Chunking, Association, and Mozart’s Memory Trick

Memory Techniques for everything from 80-digit numbers to musical compositions

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

According to Dr. Restak, there’s a memory trick for everything, no matter how seemingly complex. He explains how two techniques called association and chunking were used by Mozart to memorize a musical composition and by a cross-country runner to recall 80-digit numbers.

Wooden numbers scattered on brown background
Memory techniques involve chunking information and using associations to link pieces of information together into bigger units or into relatable units, respectively. Photo by romeovip_md / Shutterstock

Chunking and Long Numbers

When it comes to memorizing difficult items, such as long strings of numbers, you can use specific memory techniques such as chunking and associations with personal interests to make the process easier. First, look for ways to make the material meaningful. 

Recall these numbers in their exact order: 1, 4, 9, 1, 6, 2, 5, 3, 6, 4, 9, 6, 4, 8, 1. Most people can manage about seven of those 15 numbers. 

To improve, study the numbers for a moment. One observation will enable you to recite them rapidly and without error. They can be grouped to represent the squares of the numbers one through nine: 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81. 

Granted, not every number sequence lends itself to such a quick fix. When it doesn’t, you have to create your own grouping method. 

Look for ways of chunking, just like we do with telephone numbers. For example, a phone number is listed as 555-362-0777, not 5553620777. 

Mozart’s Memory Trick

A historical example of chunking is Mozart’s memorization of “Miserere,” written by Gregorio Allegri. The Vatican owned the manuscript of this composition, and they forbad publication. 

Mozart heard it only twice and then was able to write it out, which is considered to be a marvelous example of music. However, musicians say the work is quite conventional and that it’s not difficult to chunk large portions of the work around its standard features. 

In other words, it’s not necessary to memorize the work note by note. Thus, Mozart combined special knowledge, efficient processing, and chunking.

Associations and Memory

Another memory technique is looking for personal associations as aids to improve your memory performance. K. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, conducted an experiment that demonstrates the benefits of this technique. 

This was an experiment on the effect of practice on memorizing numbers. A student whom he calls S. F. started with seven-digit numbers by practicing for one hour, two to times per week. 

He then could go from memorizing seven to ten-digit numbers. Several hundred hours of practice led to more than 80 digits at one digit a second.

Here are the first few numbers of one of S.F.’s 80-digit numbers that he memorized: 3583493527222750045. If you try to memorize even the first 20 digits, you’re going to have trouble.

S. F. had a method, though. He was an avid cross-country runner. His technique involved increasing his memory for numbers by associating them with running times for various track and field events. 

The first few numbers—358—represent a very fast mile: three minutes and 58 seconds. For a four-digit number, he added split seconds: 3493 equals three minutes and 49.3 secs. 

To improve your memory, you can form associations with hobbies or interests, just like S. F. did. If you’re a doctor, maybe you’ll relate numbers to blood pressure, pulse readings, or height and weight charts. In your mind’s eye, capture the material as clearly as possible.

Encoding and Retrieval Context

When reviewing something you previously memorized, try to duplicate the circumstances of the time you first learned it. It’s been shown that the retrieval (recalling information) context should equal the encoding (processing information) context. 

In an experiment done with a diving club, some of the people in the club memorized a list of numbers while they were underwater, and the others learned the list while they were on land. It was found later that the ones that were tested in the same situation—either underwater or on land—did better than those who learned underwater and were quizzed on land or vice versa. 

Additionally, you can improve your memory by listening to the same type of background music when you’re first learning something and later when you’re demonstrating that knowledge. Overall, we remember best what we encode most clearly and vividly. 

For example, suppose you’re the type of person who often leaves your umbrella at the office. One way to remember it is to associate one of the first things you do when you leave the office with going home with your umbrella. 

If you ride in an elevator, picture your umbrella pushing the button. That will cause you to look for your umbrella before you leave the office. This example demonstrates yet another way you can use the power of association to improve your memory.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.
About Kate Findley 231 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.