13 Simple Tips to Memorize Music Easily and Reliably
Rose Park 03/04/21 updated 12/05/21 • 9 min read
If you’ve seen the 2014 movie Whiplash, you may have been astonished with the final performance scene where the main character, Andrew, is “mastering” drums.
What you can see from his performance is that he is not looking at the score. At all.
He is playing the beats without looking at the score. He is playing from memory. In other words, his arms know where to go even before his eyes can follow the movement.
Andrew is using his ‘motor’ memory.
Let’s look at another example. The following score is from the Paganini Variations op.35 by Johannes Brahms.
Guess how many music notes there are in these nine measures.
There are 140 notes in only nine measures!
How do concert pianists memorize millions of music notes? How do they learn and store all these musical details inside their heads?
In this article, I will guide you through three practical stages of memorizing music. By the end of the journey, you’ll learn the techniques professional musicians use to memorize music.
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What is Memorization in Music?
Memorization in music is a skill that lets you perform a piece of music from memory.
This skill requires various types of memory such as visual, auditory and motor.
Visual memorization in music is a skill that allows you to memorize with your eyes. It’s also called “photographic memory.”
Auditory memorization in music is a skill that allows you to memorize by listening to the sounds. It requires you to anticipate hearing the melody and harmony ahead of time.
Motor (muscle) memorization in music is a skill that lets your muscles move before other senses react.
There are a couple of challenges every musician faces in memorizing music.
1. Everyone memorizes differently
Some musicians are better at memorizing visually whereas some are better at memorizing by ear. You can even find some musicians with synesthesia (memorizing notes by color).
The most important thing is to find out which memorization technique works well for you. Then, find out which technique is the weakest. Enhancing the less developed memorization technique will make you become more confident in performing.
2. Fast vs Slow memorization and Short-term vs Long-term memory
Which one are you? Do you memorize music fast and forget it fast (or vice versa)?
If you memorize music quickly but fail to remember it for a long time, then try to learn the harmonies better because you’re probably relying on visual or muscle memory.
If you memorize music slowly and succeed in remembering it for a long time, then try to see if you can build muscle memory sooner.
Remember, every musician has different ways to memorize music. Don’t feel defeated that others are better. Memorization is a skill that anyone can try and improve.
3. Trauma from memory mistakes
I know many of you experience this. Musicians get traumatized from making mistakes during the live performances, and one of the most common mistakes is caused by memory problems. Memory mistakes can be simply caused by extreme nervousness but it’s also related to the way you memorized music during practice.
Pick a spot where you felt uncertain about memory. What were you unsure about? Was it the harmony, fingering or dynamic markings? Make sure to circle them and review these markings before you perform again.
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A Brief History of Memorization in Music
Prior to the 19th century, Mozart performed from memory during his extensive concert tours in Europe around 1760. In the early 19th century, a young Carl Czerny played Beethoven’s piano sonatas from memory (which Beethoven wasn’t actually pleased with) in public.
The great virtuoso Niccolò Paganini played violin from memory as early as 1808.
Performing from memory became a huge trend in mid 19th century Europe. In 1837, Clara Wieck, a young female virtuoso pianist, played Beethoven’s piano sonata from memory.
This was highly influential back then and it was soon followed by another virtuoso, Franz Liszt, who began performing most of his music from memory.
Memorization Tips for The Pre stage
1. Listen to recordings of the piece
Through listening, you can illustrate the general sound of the music you’re working on. The recording will help you get a clear image on the tempo and the atmosphere of the music. Be careful though: the recording isn’t your music. Avoid entirely copying someone else’s musical interpretation.
2. Read the score
I don’t mean you should study the music like you’re preparing for an exam. Instead, pay attention to the overall structure of the music. Then, observe the musical details such as dynamics, rhythmic patterns, phrasings and harmonies. This is almost the same as the reading stage during sight reading. Check the tips on how to be a great sight reader.
3. Harmonic memorization
I have to admit this but this is my weakest memorization technique. I’m highly skilled at memorizing music visually and it’s good to have a solid technique. But I know it’s not enough because live performances without any memory errors is hard and cannot be achieved by just one memorization technique.
This technique will be useful especially when you’re learning classical music like sonatas because the melodies are constantly repeated. Memory mistakes are quite likely to happen if you don’t know which harmonies you’re playing within.
The key is this: know your backup memorization technique and develop it along with your best one.
Memorization Tips for The Learning stage
4. Break into small sections
Consider memory as blocks in Tetris. Building your memory is a process of stacking the blocks. Solid memorization means stacking the blocks in the right order. Even if the blocks are built up high, the tower will fall down if there are any gaps between the blocks.
Find the phrase, or musical block, on the page you’re working on. Are there any other phrases? Find the rest and group them into sections. Once you’re familiar with the phrases, memorize them by using various memorization techniques.
