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:
#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.