V.com weekend vote: To Memorize, or Not to Memorize?

January 27, 2017, 9:48 AM · Is it necessary to memorize the pieces you are studying or playing?

Of course, many factors can contribute to whether or not you memorize a piece. But at the core of this matter, teachers and players do hold fundamental views. A number of revered teachers -- Aaron Rosand comes to mind -- insist that memorization is absolutely essential; that anything one plays in public should be memorized, even things like sonatas, which are traditionally played with music. Mastery is memorization, and vice-versa.

violin and sheet music

Rosand is a teacher of students at the highest levels, but on the beginning side of things is Suzuki, a method that involves a lot of playing by memory. Suzuki students start playing by rote, that is, without any sheet music. Suzuki group classes generally involve little or no sheet music. Once Suzuki students do learn to music (and they do), they tend to still memorize their pieces. So a Suzuki teacher, or one who grew up in that atmosphere, would likely be more comfortable memorizing pieces.

But this is not everyone's philosophy or mode of operation. Obviously reading music is essential to the violinist, especially for orchestra and chamber music. Sometimes memorizing a piece is very difficult for someone unaccustomed to it, and that requirement to memorize before moving on can get in the way of forward progress. Is memorizing necessary for one who does not aspire to be a professional player? Some would argue that it is not. Some would argue that memorizing actually gets in the way of learning to read music.

What are your views about memorizing, in an overall sense? Is it essential to learn music to the point where it is memorized? Or is memorization not really necessary to still have progress, enjoyment and excellence in music-making?

Replies

January 27, 2017 at 04:58 PM · I think that it's necessary to memorize solo and duet music for performing purposes. Otherwise, memorization is not really necessary. If you don't read music due to a style choice or disability, then you will have to memorize absolutely everything.

January 27, 2017 at 05:13 PM · Rosand is right--memorization is mastery, and mastery is memorization. I find that I can't even begin to seriously work on a piece until it's memorized. And by that, I don't mean I'm not seriously working on it before I have achieved memorization; it's that by comparison the work done after it is memorized makes the work done before seem tiny in comparison. Musicality doesn't seem to emerge until you are working from memory.

January 27, 2017 at 05:26 PM · What point of memorization are we talking about?

If we are talking absolute memorization with no sheet music at all, I don't see why this is essential for mastery. I fell like this view has stemmed from the fact that a soloist is expected to play pieces from memory, which I think is silly. I know perception is critical and it's much more impressive to see a person on stage just play entirely from memory, but is it essential? Does it create mastery? No, of course not. It's just an expectation.

There is still memorization to the point of getting through the music exactly right and how you want, by having the sheet music in front of you and looking at it for reference. Once you play a piece enough, you will automatically have memorized it to a point. I don't really see a reason to get so beyond this that one's playing is impeccable with no sheet music at all. But what do I know? I'm just a beginner. haha.

January 27, 2017 at 05:32 PM · I agree with Ella's conclusion. In my younger days as a pianist my teacher would expect me to memorise a piece over the course of a few lessons, depending on the length of the piece. I was also expected to learn to sight-read. My cello teacher and, in later years, my violin teacher followed very much the same regime, so now I memorise or sight-read as required.

I am unable to vote on this occasion because a simple yes/no vote doesn't address all the possibilities, so I suggest we really needed a third voting category - something like "It depends".

January 27, 2017 at 06:05 PM · I always memorize my recital pieces(my teacher doesn't require memorization). I don't do it because I feel it demonstrates mastery however. As a student that is coming into my 4th year, I still battle nerves when I perform. Having the piece memorized reduces the things I worry about like getting lost on the sheet or the difficult passages I've marked on my music (as I was learning), etc. Memorization allows me to focus on the dynamics and emotion I put into playing the piece. I suppose that memorization does demonstrate that I've mastered my practice habits and commitment to my instrument.

January 27, 2017 at 07:25 PM · As vionists or instrumentalists, for all of us: our brain and muscles memorize the physiology of repetitive action it's a great thing to count on....but distractions do happen. Mr Zukerman uses a stand and music.

January 27, 2017 at 07:47 PM · I can say that Reiding op.21 A minor once memorized does play better vs having to look at what's written. Same goes for pg. 2 of Praeludium Allegro - haven't made it to pg. 3 yet.

Otoh, reading sheet music on a stand goes hand in hand with playing an instrument - either way, doesn't matter to me.

