Memorization Strategies for Any Musician

December 18, 2018, 2:44 AM · I’ve been at my parents’ house for a week, dog sitting my fur-sister, Maxine, so I’ve had a lot of time for practice! However, I’m a little on edge because I have a lot of music to memorize, which includes a full concerto and Bach’s C Major Fugue. This has given me a great opportunity to confront one of my greatest musical fears, and try to develop strategies that work for me in terms of memorizing all of this music.

I would like to preface my writing by saying that I am simply sharing what I have found works for me, and if you have other memorization strategies that you prefer, by all means stick to those. I hope that by sharing what I have learned so far, it will help and/or inspire others to also memorize their pieces without anxiety.

Strategy #1: Writing in the Music: Less is More

I’m one of those people who writes in their music a lot, mostly when I’m first learning a piece. But, I had a realization the other day that after awhile, I’m not even reading what I wrote in the music! It becomes extra information for my brain to process while I’m playing, and most of it isn’t even helpful. Honestly, I think most of the time, all of my extra writing actually detracts from my concentration and overwhelms my brain, even though the ideas are essentially helpful.

A couple of thoughts if you also have this habit: make an extra copy of your music from the start so that you can mark it up at first, but once you internalize the ideas quickly wean yourself off of it, adding only markings that you deem essential to the real copy of your music. Or, have a separate medium like a journal where you can write your ideas for each piece so that you have an outlet for your thoughts, which doesn’t sacrifice the music in front of you. I’ve found that when I switch to a cleaner copy of music when I’m attempting to memorize it, I already have a better outlook because there’s just less information that I feel I need to internalize. If we start from this point of a clean score, this could help greatly with our brains’ willingness to memorize what’s on the page from the start.

Strategy #2: Develop a Mental Roadmap

In something like unaccompanied Bach, I feel like it is absolutely essential to have a mental roadmap of the movement before you attempt to memorize it. This can be done without your instrument; what I have started doing is just writing out a list of sections in ways that make sense to me, and, especially in the case of solo Bach, knowing how they differ when things repeat.

For example, I’ll think to myself “this exact passage of chords appeared on the first page, but since it repeats on the third page, I need to remember that the second time I play a 3rd finger on the D string instead of a 1st finger on the E string to keep myself going in the right direction and avoid looping back to the beginning.” For things like this, I will use an (erasable!) colored pencil to visually show me how these passages differ, and what the important pivotal aspects are for me to remember. These are also places where I like to picture the music in my head, which is a general memorization strategy that I use a lot.

For something like the Prokofiev Concerto that I'm currently in the process of memorizing, I use a similar general technique of memorizing specific patterns and how things change, but I tend to refer to an overall structure of the movement in my head and tend to go by larger sections, so that I know which section comes next. This leads into the next memorization strategy; chunking.

Strategy #3: Chunking

The last year of my Masters degree in San Francisco, I took a wonderful class entitled “Training the Musical Brain,” taught by a neuroscientist who is also a conservatory-trained vocalist. One of the biggest memorization strategies we discussed was chunking, which is basically just as it sounds; memorizing things in chunks. This cuts down on the amount of material our brains have to process separately, and lets us retain more information by sorting it into groups.

You can observe immediate effects of this strategy by looking at a string of, say, sixteen numbers, and realizing that it takes a lot longer to memorize each number on its own than by grouping them into groups of four, 4-digit numbers. A way to apply this strategy to memorizing music is by practicing chunks of sections of a piece in isolation. But, when using this strategy, make sure that you put them back into the context of the piece fairly quickly so that the chunks/sections are not isolated in your head for too long. This is also a great way to play through & review the bigger part of that piece as a whole.

Strategy #4: Plan, Plan, Plan

Especially when memorizing a piece, it’s a good idea to have review material and new material in each practice session. A way that I accomplish this is by outlining a plan for the next session at the end of my current practice session; that way, I don’t get stuck in any one part of the piece for too long. It’s super easy to practice the first two pages a million times, and completely neglect the rest of the piece.

What I like to do is start by reviewing something new that I had covered in the previous practice session, and after solidifying that a bit more, continue by beginning to memorize the next new section of music, then finish by playing through a large chunk of music from that same piece, some review, some new material from that session. Have a goal for material that you would like to have covered by the end of that practice session; if you get there, great! If it takes you longer than you anticipated, no problem; know that you’ll reach that goal by the end of the next session or two, and that there’s no need to feel anxious. This is another reason that it is really important to start early in the memorization process, if possible!

I hope that these strategies that I am sharing help those of you who also struggle with memorization. My piece of advice is to start today! Don’t let it scare you; the earlier you start, the more time you have to work. Your goals don’t have to be huge at the beginning; even if you memorize one line each day, know that you’re making progress towards your goal and that’s significant. Happy practicing (oh yeah, and happy holidays)!

