Memorising Beyond the Notes

notationsMost of the time when we think about memorising music, we think about learning the notes. This is perfectly natural of course – without the notes, of which there can be a great many, there would be no music, no melody, no harmony. However, getting the notes right is only part of the story, and how the notes are played is just as important. Dynamics, tempo, attack, articulation, phrasing, voicing – these extra notations are crucial to making music and can change a mediocre rendition into a brilliantly insightful interpretation. However, memorising these markings can be just as big a task as learning the notes.

Unlike the notes themselves, in general there are two different types of additional notations to memorise: those written on the score as prescribed by the composer, and those decided by the performer who is interpreting the work. Depending on the composer (and the performer!) the relative weight of these two can vary hugely! Baroque composers such as Scarlatti and Bach expected a certain degree of improvisatory freedom from their performers so their scores are typically extremely sparsely notated. In contrast, Twentieth Century composers such as Schoenberg and Ravel wanted as much control over the performer as possible and their scores are often densely marked. Either way, during the course of learning a piece, a performer must learn when to use a variety of:

  • dynamics (i.e. loud, soft, getting louder or softer)
  • tempo (i.e. fast, slow, getting faster or slower)
  • attack (i.e. start of the note, from gradual to sudden)
  • articulation (i.e. continuity of a single note, or transition between multiple notes, e.g. staccato, slurred etc.)
  • phrasing (i.e. shape of a group of notes)
  • voicing (i.e. prominence of an individual note among several when played simultaneously)
  • instrument specific markings (e.g. mute, pedal for pianists, etc.)

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that learning these markings is a separate endeavour from learning the notes – far from it, they should be learnt together. But we should recognise that memorising notations is in itself an important part of learning a piece. As with notes, memorising can occur in multiple ways:

  • Visual – what has the composer marked on each note and in each bar? Can you see it in your mind’s eye away from the score? Where exactly is each marking placed?
  • Auditory – what should each note or group of notes sound like? Can you hear it in your mind’s ear? Can you perceive it clearly when listening to a performance?
  • Motor – do your muscles ‘know’ how to play each note or phrase? Are you producing the sound you want?
  • Cognitive – what is the musical purpose of each notation? How does it fit into the overall structure of the piece? Which notations are fixed by the composer and which can be decided by the performer?

Pianist and writer Susan Tomes recently remarked on her blog that, in her experience, the composer’s markings are often largely ignored by students. I have certainly found that to be true, and although I can often write out from memory the notes of pieces I have memorised, I can rarely remember the dynamic markings, where exactly to begin a change (such as increasing or decreasing the volume or speed), or how notes are grouped into phrases in the score. Part of the reason for this, I would suggest, is not that we disagree with the composer’s markings or actively intend to ignore them, but simply that we do not focus on learning notations. We spend our time learning notes, chord progressions and fingerings. But when creating and communicating a musical interpretation that accurately represents the composer’s intentions as well as those of the performer, as much attention should be given to the information surrounding the notes as the notes themselves.


About Caroline Wright

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

One Response to Memorising Beyond the Notes

  1. Reblogged this on mr a music place and commented:
    Much of what we love about music are things we hear that the composer wrote in the score; directions that the performer followed. Other great things about music we hear are elements that cannot be written down, but are made part of the performance and the musical surface which we as listeners interpret and enjoy. This post reminds us of how important both of these are–that going beyond the pitches and rhythms is when music really gets good.

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