How to Memorize Music: Memorization Made Easy

Memorizing Music

Student: Is memorization really an important skill for a musician to learn? 

Teacher: Absolutely!  

Student: But it’s so hard, I am never going to be able to do it.  

Patience grasshopper…Memorization is a struggle for many musicians.  For some, memorization comes naturally but for most, it is a skill that must be developed. 

A common myth among music students is that memorization is “hard,” but in reality, we memorize things every day. What is your phone number?  What is the PIN for you debit card? What is your email password? I bet you have all these things memorized.  

But those things are easy, I use them every day…How do I memorize music?

The first thing you need to do is accept that memorization is not hard but simply a skill that must be developed.

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Achieve a positive mindset – memorizing music is easy

I will often hear students say things like:

Memorization is hard.

I will never be able to do this.

I am going to walk out on stage and forget everything. 

The truth is, if you think something is hard, it will be!

A study performed at Stanford shows that the hippocampus, a brain area linked with memory and learning, is significantly more active in individuals with a positive attitude towards what they are working on.  If you have a positive attitude toward memorization, you will have more success at it. Don’t dwell on how difficult it will be to memorize the music but instead, think about how much you enjoy playing the music. 

Let’s look at four aspects of memorization

  1. Visual memory is the ability to remember what something looks like. When we begin to learn a piece of music, we begin the process of visual memorization. Using this aspect of memorization allows us to take a mental picture and visualize the actual music in our mind as we perform it.
  2. Auditory memory is the ability to remember what something sounds like. Listening to a recording will help trigger the auditory sense. As you are listening to the music, have a copy of it in front of you. Following along with the music as you listen will help to commit the music to both your visual and auditory memory.
  3. Motor or muscle memory is the memory you use to walk or ride a bike.  You don’t think about putting one foot in front of the other, your body just knows what to do.  Musicians can most often see muscle memory in their scales. Often when playing scales, we don’t think about what notes we are playing, we just play the finger pattern associated with the scale.  This is where repetition comes in, if you play anything enough times, your muscle memory will step in and take over.
  4. Analyzing memory is the ability of the brain to break the music down into different elements of music theory – scales, arpeggios, repetitive patterns, sequences, etc. Using your knowledge of basic music theory can help in the memorization process so as you are listening to the music and following along, look for familiar scales, arpeggios, or repeated patterns. Compartmentalizing music into sections of patterns will help the brain to memorize it more quickly.

Approach memorization mentally – Subconscious vs. conscious

The subconscious memory stores data that can be recalled at a later time. This portion of your mind does not think, but rather does things instantly, drawing on habit or your skills.

The subconscious mind is your autopilot, giving you the ability to complete a task without really thinking about it. When you are learning a piece of music, the subconscious is constantly recording your practice to be recalled at a later date. The subconscious takes over when the nerves kick in and can help you to continue playing even when your mind “goes blank.” 

The subconscious memory can be your friend but it can also hurt you. In addition to remembering the music, the subconscious remembers all the negative things you said to yourself during practice, making it even more important to maintain a positive mindset throughout.

The conscious memory specializes in calculating in order to achieve a specific outcome. When memorizing music, we use the conscious memory to focus on what we are doing “right now.” One of the easiest ways to tap into you conscious memory while learning music is to simply listen to the piece.  Have your music in front of you, don’t space out or drift off but focus on both looking at the music and listening to every detail. Sing along with the music using solfege or finger along on your instrument. This form of mindful practice will help you memorize music more quickly.

Forward memorization vs. Backwards memorization

People usually memorize music one of two ways.  They either start at the beginning and memorize the music moving forward or the start at the end and work backwards.  

When it comes to memorization, there is no right or wrong way, there is only what works for you so we will discuss both techniques.

Memorization from the beginning

Just as you would do when learning a new piece of music, play through it and break the music you are trying to memorize into smaller sections.  Can you identify the form? If so that will be an excellent place to start.  Sections should not be more than a few lines. 

Play through the first section slowly.  Focus on the notes and rhythms. How does the music sound?  Make sure you are playing all of the articulations and dynamics.  Repeat the section three times making sure to maintain your focus.  

Now turn the music over and try to play the section.  How much of it did you get correct? Turn the music back over and play it again focusing on the notes, rhythm, dynamics, etc. then try it again without looking (cheat if you need to).  Continue this process until you can play the entire section from memory and then move on to the next section. 

Working backwards

Just like when you are memorizing from the beginning, play through the piece and break it into sections.  This time, start with the last section.  

