Memorising music for beginners

a new brainA number of people have mentioned that they would like to try playing from memory, but don’t know where to begin. Why bother, some might ask, when you can just use the score? For me, playing from memory is not about giving bravado performances, but achieving a greater level of intimacy with the music itself. To be able to sit down, turn off the lights, and just play.

There are plenty of benefits of playing from memory, and although memorising music comes naturally to some people, I firmly believe that anyone can learn how to do it. But where to start? Here’s a few ideas if you’re keen to give it a go and memorise a piece you love.

(1) Start small – don’t try to memorise a whole piece all at once! Start with something simple, like a phrase, or a motif or even a few chords. Experiment with articulation, dynamics, tempo and listen to the effect. Try to repeat the short section from memory and only consult the score if you get stuck. Once you’ve got it, add the next short bit, and repeat.

(2) Find the familiar – it’s much easier to remember things we already know, so finding familiar features in the music you are trying to learn will help. Look for scales or recognisable chords. For example, the main theme of Brahms’ beautiful Intermezzo Op.117 No.1 for piano is simply an Eb major descending scale followed by an ascending arpeggio in the right hand. If you can hear the rhythm in your head, you’ve learnt the first few bars already!

(3) Look for patterns – well written music is actually incredible economical with its thematic material, and the composer will have used the same idea multiple times in different ways. So actively looking for repeated or derived motifs throughout the piece will reduce the total amount of new stuff you have to learn. Standard compositional techniques include:

  • repeating, either in the same place or an octave above or below
  • transposing up or down a few tones (which may be associated with modulation)
  • shortening or lengthening (i.e. removing or adding notes)
  • halving or doubling the note lengths
  • augmenting or diminishing  (i.e. increasing or decreasing the intervals between notes)

(4) Notice change – often a thematic change or tonal modulation is signalled by just a single note, a pivot point, which needs to be consciously marked as being important.  Similarly, consecutive notes with a large interval between them may need special cognitive attention, to make sure you know absolutely where you’re going. You might be able to skim over the exact details of a repetitive motif once you can play it, but the identity of a pivotal note needs to stick in your memory like a proverbial sore thumb. 

(5) Try different methods – if you can learn something multiple different ways, you are more likely to be able to remember it. In addition to just playing the section again and again, try singing along, or saying the notes/chords out loud, or shutting your eyes and visualising the score/your hands. Do all of the above both at and away from your instrument. Building multiple sensory representations of a piece in your mind is fundamental to creating a good musical memory.

(6) Annotate your score – personalise your score by writing useful comments on it, particularly all the extra things beyond the notes (articulation, phrasing, dynamics, etc). Many pianists – most notably Stephen Hough in his recent excellent article on practicing – also advocate writing exact fingerings on the score before or while learning a piece. Using the same fingering throughout the learning process helps consolidate the memory, and is something you really don’t want to think about in performance!

(7) Analyse – try to understand the structure piece at a thematic and harmonic level. This doesn’t mean you have to study formal music theory (though of course it will help!), just try to build an understanding of how the piece fits together in your own mind.

(8) Start anywhere – we are probably all guilty of learning pieces from the start to the end, and inevitably overplaying the first few bars. Ideally you need to be able to pick up and start a piece from almost anywhere. So why not try learning it that way? When memorising a long piece, it can be helpful (and motivational) to learn a few separate sections at once, then join them up later. I learnt my first Bach Fugue in 4-bar chunks starting from the end and moving backwards, which was extraordinarily effective.

(9) Repeat – repetition is a crucial part of memorisation for most people, partly just to build the motor memory required. Don’t be tempted to fall back on the score (unless you specifically chose to do so) – like any technical ability, memorisation itself has to be practised.

(10) Take breaks – I find I memorise better if I take regular short breaks between trying to learn chunks of music. This could mean interspersing learning with technical work (if you’re hardcore!), or simply making a cup of tea, but really focussed work is mentally tiring and your brain will need refreshing.

Disclaimer: I am not a piano/music teacher by profession and have never tried to teach anyone to memorise. These are my thoughts, garnered from my own experience and supplemented with plenty of reading. It would be great to see some comments below if any teachers out there have ideas about where to start memorising…


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
This entry was posted in Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Memorising music for beginners

  1. strongkeys says:

    Reblogged this on Piano – physical fitness – veganist and commented:
    Very good post on memorising

  2. Val Letenyei says:

    I am a piano teacher and always looking for other ideas on how to memorize music. I have 40 students ranging in ages from 5 to 50. Most of my younger students memorize music very quickly, older students who are beginners find this to be more challenging. Several of your points include techniques that I use to help students memorize. In particular…looking for patterns and saying note names out loud. These two steps are required when my students start a new piece. I never allow them to simply take a new song home without first studying it carefully with me. Eventually, they learn the steps to learning a new piece and I turn them loose a bit but the final step for most of their pieces is to at least attempt to memorize. Last October I came up with the idea of the “Musical Memory Club” with a goal of memorizing 10 songs to get a special prize. It has been a huge motivator and makes it easy now that we are planning recital music to pick pieces from their list that are memorized and ready to perform. I look forward to reading more articles on your blog!

  3. Pingback: Is the music better when played from memory?

  4. Pingback: How to memorise music, in theory and practice | Memorising Music

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