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December 18, 2018 at 09:11 PM · Memorizing the Bach C major fugue is a major task! These are all great ideas

December 18, 2018 at 10:28 PM · A memorization strategy I seldom see discussed is possibly one of the most important for me...

Listen to the piece! Listen to it over and over. And if you wrote it or it was written specifically for you, then sing it and listen to it in your head. After I started visualising my music instead of slaving away, repeating it over and over mindlessly, I never had any problems with memorization.

December 18, 2018 at 10:28 PM · I strongly support strategy 1. Only writing what is necessary is not only good for memorizing music. Even if you just play it non essential stuff is a distraction. Even more so if you have not looked at the piece for a while and need to resurrect it.

I find it good practice to write nothing at all into orchestral parts (apart from bowing marks of course if they are not already there). It might confuse my stand partner. And it needs to be erased at the end which is quite some work (though I often have to do it in the beginning...)

Practically never memorizing music (in the sense that I can play without looking at the music) I should probably not horn in here but this struck me as important in a broader way.

December 18, 2018 at 10:47 PM · What if you remember the notes but forget the bowings and fingerings ?

December 19, 2018 at 02:06 AM · I appreciate this article so much, Clara. I personally have been working with your second strategy and I find that it has made a huge difference to study the score without playing (or, in my case, singing) to really begin to understand the various patterns and nuances. When I'm playing (or singing), I'm concentrating on so many other things that I often miss the obvious. I think the four strategies you present also work well for simply preparing a piece of music, even if memorization isn't on the menu.

December 21, 2018 at 09:29 AM · Thankfully I don't have to memorise music, but fully agree with Clara's "least Scribbles" advice. Frankly, if your hand/mind doesn't automatically plan position changes/fingering as you read ahead then you probably shouldn't be playing the piece. The best preparation for a calm, engaged and alert performance is a clean part!

By the by, this makes Mahler's music a bit of a nightmare as you are obliged to read a book in german as you play. Thanks for that, Gustav.

December 22, 2018 at 07:59 PM · @#82... What if forget the bowings and fingerings?

What I learned from a Scottish fiddler: be able to play the piece with completely reversed bowings. Then you know that if you reverse something, you can still play it, then take an extra up-bow at the end of the next measure. Fingerings? You probably experimented with a variety of fingerings at the early stages of learning a piece, so you know that there is more than one way to do it. For me, sometimes the clever fingerings and bowings that I can invent work well when playing from the paper, but not when memorized, so I will revert to something more conventional or primitive. And then very occasionally, a fingering will just happen in performance that I know I never practiced (!)--very scary.

December 23, 2018 at 11:24 PM · Miscl. thoughts on Memorization.-

First, and too obvious; Memorization forces you to learn how to play the piece.

Everyone's brain is wired a little different, so everyone needs to work out their personal approach. There are maybe 4 different methods.

Visual Memory. I have met only one person who could do that; she could see the page in her mind and just play it. I have no idea how one could learn how to do that.

Mechanical. Up, down, positions, finger numbers --that's a lot of abstract information --too much for me.

Theoretical/Analytical. The Beethoven concerto starts like this; 2 octaves up on the A7 chord, then that little melodic fragment, broken thirds scale down, broken thirds scale up, the pick-up gesture into the main melody is D maj., second inversion ....

Melodic contour, or The Internal Tape Recorder. This requires a firm knowledge of intervals and is especially useful to singers. I know that that is what I do because; If I can hear it in my head I can play it, and, when practicing alone from memory, I will sometimes slip into the wrong key. Modern non-tonal pieces will be especially difficult to memorize this way.


Get off-paper sooner;-- to move information from the visual memory to the aural memory. No matter how many times I repeat a section reading, playing from memory is like starting all over again.

Repetition;- 3x is probably the bare minimum. 10 x wastes time and energy.

Chunks;- already mentioned by many. Memorize short phrases, then connect them in longer sections. Working backwards is especially useful, not actual retrograde of course, but in chunks. Most of us know the first page of a piece better than the last page because that is the order that we learn them. Often, maybe as much as half the time, start at the last phrase, then add on the section before that, etc.

Sleep;- Something mysterious while we sleep. To use a computer analogy; there is a night-watch janitor in charge of discarding all the irrelevant events of the day and keeping what is important. But he is deaf, blind and a little stupid, so he will throw away that section that you thought you memorized. If he sees it again the next night he is more likely to think; "It's just a random sequence of black dots, but the boss upstairs wants to keep it - OK" So; Doing 3 repetitions Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday will be much more effective than 10 times on Monday and doing something else Tu.-W.

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it" --Yogi Berra. Repeated sections that connect to different things are especially dangerous. Be aware of "This is the first time, I go there, this is the second time , it goes somewhere else.

A Test; When you think you really know it; set down with blank music paper and see if you write out your part.

Finally--Learn repertoire when still young. After age ___ I find it about three times harder and longer to memorize anything new.

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