Thursday, February 2, 2017

Memorizing Piano Music

Memorizing music is a tricky thing.  Even when we think we know a piece well, our memory can suddenly slip.  By bolstering our memory of a piece using several different methods, we can be much more confident and secure in our memorization of music.

Music Theory and Memory

Some students love music theory and others don't.  However, a good understanding of the structure and patterns used in a piece of music are a tremendous aid in memorizing a piece.  This works through a process known as chunking.

Chunking is a process we use to store information in our short-term memory.  Our short-term memory is generally able to store up to seven chunks at one time.  For example, take the following string of letters and numbers ABC1776XYZ3792.  There are 14 characters in this string, but the short term memory is only capable of remembering up seven chunks, so we will need to divided this into larger chunks of letters and numbers in order to hold it in our short-term memory, like this:

Chunk 1: ABC
Chunk 2: 1776 (If you are American, this is easy to remember, as it is the year we declared independence)
Chunk 3: XYZ
Chunk 4: 37
Chunk 5: 92

If you chunk the string of characters into these five chunks, it is much easier to remember! Can you close your eyes and recite it from memory?

Now, we need to relate this concept of chunking to music.  Take the first four measures of the right hand in Clementi's Sonantina in C Major.  There are 23 notes; how few chunks can you make out of this?

There are multiple ways to chunk this, but I've shown one example below.  The first measure and second measures are C major arpeggios.  The third measure contains a descending C major tetrachord and a lower-neighbor figure.  The fourth measure contains a descending G major pentachord.  If you recognize these patterns, it is easy to take these 23 notes and think of them in terms of five chunks.

So, chunking can be very helpful in improving memory from phrase to phrase, but a music theory understanding of overall form is also very important for memory of a full piece.  When I was a young piano student learning Clementi's Sonatina in C, I would sometimes make the mistake of reiterating material from the Exposition during the Recapitulation (including the modulation to V).  After I understood that Sonata form Expositions modulate V, whereas the Recapitulations typically remain in the tonic key, I no longer made that sort of memory error.

Muscle Memory and the Problems it Can Cause

Many, many young piano students rely almost entirely on muscle memory when preparing a tune for a recital or competition.  This can be a major problem because any sort of distraction can cause a memory disruption from which it is very difficult to recover during a memorized performance.  Muscle memory involves the memorization of the muscle movements required to perform a task.  After a while, the task can be performed with little or no conscious effort.  I know that when I get to a certain point of playing something by memory, I find myself thinking more about what I'm going to eat for lunch, or making plans for the weekend, or just about anything else that has nothing to do with the piece I'm playing!  This lack of focus is fraught with peril, and we must make sure to practice keeping our brain actively engaged when playing pieces, even when we think we know them backward and forward.

Here are several things you can do, to keep your brain actively engaged in the piece, by disallowing muscle memory from being the only form of memory being actively used:

  • Practice the piece at a different tempo using a metronome.  If a piece is at a 120 tempo, try playing it at 60.  You might be surprised at how difficult this is to do, if you have been relying too heavily on muscle memory.
  • Play the entire piece with staccato notes.  Altering the touch will force your brain to focus on each individual note.
  • Use shadow practice, meaning that you move your fingers across the piano as usual without fully pressing down the keys.
  • Practice the piece beginning at many different starting points.  Younger players especially tend to want to start over from the beginning when they make a mistake.  This is because they are relying mostly on muscle memory to get them through, with little understanding of the notes or the patterns found in the piece.  Try beginning in awkward spots in the middle of phrases.  It's more difficult to do, but it will increase your brain's engagement in the piece.

Auralizing, Visualing, and Mental Practice

Different students have different learning styles, such as aural, visual, and kinesthetic learning, but of course, musical performance includes all three components to some extent.  Muscle memory largely appeals to kinesthetic learners, but even if you are a kinesthetic learner, you need to bolster your memory with aural and visual memory.

Aural learning is, of course, important for musicians, as music involves the production of sound.  However, often when we are playing, we concentrate so much on the muscle movements and the sheet music, that we aren't actively listening, other than identifying wrong notes or mistakes.  Try to record your performance of a piece and listen back to it.  From a performance perspective, you might hear things that you want to improve, but having a good aural concept of a piece is important for memorization.  Without the sheet music, try to play the entire piece back in your head.  If you have trouble doing this, you probably lack a good aural understanding of the piece.  If this is the case, try listening to the piece in your head while looking at the score.

Visual learning is also very important.  There are two different important visual learning components for pianists - visualizing the score and visualizing the keyboard.  If you have a good visual memory of the score, you can probably remember what page you are on and what part of the page you are on as you play.  Whereas very few people can visualize entire pages of music, it's helpful for memory to be able to visualize the overall form of the piece on the sheet music, and certain patterns, such as chords and scales.

Finally, I want to talk about mental practice.  For me, this has proven to be one of the most effective methods for bolstering my memory of a piece.  Unfortunately, it is a very difficult thing to demonstrate to students.  Mental practice involves visualizing the keyboard in your head.  This is more difficult for some students than for others, but it is a very important tool for learning music.  If you can visualize the keyboard in your head, try visualizing your hands on the keyboard and play the piece visually in your head.  This can be done with our without the score.  Again, this eliminates the reliance on muscle memory and forces the brain to be actively engaged in thinking through the notes and the motions required to play the piece.


As previously stated, most young students rely almost entirely on muscle memory to perform memorized pieces.  Through a more thorough understanding of music theory, using various methods to disallow muscle memory from being the primary form of memory engaged, and from bolstering memory through mental practice, students can greatly improve their ability to memorize music.


  1. I like to have "starting points" throughout a piece so that if something goes wrong I can go to the next starting point and not back. Maybe something like your first "chunk".

  2. I have many students, very young ones, who don't have piano at home. For them, is much easier to explain, and develop in time, the concept of mental practice, as this is their first method introduced for practicing at home. The moment they get a piano, i insist in practicing first mentally every piece, every day.