How to Memorize Music

April 18, 2016

Over the years, I have refined my approach to learning new pieces more efficiently.  Below I share some tips.

 

RULES FOR LEARNING NEW PIECE

  • start memorizing a new piece at the beginning of your learning process     

  • do not stick your eyes on the score!   instead, spend more time watching your hand, finger, and feel your body movements.

  • break it down: memorize only RH, LH separate, or even just 1 voice at a time.  

  • read a small phrase from the score without playing it, read it till it is committed it to memory.  Now try playing it without looking at the score.  Repeat this small phrase a few times.  Then move on

  • start not necessarily from the beginning of the piece, but with the most difficult passage first

  • learn similar sections together - e.g. learn exposition and recap side by side, and note any subtle differences

  • As soon as you feel your brain is tired from memorizing new music, STOP!  take a 10 min break.  do some stretches.   Or even just call it a day and rest!

 

HELPFUL REFERENCES

How to Eliminate Memory Slips

How to Memorize Music 5 Times Faster



POWER OF VISUALIZATION

  • Perform mental practise away from the piano:

    • read the score while imagine the sound

    • read the score while mimick the physical motions of playing the piano

    • close your eyes and mimick playing the piano


Check out this interesting study on the power of mental practise
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/achieve-successful-results-through-visualization-fred-nsubuga

 

TRIAL RUNS

It is critical for me to trial run a newly learnt piece at different pianos, in different environment.  Originally I thought this is to simply build confidence, until I found an article that explains  something called 'context-dependent memory'.  In short, what you learnt is recalled best in the same physical environmental context where you learnt it.  Read this article for more details.


ANALYTICAL MEMORY

  • Never try to memorize note by note!  Break down each phrase / section to find out how a composer came up with every single note in that passage will magically make it easy to memorize.    See example:

 

The Left Hand looks so daunting to memorize!

 

 

 

 

Let's just look at the Left Hand notes

 

 

Look at groups of four

 

 

 

Now let’s remove every second note of each group of four

 

 

One can now easily see that this passage is just B minor scale.  The note removed was just a chromatic auxiliary note!

 

To help with developing analytical memory, below are books that I find helpful. I didn't read all of them in great details. My goal was to get a general understanding of concepts in composition, analysis, and harmony, and be able to come up with some form of analysis that serve as aid in analyzing and memorizing music.


Top 3 recommendations 
   Salzer, Felix - Structural hearing : tonal coherence in music
   Hindemith - The Craft of Musical Composition
   Schoenberg - Theory of Harmony

Other helpful books 
Analysis
   Rosen, Charles - Sonata Forms
   Rosen, Charles - Beethovens Piano Sonata
   Bernstein, Leonard - The Answered Question (Lecture Series)
   Harris, Robert - What to listen for in Mozart

Harmony
   Gauldin, Robert - Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music
   Piston, Walter - Harmony
   Persichetti, Vincent - Twentieth-Century Harmony

Composition
   Brindle, Reginald Smith - Musical Composition
   Dallin, Leon - Techniques of twentieth century composition; a guide to the materials of modern music
   Delone, Richard - Aspects of twentieth-century music

 


OTHER MEMORY AIDS

Aural Memory:

  • Listen to a recording while reading the score

  • Imagine the sound vividly in your mind (but no actual sound heard)


Physical Memory:

  • play the piece on your lap or table. 

  • Mentally visualize and feel the motions of your entire body with closed eyes while simulating physical movements of playing the piano without actually touching a piano.  


Vocal Memory:

  • singing any melodic part - not just main melodic line, but also bass or middle voices in a chordal passage - do this for each voice separately

  • For complex rhythmic passages, make sound such as "dah dah dah" to rehearse the rhythm.  At the same time tap your feet.

 

 

STRESS TEST YOUR MEMORY

After committing a piece into memory, try these from memory:

  • play a bar, or opening of a bar, then skip a bar or two

  • play a bar, then play the previous bar, or skip a few bars backward

  • pair up like passages from different spots within the piece - jump around back and forth - do this from memory (but make sure you know where you are at within the piece)

  • play left hand notes using your right hand, and vice versa


I will do these hands separately, or hands together.  This technique allows me to have many starting points in a piece, such that if I lose concentration accidentally during a performance, I can re-start without pause .

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