January 27, 2017 at 08:44 PM · In my opinion, memorization is key, because it has to do with the way our brains process the information. If you can play from beginning to end purely by memory, it means that your understanding of the piece has become linear and not segmented. Really, we are just beginning a piece once it's memorized. That's when the real practice begins to increase the quality of the music.

However, I don't believe that a piece must be performed from memory. Memory is simply a tool that we use to understand and practice the music. Once all of that has been achieved, I think using the sheet music as a map (just for redundancy, really) is a good idea. Of course, it depends on the person.

January 27, 2017 at 10:20 PM · Since I never went the recital route, instead straight to orchestral playing with the occasional solo at church I never had the need or inclination to memorize lots of music. I am in awe of those who do memorize vast amounts of music but, for me it simply isn't necessary.

January 27, 2017 at 10:43 PM · Performers of music far harder than I will ever even aspire to surely can't read it as they play, can they? In other words, in advanced literature, aren't there large sections that must be learned by heart to play them in real time?

January 27, 2017 at 11:30 PM · I think that memorization is fairly unavoidable. It's something happens to some degree, even if you've only looked over a piece of music once before playing, or if you've played it through before (muscle memory). Obviously there is a wide variation in those degrees and the more you play something, consciously or not, the more 'memory' comes into play.

January 28, 2017 at 01:07 AM · I agree with Erik. Also to add to this, I find that by taking the visual component out of the equation for the most part, my playing is much more fluid and musical rather than "notey" or "beaty". I've never performed without the music in front of me, but like to be able to play it without HAVING to look until I need to.

January 28, 2017 at 05:10 AM · I find it interesting that memorizing is so easy for some and so difficult for others. I find that I naturally learn things by heart simply by practising them. A friend of a similar advanced amateur standard has to work very hard if he wants to memorize a passage. The difference for us seems to be auditory memory. I have excellent auditory memory and perfect pitch - he does not. I'm glad I have good memory, because my eyesight is not the best. I often memorize passages at orchestra so I don't need to read every note in the concert.

January 28, 2017 at 02:02 PM · Some years ago, in my cello days, my chamber orchestra had been working on Elgar's Serenade for Strings Op 20 when at the start of one rehearsal the then conductor told us to put our music away and play the Elgar from memory. And we successfully did, to everyone's surprise, excepting that particular conductor who runs his own professional chamber ensemble which is accustomed to performing whole programmes from memory.

The jury is still out on whether we would have succeeded in a by-memory play-through of something rather more complex such as some of the Brandenburg movements!

I agree with Mendy that removing the visual component improves the performance if you already have the music in your head and fingers. The reason must be that the brain will be receiving optical data (possibly conflicting) which is superfluous to the internal data the brain is already using. I myself have experienced that effect.

There are downsides to playing from memory because there can (rarely) be an inexplicable memory lapse in recalling music that is already embedded in the brain. In orchestra we must have all seen that happen sometimes with a soloist, but on the vast majority of such occasions the soloist recovers, and the audience never notices. The worst was probably when the late Sviatoslav Richter had a most embarrassing memory lapse during a solo piano recital, and thereafter always performed with the music in front of him, whether he referred to it or not.

Whether to play from memory or from the music is largely a matter of tradition. A single soloist with an orchestra is expected to perform from memory, but the performers in a double or triple concerto will have the music in front of them. A violinist performing a Beethoven violin sonata will generally have the music in front of them, but not necessarily so if it is a piece for violin with piano accompaniment.

An organist nearly always performs with the music, but then they have to cope with up to 5 manual keyboards, a pedal keyboard, and a large number of stops. The complexity of their music sometimes requires an amanuenis not only to turn the pages but to actuate the stops where necessary.

As regards sight-reading, the pianist John Ogden is said to have sight-read the whole of Sorabji's massive and intricate "Opus Clavicembalisticum" (about 4-1/4 hours) when he recorded it.

January 29, 2017 at 05:53 AM · I checked not necessary because I think you can play well without memorizing, at least at the amateur level, but I think there should be another choice that allows the writer to acknowledge its importance and usefulness. When I can do it, memorization helps me play and perform better, but I find it difficult.

January 29, 2017 at 08:25 PM · Overall I think it depends on the situation and goals of the student. I selected not nessicary for my own case as an adult returnee who plays in a community orchestra. I'm there to relax and have fun on my "free" time.