5. Practice at different tempos
You may have heard from your teachers and colleagues that slow practice ensures accuracy. Yes, slow practicing in general helps you memorize the correct markings, rhythms, fingerings and notes in the score. It also gives you enough time to think and prepare for the next measure.
Unfortunately, this method isn’t the ultimate solution. Based on my professional experiences as a pianist, memorizing only at a slow tempo won’t make you get ready for the real performance. The best solution I recommend is to practice memorizing at a variety of tempos.
Your first attempt in memorizing a new piece of music should be done at a slow tempo.
Once you get familiar with the music (or the smaller sections of the music) and are able to play it partially from memory, the next thing you should do is to explore different tempos.
Try playing at its indicated tempo and then go back to the slow practicing.
If you aren’t entirely sure about the memory, stop and check the score AFTER playing it through. This is the best way to test your memory and reduce the memory mistakes over time.
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6. Be able to play from anywhere in the music
Imagine you’re learning a 15 minute piece of music which consists of three short pieces. How would you plan memorizing the piece? Instead of starting from the beginning every time, try starting from the third piece, or even the end of the third piece or the middle of the second.
Try to be able to start from any spot, so that if you ever lose focus or forget a section in a performance, you can always figure out where you are.
7. Make a plan
Try to plan for how you will memorize the piece and how long you want the process to take. Make sure to include time for reviewing what you’ve worked on.
Here is my three-day plan example:
- Memorize sections to sections in each piece first and then play them through in the following pattern; A,B or B,C (not A and C because you might make a mistake playing from A to C in a live performance!)
- Review and mark the memory errors. Practice the errors you made.
- Try playing the entire music through.
- Review and fix the memory errors. Make sure you fix them this time.
- At the end of the practice session, try playing either in A,B or B,C again.
- Run through the entire music.
- Review and check the memory errors. Practice each section with attention to details.
- Run through the entire music.
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Repetition is a slow, tiring and boring process of practice. I know exactly what you feel about the countless repetitions you go through to memorize music. But there is a reason why you should repeat: muscle memory.
Muscle memory allows your fingers, wrists, hands, legs and body to play the piece without being aware of the notes you’re playing. It’s a solid memorization technique that you can count on along with other ones.
Repetition is what makes the muscles remember a variety of patterns. This includes patterns of pulse, rhythm, interval between notes and many other essential musical elements. Your muscles will lead you through the playing (even if you’re having a memory slip).
9. Practice with hands separately
More often than not, memory mistakes happen in the left hand, so make sure that both of your hands know what they’re doing on their own. They should be able to play independently without relying on cues from the other hand to know what to do.
10. Record yourself playing through
Even if it’s not fully memorized, try to play through by memory, and record the process. Even if you have a memory slip, don’t care too much about it, just keep going. Then, when you’ve made it to the end, review the recording and carefully take note of every spot that gave you trouble.
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Memorization Tips for The Final stage
11. Visualize the score
A visual snapshot of the music is recalling the information by remembering what they are and where they are. This is a unique skill that allows you to recall the specific elements you don’t want to miss while playing. For instance, a visual snapshot contains musical details such as dynamic notations, notes and structure of music.
Most importantly, it’s a last minute check device to make sure you remember the details before the performance. This is my personal method to check the memory before live performances. The more you do it, the more the memory will be solid, leading to a stable performance.
As I mentioned before in this article, I have a strong photographic memory that helps me play through the performance without memory slips. What I do is put markings (numbers, circles and words) in the score and memorize each page by locating where the markings are. Right before the performance, I check where the markings are. There is no need to remember every single marking (70~80 percent is enough).
Whenever I get nervous about making memory mistakes during the performance, I close my eyes for a second and bring the snapshot of the certain area of music in my head. Create a routine for illustrating the mental snapshot even outside of practice.
After The Performance
12. Review The Mistakes
Once the performance is done, be proud of yourself. Be proud of the achievement you made and the effort you put into the process.
Now, back to the practice. Before you move on to a new piece, take a look at the piece of music you performed. Go through the pages and review if you’d remembered to play the detailed markings in the live performance. Are there any things you’d missed? If there are, why did you miss it? Were you particularly nervous when you played that phrase?
You will learn a lot about yourself by reviewing the performance and checking the mistakes. The memory mistakes you learned through a piece of music will give you insights on improving the quality of the performance for the next piece.
13. Memorize Regularly
Whether the previous memorization attempt was successful or not, you’ll gradually figure out which methods work for you by regularly memorizing music. Memorizing music on a regular basis will enhance your memory capacity as well.
Again, memorization is a skill which you can enhance over time, and you’ll naturally find out tricks to memorize music faster and more effectively.
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