How to Improve Music Memorization Skills

By Carolyn Walter

Memorizing music can be a daunting task for musicians of all stripes.  Unfortunately for many of us, repetition alone is not enough.  Simply playing a piece of music from a score over and over again only teaches you to play the piece extremely well. . .but with the aid of the written page.  The key to “getting off of the page” is identifying what kind of musical learner you are, and which strategies will be most effective for you as an individual.

#1 Prepare the piece for memorization
For technically challenging works, memorization will be much more difficult if you don’t have a firm grasp of the most difficult sections beforehand.  In a similar fashion, you should have a clear picture in mind of

how you would like to articulate and phrase each section before committing it to memory.

#2 Break the music down into manageable pieces
Even if you have to go one-note-at-a-time, progress is progress!

#3 Analyze the piece’s underlying form
The first step to breaking down all of the information in a song into manageable pieces is understanding its form.  Is the piece through-composed, with no information repeating itself?  Is there a discernible first section, followed by a contrasting section, and then an eventual return to the initial idea, perhaps with some variations? This is a good step to organizing and internalizing a piece of music.

#4 Identify smaller, recurring patterns in the music
Such as arpeggiated chords, passages resembling scales or other familiar musical fragments.  These can be quickly ingrained in one’s muscle memory and easily recalled.

#5 Learn by ear
Some people find music much easier to retain once they work it out by ear.  If you are brand new to a song, and it is one you would find reasonably simple to read on the page, you might consider simply skipping the reading step altogether, and simply working the tune out from a recording, if one is available.  If you aren’t sure, you might want to search Sheet Music Plus’ extensive catalog; did you know we carry recorded music as well as sheet music and books?

#6 Start and stop in different places throughout the piece
This is essential to prevent the need to start all the way back at the beginning if you get flustered during a performance!  As mentioned before, knowing the “big picture,” musically speaking, is crucial for the sake of flexibility

#7 Distract yourself
Practice other things or take a short break, then go back to memorization.  This will get you accustomed to the recall process more quickly.  Work those neurons!

#8 Play along with recordings
Playing along with some sort of accompaniment is not only fun, it inspires confidence and helps simulate the performance experience.  Don’t have an orchestra, accompanist or rhythm section awaiting your every command? Check out some great play along titles in more genres than you can shake a baton at!

#9 Record a rehearsal
No play alongs available for the all-original-funk-country-western-polka-serialist gamelan ensemble you are auditioning for?  Create your own play-along by recording a rehearsal and documenting the energy of your fellow musicians’ performance:

Olympus LS-20M Digital Recorder Sheet Music Plus

Olympus LS-20M Digital Recorder Sheet Music Plus

#10 Memorize often
As is the case with most musicians, practice makes perfect! If memorizing music becomes a regular process as opposed once-in-a-career ordeal, your memory will only get stronger.  Through experience, you can learn which tools will work most effectively for your particular artistry.

Carolyn Walter holds a degree in clarinet performance from San Francisco State University, and is an active music educator and multi-genre performer around the Bay Area.

18 Responses to “How to Improve Music Memorization Skills”


  1. 1 Susan Adams Bentley August 24, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Excellent information for memorization. I plan to share it with my students. Thank you..

  2. 3 Bert Rowson August 25, 2012 at 12:05 am

    Memorization is something that some students learn first (ie Suzuki kids) while conservatory (in Canada) sudents who learn from the printed page seem to close off that pathway for learning at an early age. Sorting out what type of student you have will guide you on the best instruction for that child and that is not always the way you have learned. In depth memorization leads to a complete understanding of the piece at hand and when it is well engrained the musician can focus on interpretation and bringing out the music in the piece in a way that no one can by playing from sheet music. To be a complete musician I thing the performer should strive to both read well as well as memorize, at a young age memorization is something that can be learned but if it is not a principal learning method it will be most difficult to regain.

  3. 4 Michael Brown August 25, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Do you have jazz play along recordings with
    Transcription for drums?

    • 5 Anonymous August 26, 2012 at 4:23 am

      Hi Michael, I bought the Jamie Aebersold “maiden voyage” book which has a cd and also the Jamie Aebersold book with the drum transcription in it and there is also one for the bass parts. They all came from Sheet Music Plus. Megan Smith

  4. 6 Craig Ash August 25, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    I was pleased to see most of the details of practicing for memorization battered into me by my piano teacher in the ’40s and early ’50s viewed here as good. I hated memorization; every piece I learned had to be memorized. I’m in my 70′s now and cannot play any of them from memory, but I’m relieved that the techniques that my teacher enforced and presumably learned in the ’30s at the conservatory in Palermo and/or later at Juilliard are still viable today.

  5. 7 margie August 26, 2012 at 6:19 am

    My adult students have the most difficult time memorizing. I think it’s actually a confidence issue. Any suggestions to help adults with confidence will be appreciated. Your memorization suggestions are absolutely on target. I like the suggestion to play along with “the band”.

    • 8 Anonymous August 26, 2012 at 11:57 am

      Broadway star Ethel Merman was quoted telling a nervous performer, “If they could do it better than you, they’d be up here on stage and you’d be out there in the audience.”

