Memory Methods

This file is written for both teachers and students.

Although I feel everyone but those bound for a college major in music should have memory optional performances and despite the fact that more and more concert artists use the score at least occasionally, -how- to memorize music remains as thorny a question as ever.

There is no easy answer. Every person is not equally endowed with the gift to memorize. Some do it effortlessly. Some struggle but accomplish the task eventually. Others struggle and never memorize completely enough to feel at ease in a from-memory performance.

A prospective music major -must- play from memory because that is the model under which she must function in order to earn her degree. Teachers would never let a student go off to college without being able to sight-read or play scales. They should not send students off unable to play from memory, either!

As I noted in the above-referenced file, part of the memory problem - - perhaps the largest part - - is fear of forgetting the piece and the humiliation that would ensue.

The other part of the memory problem is the mechanics of memory. Let's look at several methods. No one method is "best." Each student must find her own preferred way of memorizing. Memory is not a one-size-fits-all or even a one-size-fits-most. Each student must find what works best for her in the piece at hand.

Moreover, for any one student, one method may fit for a certain type of music and another method for another genre.

Photographic Memory

Would that we all could memorize a "picture" of the score and could "glance up" at it when needed. Some people actually can do this, but they are in the infinitesimal minority!

We mortals shall skip this one!

Brute Force

This is probably the most common method. The piece is repeated over and over, usually in the course of learning it, so that one day the student finds that it is memorized. She did nothing in particular to memorize. It just happened.

But she doesn't know why it happened, either!

Another way brute force is applied is in learning the piece a measure or two at a time and memorizing each little bit. (More below.)

Such memory is not likely to be very secure and should be considered only as a fallback to some other form of memory (except the next one!).

Hand Position

The student remembers what her hands look like while playing and keys off that. "Right hand goes up high here; left hand doesn't move" and so on.

With this method, some students find that memorizing hands separately is helpful, but most prefer to memorize hands together, as that is how the music will be performed. Hands-together has the added benefit of simultaneously memorizing which hand has to get out of the way for the other at which point, which notes might be taken by the other hand, and other "logistical" concerns.

Like brute force, hand position is a dangerous memory method. I call it "finger memory." If the fingers slip, memory is gone. These two types of memory should supplement other types of memory, not be the primary element.


The premier memory method, and everyone's mainstay, is analysis. The opening theme is in what key? Is there a second theme? How does it compare to and contrast with the first? What key does the composer use for the second theme? How is the transition made? How is episodic material related to the themes, if at all? Does this episodic material reappear later in the piece and how?

An example: If the same three phrases are used again but the middle of the fourth takes another tack, -where- does this change occur and by what mechanism; and what is the new key destination? "The key of C has no sharps, but now we are adding F-sharp so we can go to the key of G," the student might say.

Naturally, work in form and analysis is necessary! Knowing the circle of fifths and common cadences are other essential tools, as are keyboard work in large variety of arpeggios, scales, and the other basics of keyboard vocabulary.

Memory by analysis should start with small parts. Then the student may take larger sections: exposition, transition, development, preparation for the recapitulation, recap, coda. How do these large sections relate to each other in regard to themes and keys? What is the mechanism of transition? Attention should be given to thematic materials and harmonic movement. Is the main theme used here in fragmented fashion? Is the harmonic movement toward the key of the dominant? Subdominant? Relative major/minor? Something unexpected?

Memorize While Learning

Some students prefer to memorize the piece as they learn it, rather than memorize after the notes are under the hands, as noted above.

The piece is broken into small parts (a measure, a phrase, or a half-phrase is a good starting point), and each is played slowly until the notes are mastered. Slowly!

Then memory work begins by playing as much as possible until memory fails. The student looks back at the music and again plays slowly, giving careful attention to the place where her memory failed her. When she thinks she can get beyond that breakdown point, she looks away and tries the section from memory.

If not, she breaks the section into smaller units and focuses on those, isolating the exact point of breakdown and what her hands are doing or not doing. (Example: as soon as this B-flat is played, the LH thumb must tuck under and rest on G so it is already there, rather than tucking the thumb in the same movement as playing the G.)

The next section is learned in like fashion, but now the student -also- focuses on the transition (the composer's mechanism) from the first segment to the second.

Because this is a fragmented method of learning the music, all fingering should be written in the score before the note learning begins so it is never in doubt. This also helps the does the student not to "fake it" or to use a variety of fingerings.

Memorize From the End Backwards

I learned technique this from a student. After learning the notes, he memorizes from the end of the piece.

First he divides the piece into many little segments, some as short as a measure or two, depending on thematic material, key, sequences or common elements, or some other criterion. No segment is more than a line or two in length; which is to say, the coda and recapitulation are not the last two segments! Each segment receives a number, with the last segment being #1. Then memory work begins, starting with #1 and giving attention to how #2 leads to #1.

As soon as #2 is learned, sections #1 and #2 are played together.

This system has the added benefit of making the conclusion of the piece especially secure.

Armchair Memorizing

Some students are able to memorize away from the keyboard by looking at the score. This requires an above-average familiarity with the notes and an excellent visual memory.

Some students use a variant of the armchair technique as a memory check by "playing" the piece away from the keyboard and away from the score. They hear each note as it sounds and recall each finger, hand, and arm movement necessary to produce it. When memory becomes fuzzy, the student knows that is a place that will need her attention again.

Slow Performance

This is another memory check. Play the entire piece lento. Grave is even more challenging, and usually only advanced students are capable of this.

