V.com weekend vote: Are you good at memorizing music?

July 17, 2021, 7:20 PM · Memorization seems to come easily to some people, where it is much more hard-won for others.

memorizing music

Technically, anyone who can hum a tune has "memorized" music, but I'm talking about a slightly more difficult task: memorizing how to play a piece of music on the violin, viola, cello or any other instrument. That involves quite a few skills.

One important step - which is the same if you simply want to hum a tune - is to listen to the music and get it in your head, so it's banging around your brain as an earworm. I've seen people actually try to skip this step, but it's actually a very enjoyable part of the journey and the easiest "shortcut" for learning something by memory!

But memorizing how to play a piece of music involves more than that: you also have to memorize all the physical skills involved in playing the piece. That means you have to memorize fingerings, bowings, patterns, shifts, dynamics, rhythm, pacing, and more. Whew!

So it's not surprising that the task of memorizing how to play a piece can be very challenging, especially if it's not a skill that is instilled from the very beginning. It's easier to memorize a big, long piece if you have memorized shorter pieces and absorbed those patterns into a kind of memorized vocabulary on the instrument. ("Chunking," as some teachers call it.)

In fact, if you do struggle with memorizing and wish to improve, one way is to simply start memorizing very easy, short pieces.

Where do you stand, when it comes to memorizing? Does it take a lot of work for you to memorize a piece at your playing level? Does it come easily? Or is it pretty difficult? Or maybe you have not yet tried memorizing a piece? Please answer the poll with whatever seems closest to your situation, and then share your thoughts about memorizing. Is it a skill you have had to work on? Do you have suggestions for good ways to memorize a piece? What is most helpful to you, when you are memorizing something?

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Replies

July 18, 2021 at 01:45 AM · I am visually impaired so I must memorize everything from the get go so I have gotten used to it. While a lot of pieces are easy or moderately easy to memorize, anything with lengthy strings of notes with no pattern to them or anything that's less melodic is harder to memorize and it can be a bit of a pain.

July 18, 2021 at 05:34 PM · If I learn a piece by ear I know it and it is memorized after consistent practice. If I use sheet music it seems to take MUCH longer to memorize even the most simple pieces.

July 18, 2021 at 05:42 PM · Starting as an adult over 40 years ago I wasn't encouraged to memorize. Fortunate for me because I'm more of a conceptual thinker that likes broad concepts instead of minute details.

I did try memorizing some of the Hymnal based music that was my initial goal. I always managed to memorize at least one mistake, and once it was ground in it was all but impossible to erase. I like the printed (or electronic) page.

I do sit in awe of those who memorize huge musical works. It doesn't bother me because they have a different skill set.

I'm old enough to remember seeing top performers on TV (that would be B&W - before color) having the music on the stand or the keyboard rack playing recorded concerts. Then the Toscanini-effect took hold and almost everyone was playing from memory.

Perhaps one day, playing from music on a stand will return to being the norm. Fashion is fickle.

July 18, 2021 at 06:16 PM · With me, it takes some practice but comes pretty easily. If it's a piece I like and have the ambition to play, then -- once I have it firmly in my mind's ear, especially by listening to it with the sheet music in front of me -- memorization comes faster. If it's a piece I don't like, then the process can take longer.

I feel at my best when I'm playing without sheet music. I regularly play from memory a good number of the etudes and repertoire pieces I played as a student. Ditto for warm-up routines, scales, and Schradieck drills.

About Toscanini: He reportedly had some severe vision problems, which could well have given him the incentive to memorize. He also reportedly had a photographic memory. A lot of the young conductors who tried to emulate him by leading performances without a score didn't have the vision problems -- or the photographic memory.

July 18, 2021 at 06:49 PM · For me, the concept of “memorizing “ a piece does not really exist. If I practice it well, then I know it. And if I know it, I can play it. You may call it “memorizing”, but I just call it “knowing”. I’ve never set out to memorize a piece. I keep practicing it, note by note, bar by bar, section by section, movement by movement…and after a while I’m no longer looking at the music.

July 18, 2021 at 10:44 PM · I memorize music by chords. Often times the melody is a note in the chord. Memorize the chords and you have memorized the melody.