    • 9 Blandine August 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm

      I am an adult (piano) student and I had not played for over 20 years when I started again a couple of years ago. Memorization had always been a problem back in my younger years, and things did not improve with time. The solution I have found is to start memorizing a piece at the moment I start learning it. I start by memorizing the notes away from the piano, and then I play by memory at the piano, first hand separate, then hands together. By doing so, I acquire the cognitive memory of the piece before the muscular memory. Once I can play a piece by memory, I practice exclusive by hart, without the music in front of me. This forces me to be able to start any where, play hands separate or only certain voices, or perform technical exercises, all from my memory of the score. I also regularly review pieces away from the piano (‘playing’ them in my mind). I hope this method can help other students. It takes some extra work when you start a piece, but but it saves a lot of trouble when it comes to performing….

  6. 10 tudoquemegustaeillegal August 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    hi,

    thanks for this ; music memorisation is a subject that I’ve given some thought and this comment is based on my experiences

    Normally I have a pretty good memory (tho age has definitely diminished it) but when it comes to piano I find my memorisation is pathetically weak.

    I’ve recently been working on Haitian Divorce by Steely dan.
    Firstly to attempt to learn a reasonably complex piece you need to break it down into manageable pieces of learning.
    Rhythm
    Haitian divorce is a reggae tune & if you don’t understand reggae rhythm you will struggle in performance i.e. the notation does not match the sound even if you’re note perfect (often not required).
    This is a common problem with learning from sheet music, & a recording is essential to establish a memory framework, on which you can build your performance.
    Segmentation
    The second problem is how you break down the piece; I worked on basic phrases (verse, chorus) trying to find a commonality and in song this is fairly easy : It entails working on these small segments over and over, often in half or eight the speed until you get it. In some sense this is counter intuitive as the pressure is on to learn the complete piece, but when you put the whole piece together, the segments will navigate you through it, as they become landmarks within a tune.
    Fingering
    When you work on the segments, you can work out minutiae like fingering , which serves to position you for easy access to the upcoming segment. I Identify this anticipation fingering as essential in any non trivial piece.
    This is mirrored with speech memorisation where you visualise a sequence of events, that reinforce the narrative. Knowing how segments fit together is the essence of mastering a piece ( rhythm notwithstanding). The skill is to break the piece down into substantive segments, and then practising the weakest segments ( as opposed to ones you are proficient in).
    Teaching
    My own experience is that the sooner you get into the segmentation work the quicker will be your progress: The postponement of this, means that progress is delayed and the delusion that repetition is the be all and end all of learning a piece, will be exposed for the fallacy it is.
    This cognitive breakdown is the domain of your teacher who should be able to give it to you, and feedback areas that require more work or work-a-round; thus accelerating your learning.
    Sadly I have never encountered a teacher who was able to do this … maybe I was unlucky but from the number of people who routinely give up learning instruments, I’m in good company?

  7. 11 Alan August 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Great Stuff… I’m looking forward to reading more articles like this. Thank you. (Alan, Guitarist, Ireland)

  8. 12 wes August 26, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Interesting comments about memorization. I started early on piano and read with no great effort to memorize, and then found it difficult later to do it- to some extent I can improvise. Another thing- I have found that when I take a break from playing, my reading skills improve when I resume, almost like lifting weights after a break!

  9. 13 timtopham August 27, 2012 at 3:21 am

    Reblogged this on Tim Topham and commented:
    There’s always room for more thoughts about better memorization!

  10. 14 sallyinmi August 27, 2012 at 4:23 am

    I sing and also play trombone, and find that memorizing my vocal tunes is far easier than on the horn. Somehow I internalize the vocal lines a lot faster. I am almost 60, and did memorize marching music in high school, as well as a piece for solo and ensemble. My current students do not have to memorize for anything, and don’t, which leaves them at a disadvantage when they audition for a memorized college band like Michigan State. They do learn their major scales with me, and some minors, but how do I encourage more memorization? My kids get 1′s on their solos, but I have always thought that having to memorize means you have spent far more time with the music than these kids want to put in. I have very few who go on to major in music, but I think the skill is valuable mo matter how you use your music later in life. Maybe I will try to do more memorization myself, and then will feel more comfortable teaching it. Thanks for the impetus!

  11. 15 Sheet Music Plus August 27, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks everyone for the great comments! We’re glad that you enjoyed the article.. keep checking the blog, we’ll have more soon.

  12. 16 thegirlwhosingsrandomly September 5, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Reblogged this on The Girl Who Sings Randomly and commented:
    I am so thankful this post existed. I’m currently having trouble memorizing the pieces I’ve been tasked to memorize and I guess this will help me, big time! Eternally grateful to the writer of this article! ;)

  13. 17 Jones sabo quite a lot of several distinct rings c April 12, 2013 at 2:03 am

    Perhaps you can write next articles referring to this article. I want to read even more things about it! Great post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed! Very useful information specially the last part :)

  14. 18 suede5402 June 6, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Reblogged this on PianoTeacherNOLA and commented:
    Some additional tips on how to memorize music. I particularly like her advice in #3 and #4 – understanding and analyzing the music is particularly helpful in memorizing it.


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