This slow speed disrupts all the "finger memories" and any other quasi-memory techniques because the hands do not move as they are trained to and the ear does not hear what it is anxious to hear. The brain does all the work: what comes next?!

This reminds me: Students, here's something you will not be happy to read! When you approach a new piece with an eye toward memorizing it, it is *absolutely critical* that you learn the notes correctly from the get-go. This means you must play with excruciating care. In turn (and here's the part you don't want to hear!), you must play *excruciatingly slowly* from the *very first steps* of the learning process. None of this sight-read through at what you'd guess is performance tempo, slop through the tough parts (or jump ahead), slow down a tad where needed, and zip along through repeated material until you come to the end. We have all done this, of course. (How do you think I know about it?!) If this piece is at all important to you, start practicing slowly on the trouble spots and skip the run-through altogether.

I know you won't listen to me, but I challenge you to select -one piece only- and do it this way. When learned, compare the agony of correcting learned errors in the piece learned this way with the same agony in a piece you learn in your "regular way." You do not have to write me and confess which way was more efficient and productive! (I already know the answer. I'm prescient, you see!)

That Never-Never Land Between Memory and Non-Memory

What do you do when your piece is partially-memorized? You can't play it all by memory but when you look up at the music, you're lost and can't find the place where your memory failed you. Naturally, this happens most often at the lesson!

One thing is not play the piece at a lesson until the memory is fairly secure and you are pretty sure you can get through it. At the lesson, use the score.

Another solution is to memorize only a large-ish section (exposition, let's say) and play only that from memory. Then look up at the score for the rest of the piece, even if sections of it are memorized or partially so. Then bite off another chunk to play entirely from memory.

Find places where you need to peek at the score. Make a red X or something to catch your eye as you glance up. Meanwhile, make sure you've done your analysis and know what's going on in the music and where you're headed harmonically. Now buckle down and work on that place where your memory breaks down. Remember to start somewhat ahead of the problem and play a little beyond it so that one place is not "isolated" and difficult to stitch back into the fabric of the phrase. Your start and stop points should be different; otherwise, you'll be confident only if you start and stop at those two points.

Don't worry about this problem of quasi-memory. It happens to all of us. Careful and analytical work will solve it!

Memory Failure During a Performance

Ack! Your worst nightmare! What to do?

Well, first take steps to avoid it.

Students, ask your teachers for advice; they know how you learn, what sorts of things are liable to give you trouble, and so on. Their counsel will be custom-tailored for you. Your teacher always should be consulted first.

Next, try the suggestions above.

Third, prepare for problems during your performance.

Select "lifesaver" places in your music. These might be the beginning of the second theme in the exposition, beginning of the development, and beginning of the recap for a short piece. In a sonata, these certainly will be something much smaller, such as the entrance of a second theme variant in the exposition. During performance, you know that if you go back, everyone will be aware of it. If you jump ahead, only a few will notice. Therefore, the thing to do in performance is to keep going. If you have a memory lapse, go to the next "lifesaver" place.

An excellent fallback strategy is to be able to play a V-I cadence in any key so that if things become horribly bollixed, you can play a cadence and take your bow graciously before leaving the stage with dignity intact. String out the cadence a bit, if you like, improvising in the composer's style if you have the presence of mind to do this. (Save the stricken shoulder slumps and the anguished grimaces until you are completely off the stage. This is a performance, and "act" you must, if necessary!

"Lifesavers" are an excellent pre-performance drill. Your teacher (or someone at home), will call out, "Stop!" or some other word that is your signal to come to a close immediately. Naturally, you must know what key you're playing in at the time, but, then, you'd know that anyway because you did the analysis of the piece early in your study of it, yes?!

Do some experimentation in this composer's style so you have something in your bag of tricks on which to draw. If you're well-prepared, you may be able to incorporate a bit of the main theme in your emergency ending.

Another problem, which can be anticipated, and thus prepared for, is a sudden commotion in the recital hall. Adults, teens, and children all profit from the "Don't Stop Game" when preparing for a recital.

In this game, if the student stops, the teacher wins. Naturally, the student wants to win. While playing the recital piece (memory or not), the teacher makes an effort to distract the student by singing (in another key, of course), walking around the studio, slamming doors, playing on another instrument, talking loudly, making snoring noises, making cries and whines which young children might contribute ("Mom!!! She -pinched- me! Mo-om!!" or "Mom, I'm bored!"). My favorite: "Ok, you can stop now."

Being able to ignore any commotion circumvents memory lapses that are the result of being surprised.

Performing for a video camera or a tape recorder is another fine test of memory soundness.

Don't forget the time-honored preparation step of having bodies present to listen, whether it's the family or friends. Anything to up the ante and make a you little nervous is what you're looking for.

Which reminds me: Nervousness before a performance is the body's way of preparing you mentally and physically for what lies ahead. This is perfectly normal and actually a beneficial thing! Anyone who tells you she is not nervous before performing is either lying or dead.

Memorizing music is not an easy thing to do. It requires addressing it separately from other performance tasks, using specific techniques, and doing lots of practice!

If after much travail, you find you cannot memorize securely enough to perform from memory, don't worry about it. You have more than enough musical gifts to make up for not receiving this one!

Note: Music majors must come to grips with memorization. Since universities uniformly follow the European conservatory model, which means everything must be memorized, students must do the required dance. It's for you that I primarily wrote this file.

copyright 1999, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.

You also may be interested in my thoughts on selecting a recital piece, particular problems associated with adults' fear of playing in public, and other assorted tips for a good recital experience. There is also a file on memorization and recitals.

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