they believed in. Naturally, Mrs. McBride did not mention this to us. Although, I often wonder what such an education would have wrought as far as my character.

What is vivid today about The Preamble and the Constitution is how radical they are. They literally are revolutionary documents. They are a collection of words, sentences, statements which attempt to define and establish a new world. They are the embodiments of language that is attempting to ordain and establish a new way of living, new freedoms from the oppressions of past governance and freedoms for a future governance.


The Preamble, in it’s dignified and stately way, might be seen (cartoonishly), to be like Grog and all of his hominid family and friends standing out in front of the bear’s cave and yelling: I believe in these freedoms, and the way of life that insures and promotes them and I will no longer live in fear of you! 

We the People

The very first words conjure the defiant image of a group standing together, as a source of unified power, all with a common aim:

In order to form a more perfect union

More perfect understood not as an attempt of modify an absolute adjective, but as an admission that what brings the People together can be made better. This is what we are trying to do, to make better world to live in.

Establish justice

Justice as harmony. As the invisible hand that maintains equality. The impartial balance that makes certain the individual and the family, the family and the neighbors, the neighbors and the city, the city and the state, the state and the country, the country and the world - everything and all radiating foremost from the integrity and well-being of the individual - all of these elements must be in harmony to establish the conditions of Justice.

Insure domestic tranquility

The logic of the narrative flows from the essential happiness of each human, being who has come together with others to make a People, to create a better world, to make the union of themselves, their families, communities, cities and states all in harmony, to establish Justice, and then, from this Just ground, from these principles of harmony here established, to guarantee this harmony or peace, and protect this tranquility, this quietness of things.

Provide for the common defense

Once we, the People, have created this more perfect, just and tranquil place, we will protect and defend it against those forces which would threaten to harm or ruin it in any way.

Promote the general welfare

Only after we have provided to means to defend our way of life against external threats, can we begin to encourage and promote the well-being, the health and happiness, of ourselves, the People,

And secure the Blessings of Liberty

Above everything, we have come together, we are going through all of this and creating this new world, to make certain, always and forever, that we never lose our freedoms. To have the greatest freedom for the most people is at the essential core of all of why we have come together  to form this more perfect union. By doing this, we enter into a relationship with each other as unique entities and a relationship with that which our union has created, a whole which is greater than any single part, through which we are able to secure, to hold fast to, the natural benefits, grace and blessings of the greater idea of freedom, Liberty.

To ourselves and our Posterity

We, naturally, want this now and we also want, as stated above, to make sure our children and their children and so on also have these same blessings of Liberty.

Do ordain

We place these ideas, these statements of our most essential beliefs, in this way as they are related to each other, each arising out of and dependent upon the others, showing what is most important to how we wish to live our lives in this union.

and establish

These beliefs are cut into stone within our hearts. They are what we found our being upon, the foundation, the firmament upon which all building must rest. We set forth these beliefs in this manner.

this Constitution for the United States of America.

We are creating a new thing, a new body, a new world made up of these beliefs, whose construction, whose constitution, is to be made up of these elements and what follows.

Note the etymological echo inside of pre-amble: of a little walk, an amble, around the whole of the matter, like walking around a park, before going inside. Gives you an overall sense of where and what you are about to enter into.

Oddly, I was never into School House Rock. I think it was great. It just never appealed to me. Maybe it was just not the kind of song I wanted to remember The Preamble to. However, like the ABCs, I know many people that learned The Preamble in this way.

When I returned to The Preamble this year, even though I had memorized it well enough to recite it passingly in 7th grade, there were only fragments that remained. Something like this:

We the People of the United States of America... 
in order to... more perfect union... promote domestic tranquility
...establish Justice... blessings of liberty... 
establish this Constitution of the United States of America

The narrative was riddled with holes, added words, phrases in the wrong place, substitutions. I found this interesting.

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus explored the nature of forgetting. Using himself as a subject, he was able to plot a forgetting curve showing the decay of memory over time. A typical un-extraordinary memory tends to become diminished by half in about 5 to 7 days. However, he also found that the memory is not entirely forgotten, a trace of it remains. He suggested what is now almost commonplace: to have a better memory, you must create a better memory representation through mnemonic techniques and you must refresh the memory through repetition.

There are 52 words in the Preamble. I could recall about 32 words. Better than half and beating the Ebbinghaus Curve by far. Keep in mind, the Preamble sort of percolates through culture via political speeches, films and TV. You hear "more perfect union," "domestic tranquility" often as stock phrases of patriotism. And the sort of Homeric epithets of "Constitution of the United States of America" require no effort to bring to mind. So I would say my actual recall was closer to 19 words. Around 37%.

What I was interested in was what was in those lacuna of the Preamble and why my brain had consigned it to some interior oblivion. The most glaring error and, for some reason, difficult to correct was the substitution in the last phrase of "of" for "for." Not Constitution of the United States but Constitution for the United States. The first is what is used all the time, the latter is, mostly,  confined to the Preamble.

Here is what I left out (missing words in bold) or added [in brackets] or substituted* or in wrong postion#:

We the People of the United States [of America], 
in Order to form a more perfect Union, 
establish# Justice#, insure domestic# Tranquility, 
provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare
and secure the Blessings of Liberty 
to ourselves and our Posterity, 
do ordain and establish 
this Constitution for* the United States of America.

What my brain held on to, with a surprising tenacity of prehension, was pretty much what was to be expected: the basic meaning the message. Kudos to Mrs. McBride.

The subject: We

Prepositional phrase: in order to...(followed by a cascading series of secondary verbs)

Secondary verbs: form, establish, insure, provide, promote, secure,

Primary verbs: ordain and establish - the latter doing most of the work

Secondary objects:  union, justice, tranquility, defense, welfare, blessings

Primary object: this Constitution for the United States of America

The essence of the Preamble is:

We establish this Constitution.

