On Priming Effects

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Priming effects are the name psychologists give the phenomenon whereby an idea or a behaviour comes much more readily to mind if you’ve had some kind of trigger or reminder shortly before encountering it. The experiments that investigated it often make it seem like a weird form of suggestibility: people walking more slowly after being primed with words that remind them of old age, for instance, or students doing better or worse in tests depending on whether they’ve been primed with stereotypes that evoke intelligence or academic weakness.

Daniel Kahneman explains priming as a way of tapping into our System 1, associative mode of thought, helping the speedy, intuitive part of our brains to access a whole web of connotations, rather than painstakingly working through ideas one at a time. Whether this works positively, producing nuanced, holistic insights, or negatively, making us leap to conclusions based on stereotypes, varies from context to context.

One context in which priming effects can be very helpful is in bringing music to mind. You know how there are songs you know inside out, but if you’ve not sung them for a couple of weeks, your first run-through can be more mechanical and less vivid than your usual standard of performance? You’re using so much of your brain pulling the song out of storage and back into active service that the experience becomes one of singing along with your memory of the past self who last sang it, rather than bringing it to life in the present.

But you also know how there are songs that won’t leave you alone? The ear-worm is one manifestation of your brain’s amazing capacity to keep processing music when you’re not actively working on it: out on a walk, in the shower, while doing pretty much any work with your hands. You hear the words ‘on a Sunday morning’ as you go into the supermarket, and 10 minutes later you’re still dashing away with a smoothing iron as you choose potatoes.

You can use priming to get music you are going to be working on into that active, processing part of your brain ahead of rehearsals, so you don’t need to go through that whole ‘groping for the memory’ phase. This is valuable for several reasons. First, it saves time, as you don’t all have to live through a less satisfactory rendition to get to the level you want to be working at. Second, it makes the rehearsal experience more musically rewarding, as you don’t have to spend so much time singing under par. Third, you get more done, as you go straight to working at your current stage of progress, rather than going back to meet your past selves first.

The way I suggest doing this is by getting the music out in the couple of days before rehearsal, and reading through the lyrics. (And if you sing a part that’s more vocable than lyric, it’s the actual words of the song you need to be reading, rather than your doos and dms.) This focuses your attention on the song’s narrative, priming the part of your brain that thinks about storytelling and expression. Your inner ear will readily provide the musical clothing these lyrics wear as part of the full imaginative concept of the song. And reading rather than listening engages your imagination more actively and directly – it’s like the difference between reading the book and watching the movie.

I’m not saying don’t revise your part too, using whatever learning method you prefer. That is always a useful thing to do! But that is a more System 2, deliberate mode of thought. And as such it takes longer, and thus is more likely to get squeezed out of a busy life. We all quite sensibly prioritise our focused music-learning work on the material we know less well to bring it up to scratch. The point of priming is that reactivates existing knowledge without a large input of time.

The best way to achieve this is find a routine. Have a regular spot in your week when you do this. It’s the kind of thing to slot in at the end of a lunch hour instead of 10 minutes on Facebook, or on the train home from work, or over a cuppa after putting away the weekly shop. It’s not just that designating its moment saves you from having to make a fresh decision about when to do it each week, with all the cognitive overload that entails, it’s that when you get there, you’re ready for it, and so it’s much easier to switch into what you’re doing and then out again to get on with life.

As someone who struggled to be reliable with this when I first brought into my weekly rehearsal prep, I understand that it can feel a bit of a faff to make the effort. It’s such a small task, what difference will it make? says the lazy bit of your subconscious. (Quite a lot my subconscious is lazy, it has to be said.) But by the same token, I also know the difference it makes, which is quite disproportionate to the time expended. If you want to make a significant upgrade to your contribution to your choir with one small change to your routine, this will do it for you.

And to my friends in the Telfordaires, this is why I tell you every week which songs we’ll be doing the following rehearsal. I also note that as we’re coming up to the season to revise Christmas repertoire, we’ll have even more opportunity to make this work for us than usual :-)

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