The greatest musical performers in history all had one thing in common. They had mastered the art of memorizing music.
Certainly, musicians like Wolfgang Mozart, Carl Czerny, Franz Liszt, and Niccolò Paganini were geniuses or near geniuses. They were practically born with a natural ability to absorb, internalize and memorize complex musical scores.
We’re not saying you must live up to that standard. However, the fact is, the greater extent to which you can memorize the music you play, the better your performances will be.
Why It's Worth the Effort
The reason is that the memorization of music provides you with a greater level of artistic freedom. It imbues you with a superior ability to improvise, and it lends a wonderful element of freedom to your technique. It also helps you relax and just let go while you dazzle your audience with a great performance.
The good news is that anyone can learn to memorize music. Even if you believe that you have a poor memory, it can be improved by “exercising” it. It’s similar to the way you can build muscle mass and tone your body with physical exercise.
Speaking of muscles, that’s where we start – with something called “muscle memory.”
Tactile Memory Muscle
Muscle memory is when you practice the piano and train your hands and fingers to learn the distance between keys. That includes getting a feel for the shapes of chords and the sequences within musical scores. The more you play, the better your hands grow accustomed to where the keys are when you’re not looking at them.
Developing that “kinesthetic awareness” is a way to make the muscles in your hands do the remembering in cooperation with what your brain and mind are doing.
A second way to remember music is a visual process. People with photographic memories don’t so much as “remember” what they read or see. Rather, they have the ability to take a “mental photograph” which they can easily “call up” to “look at” in their minds. You can also call this “visualizing."
Again, few people are lucky enough to be born with photographic memories. But anyone can develop a little bit or even a lot of photo-memory skills through practice.
For example, if you can’t visualize all the notes on a music sheet, it’s likely you can track your general location more generally via visualization. You may also try your hand at visualizing just specific chords or key passages. Yet another thing to try is to get a mental snapshot of just the starting notes. Most people can readily “see” the first notes of the first bar. That gives you at least a leg up.
Speaking of Visualization – Watch Your Hands
An add-on to visualization-oriented techniques is to observe your fingers and the way they move between notes. Watch the way you execute a vibrato or handle a chord. Looking at your hands as they play reinforces the connection between sound and movement. It strengthens to neural pathways you are building to memorize the music.
Psychologists and neurologists have long known that different people are better at absorbing and learning information using different senses. For example, some people retain information much better when they read a book with their eyes while others retain the content much better if they listen to the book on an audio recording.
In general, there four learning styles are identified:
- Visual learners
- Audio learners
- Tactile learners
- Kinesthetic learners
If you are an “audio dominant” learner, the best way to memorize a piece of music is by listening to it numerous times. Once you have a solid audio memory of the piece, you can then solidify and strengthen your command of the musical score by “teaching your hands” to become increasingly familiar with it via practice. When you add visualization and kinesthetic elements, you are building up your total absorption of the piece.
Learning by listening is also sometimes called “training the ear.” A famous example of an artist who could easily learn a piece of music simply by listening to it is rock legend, Elton John. When he was a four-year-old child, he heard a song on the radio and promptly walked over to a piano and played the melody.
Some other famous examples of musicians who said they could not read sheet music and play by ear are Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Lionel Ritchie.
Break Into Small Sections
It would be difficult to memorize the entire page of a novel, right? But how hard would it be to memorize just the first sentence on the page? Just about anyone could do that with a bit of effort.
The same principle can be applied to memorizing music. If you can’t memorize the entire sheet, then tackle just one phrase or musical block. Just worry about one for now. Then, later, memorize another block next to the one you know. The key is to get just one down dead solid before you go on to the next –- and the next and the next -- before long, you may have an entire song down pat.
Practice At Different Tempos
It’s common for music teachers to encourage their students to “slow practice” because a reduced tempo bolsters accuracy, makes it easier to memorize correct markings, finger the notes, and so on. Going slow gives you the time to think about the next measure and be prepared for it.
However, and this is important, slow practice in and of itself is not a complete way to memorize music. But if you run through the piece in several different tempos, it will have the effect of truly allowing you to get an in-depth feel of the music.
We saved this technique for last because it may be the most powerful method for memorizing music. When you get right down to it, committing anything to memory almost always comes down to the hard work and perhaps drudgery of just doing it over and over again.
Repetition is the process by which neural pathways are built in the brain and made into strong and solid pathways.
You may have heard a musician say: “I’ve had to perform that song so many times I could play it in my sleep!” That’s because doing it over and over again simply creates an indelible imprint or pattern in your brain’s neural network –- meaning it has literally become “a part of you.”
Ask Other for Tips
It's a terrific idea to ask other musicians you know who have a lot of experience. This can include your teachers, friends, online music pals, or acquaintances who may have all kinds of helpful tips and advice for you. If you can land an interview with a famous or accomplished local professional musician, all the better. Such people are a treasure trove of advice and helpful information.
Keep in mind that all people are gifted differently in certain abilities. That’s true across the range of skills and talents. For example, you probably know someone who takes to math like a fish to water while others struggle mightily master some basic algebra –- and some people can’t even do that!
The same is true for the skill of memory. The great equalizer, however, is dedication, focus, and practice. With determination, you can build memory muscle and memory ability.
Psychologists talk about something they call “deutero-learning.” That refers to the process of “learning to learn.” What this means is that, as you strive to become a better memorizer, your brain will support you by learning to memorize more efficiently the more you work at it.
Thus, even if music memorization is a struggle at first, practicing the techniques we have described here will become easier for you the more you work at it. Once you get proficient at memorizing music, you are going to be a fantastically better performer.