Strategies for Memorizing Music

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Leah Kruszewski
Strategies for Memorizing Music

Regardless of how we initially learn a piece of music - from TAB, notation, videos - to really make it our own and be able to focus wholly on expressing ourselves when we play, it helps to memorize it.  

Students who are new to music often rely heavily on their tactile memory (aka muscle memory).    However, tactile memory in particular can be very unreliable in a performance setting, because it usually works best when we’re feeling relaxed and calm.  If you play a memorized piece ten times in a row flawlessly before class, and then fall apart in the first phrase when your teacher is listening, you’ve probably relied solely on tactile memory, and it has let you down.  

Here are some tips to help you thoroughly ingrain a piece into your memory so that you can count on yourself to get through it in under any circumstances.

Start with the big idea

Understanding your piece thoroughly is important regardless of whether or not you plan to memorize it.  But doing this part right is even more critical if you plan to perform from memory. What makes the piece work?  Does it have a melody? Can you sing it from memory? If it doesn’t have a melody, is there any singable moving line?  For example, some classical guitar studies may be mostly or all arpeggios. Even if they may not have a clear melody, there are lines that rise and fall that you could sing, and that you will want to bring out when you play.  

How does the structure go?  I always recommend labeling sections clearly if you’re working with printed music.  Even if you’re learning from a video, it can help to write out the sections on paper.  If it’s a pop song, the structure might go something like: intro - verse 1 - verse 2 - chorus - verse 3 - chorus - solo/instrumental - bridge - chorus - outro.  If it’s an instrumental piece, you can parts as letters like ‘ABACA’ to represent repetitions.  

Even better, describe the parts in a way that means something to you and reflects the sections’ function and relationship to each other.  Observe when sections repeat exactly, and when an idea is a variation of another. For example, you might think of your piece structure as:

A - catchy, happy melody, the one that got stuck in your head the first time you heard the piece

A* - main melody with some extra ornaments (use a symbol like * to indicate that a section similar, but not identical, where the section appears previously).   

B - slower melody, in a minor key

C - transition, build in intensity, and return to major key

A - exactly like first time

D - short concluding idea that slows down to end.  

Memorize in sections

If you can only play your piece starting from the beginning, you don’t have it memorized yet! This is a sure sign that you’re relying too heavily on momentum and muscle memory.  Minor distractions and errors can and do happen at any point during a performance, and we need to be able to carry on in spite of them. Use the sections that you defined in analyzing the structure, and be able to play each part from memory, multiple times.  Then break it up even smaller and be able to start from any point in a musical phrase. If a part is awkward to start from, it probably has the potential to trip you up in a performance, and that’s even more reason to learn to start from there.  

Use whatever music theory you know

You don’t need to read music or have advanced theory knowledge to understand better what you’re playing.  Do you know common chord shapes? Find them (or slight variations of them) in the piece you’re playing and be able to say them while you play.  Be able to write out that chord progression from memory. Do you know the note names? Sing the melody using the note names from memory, as you play.  Then try it without your instrument in hand. Do the same for any singable, moving line in the piece. Does your piece change key at any point? If you’re not sure, ask your teacher.  Once pointed out, even untrained listeners can often recognize key changes by ear.

Rehearse mentally

Put aside your instrument, close your eyes, and visualize how the piece goes.  Imagine everything you can from the sound, to how your hands look and feel on the instrument, to where you would breathe if you play a wind instrument.  If your song has words, try to see the words behind your closed eyes, or mouth them without pronouncing them. If you learned from printed music, you may even try visualizing the notes or TAB on the page.  

Imagining a piece of music from beginning to end is surprisingly hard work and takes a lot of concentration.  You’ll be sure to find gaps where your memory fails you. These are the sections you need to reinforce until you can imagine all their components.  

Practice performing

I often explain to students that we need to cultivate two distinct practice mindsets - ‘practice mode’ and ‘performance mode’.  In ‘practice mode’, when we make an error, we stop playing, analyze and correct it, and slowly reconnect the corrected passage with the rest of the piece.  It’s like taking a magnifying glass to our playing. However, if you only play your piece in ‘practice mode’, stopping when you make mistakes, you will stop while performing too!  Mistakes happen on stage (ask any professional!), and we need to learn to manage in spite of them.

In ‘performance mode’, our goal is to start at the beginning and end at the end, no matter what.   Once you have your piece memorized, do a ‘performance run’ at the beginning and end of your practice sessions.  Practice staying calm and keeping a neutral face when mistakes happen. If you have a memory slip, let it go immediately and proceed to the next phrase.  If you’ve memorized in sections as described above, you’ve already developed this ability - you just need to make it a habit.  

It may help to practice performing in a distracting environment, so that you can learn to ignore interruptions like door slams, conversations, phone alerts, etc.  Also try recording yourself, as the pressure of recording can imitate and prepare you for stage nerves.  

Maintain your memory

Unfortunately, memorization isn’t permanent - it requires careful maintenance.   Even if you’ve performed a piece from memory several times, if you shelve it for a month or two, you’ll need to refresh your playing and your memory.  If you want to keep a memorized piece in your repertoire, come back to all these steps and tips frequently. Make sure you can always recite the structure automatically, can start from any given section, can visualize your piece start to finish. 

Teachers, what other memorization strategies do you recommend?  Can you elaborate on any methods I mentioned? I may turn this post into an article, and I’ll be sure to link to your profile if I quote you and/or include your strategy!  

Students, what strategies have your teachers recommended that have worked especially well for you?  Have you tried any that didn’t work so well? Can you add to the tips I’ve suggested?  

Have any personal experiences performing from memory taught you an interesting or helpful lesson?   

