The Musical Memory Palace | Friday 5 February, 7pm

Aurora Orchestra returns in February with another thought-provoking evening of music; while the programme itself – Mozart’s Symphony No 40 – is enough to leave you spellbound, the fact that the musicians will perform it entirely from memory is something to behold.  That’s not all, though, as the orchestra brings with it ‘Grand Memory Master’ Ed Cooke, someone who knows more than a thing or two about committing things to the brain and making them easily accessible.  Before the musicians impress you with their own mental prowess, Ed will take to the stage to teach you some of the tricks of his trade.  With help from members of the orchestra, and the big screen, he will open up a whole new world for you and you’ll go away remembering at least some of Mozart’s masterpiece.

We sat down with Ed to find out more about being a memory master and what it takes to build your own ‘Memory Palace’

You’re a ‘Grand Memory Master’, what exactly does that mean?

To become a Grandmaster of Memory, you have to be able to perfectly memorise a 1000 digit number in an hour, and a pack of shuffled cards in less than two minutes.

Can you explain what a Memory Palace is?

People have an incredible natural gift for remembering spaces, and this form of memory is far more powerful than our musical or verbal memory, for instance.

It was the Greeks who discovered that we can leverage our spatial memory to help remember other forms of information. By taking a journey through (a familiar) space in one’s imagination, and depositing things one wishes to remember at various points along the route, one can remember amazingly long sequences of information quite effortlessly.

This is what a “Memory Palace” refers to: a space around which one has ‘stored’ various memory objects (typically, images that remind one of whatever one wishes to recall).

When did you first discover you had a talent for memorising?

I first became deeply interested in using memory techniques when I was 18, and had time to kill during a 3-month spell in hospital.

For this concert, Aurora Orchestra plays Mozart’s 40th Symphony from memory. Did you work with them to achieve this?

No, they did that all by themselves- by force of repetition, and through a deep understanding of the structure of the piece. It’s for the audience for whom we’re using the memory palace technique.

Why are long sequences of music difficult to remember?

Sequences are always difficult to remember, especially when they contain, as music does, themes that repeat: to recall what comes next you need to hold more than the immediate context in memory.

We can only keep very small amounts of information in the focus of consciousness at any one point in time, so special memory measures are required to be able to hold in memory long sequences: narrative is one such measure, deep musical understanding a second, and memory palaces a third.

So it seems memory and music are good partners; what else can a Memory Palace be used for?

Memory palaces are useful for any structured information that is either sequential or organised into categories: poetry, lists of anything (shopping, Prime Ministers etc) or any structured data where confusion is possible (for instance, large collections of legal cases).

As part of the concert you’ll be teaching the audience some memory techniques. What can they expect from this part of the evening?

We’ll do a rapid-fire introduction to memory techniques, and then we’ll set about learning in some detail the first part of Mozart’s 40th. There are two aims: first, to remember a complex sequence of music together; and secondly, while doing so to appreciate the detailed structure of the music to a degree which isn’t evident on casual listening.

Are you at all musical?

Like anybody I love listening to music, but I’d describe myself as of very average musician. Having said that, I can play the piano quite loud.

What are your top tips for someone wishing to improve their memory?

Break everything you want to learn into bite-sized chunks; make those chunks memorable by using your emotions and imagination (ask yourself the question: why is this interesting); and then string the pieces together using narrative or a memory palace technique. Finally, lots and lots and lots of repetition.


Aurora Orchestra and Ed Cooke are live at St George’s on Friday 5 February from 7pm.

Tickets £20, £15, £10, £5 Students (limited availability) (*plus fees)

*£1 administration fee charged per transaction plus £1 card transaction fee & 70p postage where applicable