Play through the last section slowly.  Focus on the notes and rhythms. How does the music sound?  Make sure you are playing all of the articulations and dynamics.  Repeat the section three times making sure to maintain your focus.  

Just as you would practice forward, turn the music over and try to play the section.  How much of it did you get correct? Turn the music back over and play it again. Continue this process until you can play the entire section from memory and then move on to the next.

Why does practicing backward work?

When we start practicing a piece of music, we almost always start at the beginning.  Starting at the beginning every time makes the beginning of the piece very strong but as you play on, the music becomes less proficient. This creates an unbalanced performance.  

Starting at the end when memorizing a piece of music, allows you to first memorize the sections you have practiced the least. Often this method will help you to memorize music quickly.  Memorizing the last, least familiar phrase, is very efficient because in theory you will memorize the more familiar phrases quickly. 

Let’s say you have five phrases and assume you need to play the first phrase 5 times in order to memorize the music; following the forward practice model and moving one phrase at a time you have to play 95 phrases to memorize the music. You will also have practiced your strongest section 25 times and your weakest section only 10.  However, using the backward practice model, you will now have played your weakest phrase 25 times and your strongest phrase only 10 times. The music is now memorized in a more efficient manner and the result will be a stronger performance throughout. As a bonus, you may find that you memorize the first few phrases more quickly since you are more familiar with them. Practicing backward may even reduce the number of phrase repetitions you need to memorize the music.

Forward Practice Model

Memorizing Music

Backwards Practice Model

Memorizing Music Backwards

Tips for memorizing tricky passages

You have been practicing the same section over and over and you still just can’t remember that one part.  You are so frustrated you want to throw your instrument against the wall!

Have you been here before? Most musicians have, and continuing to practice while this frustrated will do more harm than good, so put your instrument down and give your chops a much needed break! You can still continue the memorization process without your instrument in hand.

Write it down

Grab a sheet of staff paper and start writing out the section that is giving you trouble. Studies show that writing something down makes us more likely to recall the information later. You write down important dates and projects that you need to remember so why not write out your music?

Use music theory

Do you remember earlier when we talked about analyzing the music? Understanding the basic harmonic structure of a piece of music will serve as a road map for memorization. Can you identify any scales in the music? Are they major or minor?  What about arpeggios? Look for patterns in the music such as downward patterns and sequences.

Sing it

Use solfege syllables to sing the music.  Don’t just use La, La, La, but use the actual solfege syllables of Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Ti to sing through the music.  Focusing on the individual notes instead of just the melody will help commit the music to memory.

Practice it slowly

Playing the music deliberately and under tempo, reinforces the music in your subconscious, conscious, and muscle memories.  Slowing down allows your brain to process the data and store it for later recall.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Repetition stores information in the subconscious memory.  If you repeat a task over and over, you will eventually be able to perform that task without even thinking about it.  When memorizing music, use the rule of three (there is a reason we repeat the word three times). If you can play it three times in a row with no mistakes, you probably have it.

Tips for memorizing music quickly

Maybe you procrastinated or maybe you were just told you need something memorized.  Either way, you are in a time crunch and need to memorize a piece of music in just a few days.  You may not have it as solidly committed to memory but keeping a few things in mind, you can “cram” the music just as you would “cram” for an exam.  I don’t recommend this technique in general because it makes for a very stressful and anxiety filled performance but it can be helpful in a pinch.

Play through the music every single day. 

When you are in a time crunch, there are no days off.  Practicing the music daily will help quickly sink it into your short-term memory.

Listen to recordings of it

When you aren’t practicing, make sure you are listening to the music.  In your car, in the shower, while you are walking to work or to class. Listen as much as you can.

Visualize the music 

See if you can sing it to yourself outside the practice room.  Can you visualize and sing through the entire piece? If not, you have more practicing to do.

Practice, practice, practice

When practice time is short and you have to learn anything fast, break it into smaller pieces.  After all, How do you eat an elephant?…One bite at a time. Try to get in three mini practice sessions each day.  A morning session, an afternoon session, and an evening session. Giving your brain a short break between sessions will allow you to have better focus in your practice.  Three one hour sessions will help you improve better than one three hour session because your brain will be less fatigued. 

Final takeaways

Memorization doesn’t have to be hard. If you walk into the practice room with a positive mindset, memorizing music can even be fun. Everyone memorizes music at different speeds so don’t compare yourself to others and don’t rush the process. Have a plan, use a systematic approach, be sure to track your progress, and the final outcome will be rewarding!