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Robert Kelley, Ph.D.

Resources for Practicing Musicians

How to Memorize Music: Memory Tips and Two Strategies


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Why bother with memorization?


When you are getting ready for an important recital or audition, you need to have a
solid knowledge of the music that wont go away if you miss a few notes. In this article, I will show you how you
can achieve this by learning the music really well intellectually before beginning to learn the physical aspects of
playing the music. If you want to focus your work on the musical shaping, artistry, and the attention to detail
that will set you apart as a top performer, then you must have a crystal clear mental picture of the music before
you begin. Moreover, memorizing the music even before you begin to try and play it will give you a chance to
work with interpretive ideas from the very beginning.
Many musicians such as church organists and collaborative pianists have to learn large amounts of new music
rapidly for frequent gigs. In order to have the security necessary for a polished performance, these musicians
mostly rely on tremendous sight reading skills instead of an invulnerable mental picture of every detail of the
piece. The technique of memorizing the music first that I am advocating is specifically for musicians preparing
for juries, recitals, auditions, or for a series of performances using the same repertoire.
For professionals who must rely on their reading skills, the memorization step may be necessary for certain
passages, but not for the entire piece. If performing at a high level with such a high turnover of music is still a
problem, it may help to do some memorization as a way of bolstering your quick preparation skills. Sight
reading and memorization are both skills that can be cultivated and trained. Sign up for my newsletter so that
you dont miss future posts on sight-reading skills.

The Dangers of Muscle Memory


When my performance of the Bach G-Minor Prelude from WTC II fell apart during a recital, it was because I had
memorized the music by playing it over and over. I could play it from memory, but I couldnt imagine it from
memory with enough detail to be able to recover from a slip. By memorizing first, you ensure that your
understanding of the music isnt just muscle memory or merely being able to hum the tune. Its a mental picture
of every note in the piece in its musical context.
With that in mind, here are some basic principles of music memorization. These will apply to both of the
memorization techniques that I will show you after the general tips on memorization.

Basic memorization technique


Suppose that you are convinced of the necessity to memorize the music first, and
now you are sitting with the music in front of you wondering how you are going to get every one of those
hundreds of notes to stay in your head.
It is a well-documented principle (Miller 1956) that we are able to hold about seven (plus or minus two) items in
our short-term memory at a time. So it would make sense, then, that you need to divide the music up into little

segments that are four two eight notes in length, and then rehearse them one by one until youve got them in
mid- to long-term memory. Sounds pretty boring, doesnt it?
Luckily, you can rely on a technique that psychologists call chunking, where a group of notes that hang
together pretty well will be able to fit into just one of the seven or so slots available in short-term memory. The
basic technique of learning only small handfuls of notes may be necessary at times, however, when we cannot
find any chunks that make sense.

Make friends with musical patterns


By chunking the music into groups of notes, you can increase the amount of music that you can memorize in one
sitting, but you can dramatically increase the amount of material that you can include in a single chunk by
looking for larger patterns in the music. Patterns that you can rely on include both chords and chord
progressions, along with standard melodic and rhythmic patterns. So being able to do some basic music analysis
will help you immensely with memorizing music quickly and thoroughly.
Theres more to this than just finding patterns that make it easier to group notes together. The quality of your
memory improves with your familiarity with the pattern. You must therefore make friends with common
musical structures. Let me illustrate this with an example in another domain.
In the American Sacred Harp singing tradition, the songs that are sung are selected by members of the group
when they are called to lead the group. The leader calls out the page number of the song that they have selected,
everyone turns to that page in their Sacred Harp book, and they begin to sing. In this community, favorite songs
therefore become strongly associated with their page numbers. People will even talk about a well-known song
using its page number instead of its name.
You can probably see from this example how already having strong associations with certain numbers would aid
in memorizing something like a phone number. Suppose that I needed to memorize 404-236-5962. I am already
friends with all of the chunks in the string. I know that 404 is the HTTP error code for page not found; 236 is
the route number of the main highway through my home town and also the page number of William Billingss
Easter Anthem in the Sacred Harp songbook; and 59 and 62 are the page numbers of the most common
opening and closing songs at Sacred Harp singings. In a way, Ive already memorized the number.

Naming Your Friends


I teach my music theory students that knowing the theory behind scales and key
signatures is important, but making friends with every musical key is what is necessary for true musical fluency.
When Im looking at a piece of music written in three sharps, I dont have to stop and think about what keys
have three sharps in their key signatures. Since I am already friends with all thirty major and minor keys, I
know that when I see three sharps, it is either my friend A major or her brother F-sharp minor. It shouldnt take
all that long to memorize some facts about thirty different keys.
With a little more work, you can add all of the types of chords commonly seen in tonal music to your musical
Facebook friend list. How useful will these friends be in helping you quickly find patterns in the music that you
need to memorize?
Melodic patterns are also worth making friends with. Some melodic figures, like the cambiata, already have
names. Some may need naming in order to help you recognize them when you see them again. Solfege is one
nice way of naming musical patterns.

It is therefore worthwhile to work toward having more sophisticated ways of recognizing patterns in music.
Regardless of the sophistication of your memorization techniques, the following two techniques will help by
making a game out of the memorization process. Continue reading about the Two-Chair Technique
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4 Responses to How to Memorize Music: Memory Tips and Two Strategies


Sheri says:
2014 July 19 at 12:42 pm

I found your tips useful and will incorporate them into my routine. I have a friend who is hopelessly in the muscle memory
routine and I cant convince him to get beyond that so I hope to suggest your website to give him a better solution to his
memory lapses.
Thank you, sheri
Reply

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Alyssa Reit says:


2014 November 16 at 12:53 am

Bravo! I have come to similar conclusions in my performing and teaching experience.


I would add one piece of information: everything (music included) is laid down in memory much more deeply and thoroughly
if it is linked to emotion. This means that as much as intellectual study is essential to secure memorization (and I include
every aspect of knowing a piece of music), I find that connecting and creating the emotional territory is highly useful. By
emotional territory, I include shades of color, and indefinable emotional whims.
The role of emotion in this process has another side. I have found that if I practice a piece and find myself becoming
emotionally distracted (say for some reason, remembering an unpleasant event) strangely, that same memoryand the same
thoughts will often surface at the same point in the music! This means that when we practice, we may be laying down into
memory everything that is going on within. So it is very necessary to take great care to notice our emotional state as we work,
and to cultivate an inner climate that corresponds to the music. Much more can be said herethis is a note to suggest a line
of inquiry and discovery.
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Robert Kelley, Ph.D.