Improving your musical memory

Although playing from memory is commonplace on the concert stage, many students are never taught how to memorise, and many amateurs believe they can’t play from memory but would dearly like to. How do we learn to memorise music? If people can learn to memorise music, then there must be some tricks of the trade.

SuccessfulPractisingI’m hoping that the interview programme will provide some top tips from performers and teachers who already memorise or teach memorising. But there’s already a small body of literature specifically addressing this topic. In particular, Suzuki piano teacher Jenny Macmillan has written quite a few articles focusing on strategies to encourage and improve musical memory. Although she focuses primarily on piano playing, most of her recommendations seem equally applicable to other instruments. Here’s a short summary of some of her recommended strategies:

  1. Analyse the structure – without a good knowledge of the overarching structure of a piece, you won’t be able to create a mental map to stop you getting lost when playing.
  2. Listen to expert performances – to get a feel for the architecture and nuances of a piece.
  3. Try playing by ear – listen to a tune and try to work out the notes by ear to improve your auditory memory.
  4. Start small – learn to play a short piece (or a section) from memory, rather than playing the whole piece over and over again.
  5. Memorise early in the learning process – don’t think of memorising as a separate task to be worked on once a piece is learned, but incorporate it from the start.
  6. Break-down difficult passages – hard bits need more work than easy bits, so difficult sections need to be learnt step-by-step, then practised slowly and repeatedly until they are mastered. For some instruments, such as piano, working on hands separately can be useful. Then again, technically easy sections may need more rehearsal time to memorise than technically tricky sections, because tricky sections will have been repeated many times to get them correct, while easy sections may not have been practised much!
  7. Correct errors from memory – don’t rush back to the score as soon as you forget something! Try fixing the error from memory.
  8. Focus on music not technique – the technical skills required to play a piece are achieved through physical repetition, but conscious focus on this procedural memory can interfere with recall, so attention should instead focus on other musical aspects (auditory, visual, emotional, structural, etc).
  9. Practise in your head – mental rehearsal away from the instrument helps develop auditory and visual memory. To make it all the way through a piece in your head knowing all the notes is hard work, but well worth the effort!
  10. Practise starting from anywhere in a piece – one of the problems of motor memory is that it can be very difficult to re-establish and continue if something goes wrong. Practising starting anywhere in a piece (or from important landmarks) helps to develop local starting points, so you never have to resort to going back to the beginning.
  11. Practise in different locations – try playing in different places and on different instruments (if possible), so that memory of a piece isn’t perturbed by unfamiliar surroundings.
  12. Practise frequently and regularly – playing a piece from memory requires regular attention, and even several short sessions during the day can help.
  13. Practise deliberately – don’t just play! Work on short sections while actively listening to the tone quality, articulation, phrasing, dynamics. etc. Try to be mindful of the physical movements involved.
  14. Practise playing from memory – the more you play from memory, the easier it gets!

As I suspected, the key to memorising is practise, practise, practise! But it’s not just about putting in the hours. Most of these techniques can be incorporated into normal playing easily enough, and the investment will pay dividends. For example, mental rehearsal can be done away from the instrument – on the bus, or walking to the shops, for example – which speeds up the learning process and ultimately liberates time.

Does anyone have any other ideas to add to the list?

Key References:

Macmillan, J., Successful memorising , ESTA News and Views, Winter (2004): pp28-31 (reprint from Piano Professional)

Macmillan, J., Strategies for Memorising, ISM Journal, December (2005): pp268-272 (reprint from Piano Professional)

Macmillan, J., Principles of Successful Practising, Piano Professional, Autumn (2012): pp21-23


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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7 Responses to Improving your musical memory

  1. siggib says:

    Literature tip: Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance (Expertise: Research and Applications Series) Roger Chaffin (Author), Gabriela Imreh (Author), Mary Crawford (Author).
    History, Interviews, Protocol of a memorizing concert pieces of Gabriela Imreh.

  2. Bill Martin says:

    Fascinating blog, Caroline! As someone who learned by ear from age 5 before finding a classical piano teacher, memorising music has always been very natural for me. I’ve always practised in my head (as you mention in your blog). I also think of pieces of music almost as stories, which helps me remember the high points in the structure, with the rest of the piece building towards them in some way. This could be anything from a pop song to a Ligeti piano piece. I have always transcribed all kinds of music and this work on aural and perceptive skills pays many dividends – especially as the transcription process comes bundled with not only pitch and rhythm but the kind of expressive features and nuances of a fluent and communicative performance that notation cannot hope to deal with. I hope that’s helpful and wish you good luck with your blog.

    • Thanks Bill – glad you like the blog! Interesting comment about building a narrative to help you memorise. I don’t do that at all (though perhaps I should try) but I know others who do and it certainly helps to communicate with the audience as well as keep you on track.

  3. Paresh Shah says:

    Hi Caroline very interesting thoughts and what Bill mentions about understanding the story or theme of the song also makes so much sense. I am quite at the early stage in my piano playing though having struggled at it for several years until I found out recently and started using simple chords to be able to play songs I liked. The only problem is when I try to play a song away from home I always need the lyrics and simple score with the melody line and chords despite having played them several times before at home. So yes what you mention above makes sense. I have been fascinated by some of the blind musicians and pianists who for me bring alive the music they play and sing and was wondering how they could play so well. So the other day I blindfolded myself and tried to play the piano, it was quite an interesting experience as suddenly my fingers had start being my “eyes”on the keys and I started to listen to the notes I was playing more intently and also in a way fall back on memory to try and remember the song. Just a small experiment in my musical journey but I thought of sharing the same.

    • That’s interesting, thanks for your comment. I often practise in the dark once I know a piece, and find it really useful and a very different experience. If needed, I visualise the keyboard and find I am even able to do large jumps. Funnily enough I have a post about blind pianists and memorising for next week 🙂

  4. janessa aguinaga says:

    this is great adice for learning/memorizing marimba music i have this really fast peace that i have to play as sort of a solo with just marimbas and its been stressing me out so thanks for all the tips 🙂 hopefully ill have it memorized by monday

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