The question of whether anyone can memorise music was a hot topic of conversation at the magical Lot piano course for advanced amateur pianists, which I had the privilege to attend last week. Our insightful teacher Susan Tomes gave two wonderful concerts from memory, and was clear about the importance and usefulness of memorising. Despite some marvelous playing (and epic multi-part sight-reading!), most participants did not play from memory and were clearly nervous about trying; I did play from memory (obviously…) and was very pleased not to have any memory lapses throughout the five pieces I played (though I still made plenty of errors)! I don’t think I would have managed that a few years ago, and the course got me thinking about how to pull together everything I’ve learnt over the last 18 months of this blog.
So, how do we memorise music and what practice strategies help? I’ve settled on just two key points about memorising that I think are really useful, both of which suggest various practice strategies for memorising:
We can only memorise things in small chunks, which then have to be joined together like links in a chain to form a sequence. The size of each chunk depends on the prior knowledge of the individual, so that although some skilled performers might be able to memorise large sections of a piece, others should focus on a phrase or even a bar at a time. The fact that we memorise in chunks suggests various specific practice strategies:
- Identify patterns (scales, chords, harmonic progressions, repeated motifs, etc.) that can form appropriately sized musical chunks for learning. If you have to memorise each note individually it will take much longer as the chunks will be small and plentiful!
- Learn musical ‘chunks’ (bars, phrases, sections, etc.) and repeat each individual chunk until it is memorised. Try varying a few things – such as articulation, tempo, voicing, rhythm and even key – to improve detailed memory. Remembering new things is hard work, so take regular breaks, then come back and check your memory.
- Work on the links between chunks, again looking for musical patterns or familiar signposts to help make the transition from one chunk to the next. Eventually small memorised chunks become long sequences, but beware of the links in the chain. Memory slips often occur at the boundaries between chunks (particularly if they coincide with pages of the score), so practice starting within chunks rather than only from boundaries.
Music can be stored in our memory through various different representations, and if our memory for one representation fails, the others can act as a back-up. Even if your fingers can’t find the notes, your mind should know what they are, and vice versa. Since music is much more than the sum of its parts, these complementary representations also provide a framework for integrating all the tiny details with the bigger picture. Again, the fact that we can form multiple representations suggests several specific practice strategies:
- Analyse the music, in order to build up a holistic view of the piece from a purely conceptual perspective. Although this sounds daunting to many people, it is actually not that difficult and can be very interesting and informative. Formal analysis is not required, but a basic knowledge of the themes and harmonic progressions that occur through a piece is stunningly useful for memorising and interpreting the music.
- Study the music away from the instrument, which can include looking at the score (to build up visual memory for the score or to analyse the music), listening to performances (either recorded or inside your head), ‘playing the notes’ on a table, or writing out the score from memory (to find our where your memory is fuzzy). Neuroimaging studies have indicated that thinking about doing something, such as playing or listening to music, activates the same regions of the brain as actually doing it, so the value of mental practice should not be underestimated.
- Keep practising! Ultimately we need to be able to produce the notes without too much conscious thought, and the best way to build muscle memory is through repetition, repetition, repetition. But make sure to play accurately (don’t practice mistakes!) and always with musicality.
I am a firm believer that anyone can memorise music, although there is no doubt that it will always be more of an uphill struggle for some than others. But even if memorising is difficult, even if it is a burden, there are still good reasons to try. In addition to the mental benefits that come from memorising, it is wonderfully fulfilling to be able to sit down at one’s instrument and simply play without needing the score. More importantly from a performance perspective, some sections of difficult works are essentially unplayable if the performer has to manage the dual challenge of looking at the score as well as the fingers, and of course memorising provides a great solution to unwieldy page turns!
I’m convinced not only that memorising is worth the extra effort, but also that musical memory can be improved through practice, and that the fear of a memory lapse in performance will gradually lessen. Although musical memory may not come naturally to everyone or work reliably without some effort, it will develop and can be practiced. The ideas listed above have helped me understand and improve my musical memory enormously, so perhaps they will help you too. As Gerald Klickstein (author of The Musician’s Way) recently remarked in The Strad, “With intelligent practice… all of us can acquire the knack to step on stage, free of the printed score, and share music from our souls.”