As a mother of 3 who are learning violin/viola/cello I expect my kids to go through the process of memorizing at least 1 piece for thier year end recital. I completely see the value of memorization in terms of the discipline nessicary to do it, and the benifit musically in doing so.

I have experienced this from the difference between my orchestra playing and my bluegrass jam class. In bluegrass jam, the teacher didn't allow sheet music. I had to learn by ear both the melodies played and improvisation. Even though time has passed there are tunes I can more easily recall and play. However, ask me to play something from orchestra from the past or something we just rehersed the day before, I'm unable to.

January 30, 2017 at 01:04 AM · Playing from memory has always, for some reason, added exponentially to my nerves during a performance, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.

January 30, 2017 at 08:51 AM · Hi,

I would say that its not necessary to memorise everything,but its

good to try,occasionally playing a piece without the music.I think the

good part of memorising is that you dont have to go 'outside'

your body to play,whereas when reading music there is that extra stage

of seeing the music,and your brain processing the information.Maybe this is why memorising music results in a more 'musical'

performance?

January 30, 2017 at 02:48 PM · I personally do not like to perform without sheet music. I still memorize it. I memorize the music so it will flow and I keep the sheet music in front of me so I can check in to make sure I am in the right spot.

January 31, 2017 at 02:44 PM · If: "Mastery is memorization, and vice-versa." than I have mastered nothing. I played Beethoven's third this past weekend with my orchestra friends and I did not memorize much of anything. I could play a few passages but that's it. Did I master the whole symphony?? Of course not. Did I fail. NOPE!!

It's been so long (I'm 68) since I've memorized anything I probably can't do it today.

Our cello soloist, competition winner, did memorize his piece BUT still had the music on a stand in front of him. Smart young man.

Another performance was with an orchestra accompanying a pianist. She played beautifully BUT.....during the concert skipped over two lines of music. We, the orchestra had to SCRAMBLE....to find her. The conductor was telling us (and her) stop....stop.... the violist shook his head, then said to her 'no no we can do this'....and we did. We found her or she found US and we continued on. Did the audience notice any of this?

I don't know. I doubt it.

I never want a soloist to memorize anything. They are only human.

January 31, 2017 at 07:31 PM · I once spent some time with an amateur theatre group. In that environment, memorizing your lines is absolutely necessary, and there are various techniques to help do this. It's a tremendously liberating feeling when you reach that point in the rehearsal process where you can go "off book" - instead of burying your nose in the script you are now free to work on blocking, delivery, and interaction with others.

Memorization isn't quite as essential in music, but it's nice to be able to look away from the music from time to time and concentrate on tone, intonation, timing, and expression.

For a recital piece, I prefer to memorize it in its entirety, but still have a copy of the music handy. Even if I never need to refer to it, it's a nice security blanket.

Orchestral material is sufficiently complex that I'm unlikely to memorize every note plus my hand-written notes as to bowing, fingering, etc. - but I still enjoy being able to play large chunks of the music while looking at the conductor, or sneaking quick glances at the audience to see how they're enjoying it.

February 1, 2017 at 12:35 PM · I loathe memorization and I'm terrible at it. But once you do it, as Charlie wrote, it frees up a lot of mental bandwidth for other stuff. That's why you have to start as a child and develop the habit/skill of memorization because otherwise when you get to be my age, you're never going to get to the point where you truly feel liberated by having no music -- you're always going to feel like you're within a stone's throw of a black hole, because you are. My childhood teacher only made me memorize about 10 things (including a few studies like K2) over 11 years.

February 2, 2017 at 10:08 PM · There is no black and white on this matter.

A great benefit when playing from memorization is a big freedom to just play and form the music and let inspiration participate.

But there are certainly also musicians who can do that when playing from the sheet music.

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Knowing the music by heart gives security and confidence and yet some musicians aren't confident without the sheet music present.

***

An interesting thing on memorizing music is that often the easy parts can be difficult to remember and the hard parts easy, because you need to practice the hard parts a lot; therefore you often know such passages by heart long before you can play them properly.

February 3, 2017 at 04:29 PM · Wouldn't it be wonderful if memorizing music were so easy that orchestras could play entire concerts without sheet music?! I am able to really get into the zone if I am playing from memory rather than watching notes. But alas, how many of us have a 10 gigabyte memory? Memorization is great, but not for everything. Just not that evolved yet :)

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