Virginia Thorpe

I'm brand new to Lessonface and I'm enjoying getting familiar with the site.  I appreciate how there's not years' worth of comments/posts to sort through.  While I appreciate the wealth of information on those type of forums, it's refreshing to be able to read everything and not be overwhelmed. :) I'm sure it will look very different in a few years, though...

A few thoughts regarding memory:

Leah, I like your labels "practice mode" and "performance mode."  I've never labeled them as such (I don't know why I never thought of that!?!), but those terms make it so much more efficient to communicate what I want from a student.  I remember, as a college level piano student, coming in to my professor's office for a lesson, playing through my piece, and then feeling disappointed in my performance and frustrated that I couldn't erase that and begin again.  Now I often tell my students that they can go through their piece once with no judgment from me (essentially "practice mode") to refresh the things they've worked on throughout the week.   After they've done that once (or occasionally twice) I ask them to play it again from start to finish ("performance mode").  I use the second playing as the basis for my feedback.  Hearing it a second time allows me as the teacher to discern which mistakes are just random slip-ups, and which ones stem from a lack of understanding, lapse of memory, or technical issue.  I find that the majority of mistakes in the final stages of learning pieces lie in transitions, which leads to my next thought...

A technique I remember learning in a piano pedagogy class that has always stuck with me was to start at the end of the difficult passage (or a transition) and work backwards, but always carry over to the downbeat of the next measure.  For example, if my student has a 4-bar passage that stumps them, they will play just measure 4 and the downbeat of measure 5 (my rule of thumb is 3 times in a row perfect=mastery).  Once that is mastered, they play measure 3 and the downbeat of measure 4 until mastered.  Depending on time restraints, I might have them play measures 3 and 4 to the downbeat of 5.  Then measure 2 to the downbeat of 3, and so forth and so on.  If I can get them to consistently play past that barline, I find their consistency increases exponentially!

I also recall playing a Bach invention in college and my professor had me memorize the whole piece from the end to the beginning.  We divided it into 6 sections and I began with the last measure of section 6 and kept adding measures until I had all of section 6 memorized.  He then sent me on my way to use the same strategy to memorize sections 1 through 5.  I've used that strategy many times for myself and for my students because we tend to easily retain the beginning of the piece, but by the time we get to the end , we've often lost our focus.  I use sticky notes for my students in my home studio (not sure how I'll incorporate that to teaching online yet), and when I assign memory work, I break down each step and put a box to check off when the step is complete.  For example, for the Bach invention I would write "section 6 memorized backwards" with a box next to it.  Step 2 could be "section 6, from memory 3 times in a row perfect" (speed is not important, but steady beat is!). Step 3 could be "section 5 memorized backwards" and step 4 "sections 5 and 6, from memory, 3 times in a row perfect."  That might be too intense for some students, but for a motivated student, I find that they thrive on very concrete practice strategies/goals.  To follow that strategy to the end, it would mean 12 steps to being able to play the whole piece perfectly, from memory!  In many cases, that will take 2 (or more) weeks to achieve; keep realistic expectations.  But the end result is a very solid memorization of the piece.  Why, oh why, I wonder, do our brains not do a better job of retaining that memory?  Leah mentioned that memory isn't permanent- how frustrating that can be!  I try to prepare my students for that by warning them to review the previous day's memory task(s) before adding the new day's material.  Sometimes that review exercise will end up taking the entire practice session (or maybe that's just me- memory has never been one of my strengths...)

I'm looking forward to being a part of LessonFace.  I signed up as a result of COVID-19 and wanting to be able to continue teaching.  I could've just taught via my own zoom account, but there are some really helpful "perks" to this platform!  

Leah Kruszewski

Hi Virginia, all this information is so useful, thank you for sharing!  Also, welcome to Lessonface : )  

I completely agree with the logic of starting at the end of a piece.  Your strategy for memorizing a Bach invention seems really thorough, and great for students who are willing to apply that sort of discipline.  It's easy overpractice the beginning of a piece and rush the learning process at the end. Students get excited when they start to be able to imitate something they’ve heard and love, but that excitement dissipates quickly if we overplay the first phrase and don’t properly address challenges further on in the piece.  Starting at the end delays the gratification a bit, but it is a really solid way to memorize. 

I also like (and use personally) the concept of working with sections that overlap.  For example, when you’re working on Phrase 2, make sure it also includes the last bar or two of Phrase 1, and the first bar or two of Phrase 3.  That makes piecing it together later much easier.

I'm glad the 'performance mode' concept is useful to you, and hope it will be for your students as well.   

From a student’s perspective - particularly an adult student’s - there are a lot of surprises to be discovered in how we learn music.  It's not the same as learning a purely academic subject that doesn't involve a physical skill. New students tend to be surprised that they can intellectually understand how something goes (a piece, a technique, etc.), but not yet be able to consistently execute it.  It can be really frustrating for some and it takes a lot of effort to convince them that this is completely normal and there is no need to despair about their music-learning abilities! It helps me to compare technical study to doing a sport, because this is something many adults who are new to music can relate to.  Learning music taps into our intellectual, athletic, AND creative sides. Once they accept that playing music involves more than intellectual comprehension -- that careful and proper technical training are brand new skills they need to learn -- they start to really take off as students.  

Hope your in-person students have been able to make the transition to online lessons smoothly and that you’re enjoying teaching them on Lessonface so far!  


Lou DeGregorio
Lou DeGregorio

This is great information, I have had trouble memorizing a piece and even in performance have had to use written music to help me get through.  I also felt I was missing a feel for the piece .  I will try this method , thank you both for the excellent information.  Good to know many have trouble memorizing a piece

Leah Kruszewski

So glad this post was useful to you Lou, and thanks for saying so!  Let me know how it works for you :)

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