July 19, 2021 at 07:06 AM · I voted "takes practice but comes pretty easily." Different types of memory work very differently for me. I find it extraordinarily difficult to learn music by ear, having to listen to it many times before I can correctly remember what it sounds like. But if I start playing the music, I easily memorize what I practice, possibly because I learn the physical motions more quickly. I've never actively tried to memorize a piece on violin or viola (though I used to when studying piano), it's usually just in my memory when I've practiced it enough. The hardest passages get memorized first because I've practiced them the most; by the time I get to an orchestra concert I've usually memorized all the really tricky bits that I spent time working on at home. With solo rep, I'm more likely to memorize the whole piece because I actually practice everything somewhat regularly even if I'm still focusing on harder passages.

July 19, 2021 at 01:40 PM · How much of memorization can we credit to "muscle memory?" I don't read music, but with consistent practice the tunes seem to flow from my thoughts down to my fingers that "automatically" fall into place for bowing or plucking.

July 19, 2021 at 05:08 PM · John - 'muscle memory' is still memory but to the point that you don't have to think what comes next. Some would say that is just 'memory' whereas others 'memorize' pieces by, say, seeing the page before their mental eyes, or consciously remembering where the phrases go - the playing may be flawless (note wise anyway) but it has not beeen internalized to the point that the central processor can be turned off. Indeed, I think most of us do a combination of the two - a difficult 16th-note passage is practiced to the point of full memory. Other aspects like dynamics are often remembered but applied through processing while we play - perhaps we can call that 'interactive memory'.

Of course, memorization changes with time. Interestingly, I find I can still do 'muscle memory', albeit with more effort but the interactive memory is definitely harder. The last piece I memorized fully (and performed) was the Beethoven Romance in F - but recently (8 years later) I did have a pretty good shot at the first movement of Mozart V. Now, however, memorization is more about effective 'familiarization' of the notes on the printed page.

July 19, 2021 at 05:36 PM · Quite late on in my "High School" days, the teacher discussed with us how we memorised poetry, how the printed page would come up before our eyes, etc. This was totally foreign to me - I have never remembered anything visually, and I still can't do it, for poetry, prose, OR music. Everything is either by what I hear or what I say/do/play. This explains, perhaps, why my memory goes wrong (I was one of the worst memorisers of poetry in my class, but I could remember more prose and music). A visual memory would be very useful!

July 19, 2021 at 09:41 PM · If you had asked me this question in my pre-adult years, I probably would have responded "memorization is almost effortless". Now in my 50's, my answer is "memorization takes practice but comes pretty easily".

It's interesting that there are pieces that I memorized growing up that I never forgot. When I resumed violin playing again in 2011 after 20+ years away, I still had some of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas in my fingers. And because I had learned parts of the Mendelssohn VC as a child, it was quite easy for me to memorize the entire concerto for a performance I gave in 2017. However, when I committed to performing the Bruch VC in 2019, and because I had never studied it before, it took a lot more effort for me to memorize the entire concerto, but I did it eventually.

July 19, 2021 at 10:13 PM · I have a very hard time memorizing music. Consequently I think that forcing people to perform without sheet music is cruel and unusual punishment.

I memorized a grand total of 3 pieces in my 55+ years of playing: Bach's E-Major concerto (first movement only), Haydn's C-Major concerto (first movement minus cadenza only) and the E-Major prelude (first half only). I tried to memorize Bach's a-minor concerto too but somehow never got anywhere, perhaps because the formal construction of it follows a less obvious logic than in the case of the E-Major.

It would probably be easier to convince people to play less well known repertoire if they didn't feel obliged to memorize them (let's not forget that the memorizing must be very through indeed to survive the stress of performing for an audience). When I was playing in he student orchestra we programmed a violin concerto by a local composer*. Rudolf Bamert from the Tonhalle played the solo and had the music on a stand on the podium. His performance was excellent. Playing by memory is not necessary for a good performance.

* Paul Müller Zürich for those who want to know; his music, including this concerto, is very much worth performing.

July 23, 2021 at 02:26 AM · My primary music activity is as a Mariachi violin/singer. Everything is memorized. Little is published, and I cannot count the hours spent transcribing parts from recordings. It was a lot easier to memorize something new at age 20 than now at ___. One thing we discovered early on was that it was actually faster to memorize without using any written music. Repetition, on sequential days is a necessary part of the process. My music memory is definitely by melodic contour; if I can hear it in my head I can play it, sometimes in the wrong key (!). The modern concertos, like Prokofiev, will be impossible for me to memorize. Other approaches to memory would be theoretical (scales, intervals, chords), mechanical (finger and position numbers, up and down bows) and visual, seeing the page in your head and just playing it. I have met only one violinist that can do that.

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