Thankfully, my memory held on to that much and, although it is not much to look at, it is the essence of the thing. But what I left out was the beauty of it. The language that makes it "sing." Because there is a music here, a prose which aspires towards poetry and, when spoken, has a pleasing harmony. The cadences of the Preamble proceed with gravity and grace, layering upon each other like musical motifs, building to a inexorable conclusion that is underwritten not only with intellectual logic, but resonates with a deep emotional sense of rightness .


The Preamble is not the greatest passage of prose in human history, but it is one of them. And while it has an inherent beauty and force, it is the context of its creation that lifts it into greatness.

The overall effect, combined with  the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is symphonic. Beethoven's 5th, an embodiment of the sonata form, is the archetype.

The Declaration then becomes the 1st movement: Allegro Con Brio: fast, quick and bright with spirit, "fate knocking on the door," introducing the theme. Independence. Freedom from.

Tearing down the statue of King George III and melting it into musket balls.

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, c. 1859
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel

The Preamble is the 2nd movement: Andante con Moto: the strong and unwavering procession forward, the statement of the theme, the establishment of the exposition. After freedom from, there must be freedom for.

Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, moving forward, broken chains at her feet, in one hand, the torch of enlightenment, in the other, the Book of the Law. Freedom balanced with responsibility.


The Constitution is the 3rd movement: Scherzo. Allegro: the main play, matter, quick and bright, the statement of the supreme law of the United States. After the why (freedom from) of the Declaration and what (freedom for) of the Preamble, the Constitution is the how (to make these laws).

The allegorical figure of Justice, seated and blindfolded, with scales and sword.


The Bill of Rights is the 4th movement: Allegro: also quick and bright, the coda ("tail"), an extension of the main exposition, the Constitution, specific guarantees of individual rights and statements of limitations of the power of government.

A citizen of the United States with a foot on a king's crown, holding the Magna Carta as a weapon in his left hand and the Constitution open for all to read in the right hand.

The Law by Edwin Blashfield

Music and memory. The two examples at the beginning of this essay were chosen specifically becasue they were not particularly musical.

"Life is a Rock" (and, yes, I do wish that at that early and impressionable age I had chosen a more profound piece to imprint upon my memory), this litany of performers, groups and bands is delivered just slightly above a monotone. While the piece has rhythm and rhyme, there is no distinctive melody to it. Still I found it was relatively easy to memorize.

The Pledge of Allegiance also has a meter and a flow but no melody. Daily choral recitation, even with the cobwebs of sleep still in my head, imprinted it deep in my memory.

So the Preamble. You can put melody to it and end up with something like Schoolhouse Rock. But I don't want to have that strained and mundane melody always tied to my memory of the Preamble. I would be disinclined from ever taking it down from its place in the interior library of my memory and having that feverish song dance and jerk in my mind like a jack-in-the-box opening again and again. Certainly, adding melody to a passage of prose helps, almost magically, to memorize it. But care must be taken to not ruin the piece by combining it with trite and banal music.

With a lists such as the ABCs, the Presidents, signs of the Zodiac, elements in the periodic table, collections of poems and prose, use whatever melody you want. The list is just an indexing mechanism, a catalog, to order and organize placement of memory names, triggers, latches, keys to open doors to the actual body and matter of the main memory. There is no inherent music to a list or index.

However, there is music to poetry and, to a lesser extent, prose. Beautiful language has a musical quality to it, the recitation of the language is often melodious and unfolds with an undeniable harmony.

Poetry, naturally, is closer to music than prose. But many passages of prose, through the elevated beauty of the language, approach, sometimes even surpass, the qualities normally associated with poetry.

The Preamble to the Constitution is work of prose that most certainly aspires to poetry. It has a cadence and flow that make it musical. The presentation and exposition of the theme, with its cascading series of clauses and drumming patriotic finale create in the mind a harmonious unfolding of powerful intention and resonance with the most essential qualities of being human.

When I was younger, and struggled in the same humorous manner as Barney Fife to memorize the Preamble, I was unable to hear the inner music of the language. I also was, unfortunately, not interested in the historical context. No matter how hard Mrs. McBride tried to light the fire of learning in my young mind through her teaching, my lack of interest kept everything within my imagination waterlogged with boredom.

Out of fear of getting a bad grade, I forced myself to memorize the Preamble, like having my parents make me eat a plate of some vegetable I didn't like. I fought it the entire time with a fake smile on my face, tasting nothing, wanting only the throw it all back up as soon as possible.

Music is a mystery. Its meaning transcends all human being. Levi-Strauss believed melody to be the highest expression of human being. Where language hits a wall, music goes on for what seems ever.

Where words fail, music endures. Everyone, even "the savage beasts," finds solace and peace in music. When we listen to music, we engage our brains in most meaningful of all acts.

It is no wonder of it then: our brains remember music, this most meaningful experience, to an extraordinary and profound degree. We can hear a song once and repeat it note for note. We can recall as song after many years of not hearing it - and usually the surrounding world where we first heard it. We can recognize a song after only a few notes. This is an amazing ability. It is magical, weird and uncanny. Our natural ability to remember music is a gift, a mystery, without which, life would be a mistake.

My primary technique of memorization is to uncover the music within what I am trying to remember. The idea of uncovering is key. Poetry is easy. Prose is more difficult, but the music is there - as I hope I have shown with the Preamble.

Once you are able to uncover the music in a piece, memorization is no longer a difficult and laborious exercise, instead it becomes a joyful listening, a surrendering of self to profound meaning and a resonating harmonization of being to a transcendent beauty.

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