How to Memorize Music: Memory Tips and Two Strategies

The Two-Chair Technique

Equipment required:

  • Memorizing musicYour instrument and normal practice equipment (Regardless of whether you sit or stand to practice, we’ll call this Chair 1.)
  • One extra music stand and one extra chair (We’ll call this Chair 2.)

Method:

  1. Arrange the extra stand and chair (Chair 2) so that the music on the stand is not visible when you are in your normal playing location (Chair 1).
  2. Place the music to be memorized on the extra stand at Chair 2 and leave your instrument at Chair 1.
  3. Sit in Chair 2, and try to memorize the pitches, rhythms, dynamics, articulations, and tempo markings in a short segment of the music. Be able to access it intellectually (recall the notes), aurally (imagine the sounds), and kinesthetically (imagine yourself playing it).
  4. Move to Chair 1, and, without peeking, recall the music and try to play it slowly. Even if you forget part of the passage, try to reconstruct it or fake it until you get to a part that you remember.
  5. If you faltered on any part, go back to Chair 2 and study the music again before returning to Chair 1.

Notes:

  • Memorization trick with two music standsThe purpose of the two chairs is to enforce the principle of never playing the music with the score visible. You should not be using this time to practice your sight reading, but instead to learn the music in such a way that you will never need it in front of you as a crutch.
  • Try to make a game out of this technique, where your goal is never to have to go back to Chair 2 once you’ve moved to Chair 1. This will help you figure out how to internalize the music more deeply.
  • If you are a singer, it is still worthwhile to have the two chairs, so that you can enforce the “no peeking” rule. When you are in Chair 1, you may sing, but in Chair 2, try not to vocalize. Imagine yourself singing the music instead. As a singer, you have the added responsibility of memorizing the meaning and pronunciation of the text as well.

Staff-Paper Flashcards

Equipment Required:

  • Staff Paper (I recommend a landscape page for cutting into quarters in step 1)
  • Pencil
  • Scissors or paper trimmer
  • Music to be learned
  • Your instrument

Method:

  1. Cut staff paper in quarters. (All should be the same size.)
  2. Write the name of each passage to be memorized on one side.
    • If your staff paper is lined on one side, write this on the blank side.
  3. Write as many notes as you can before your memory fades

    Write as much as you can before your memory fades

    Copy the music to be learned on the other side.
    • Take your time and write legibly, longhand, with no simile marks .
    • Make a game out of trying to write as many notes as possible from memory without looking back at the original copy.
  4. When your flashcard is complete, try to play the excerpt slowly from memory with the passage-name side up.
    • Never play with the music-notation side visible.
  5. Once you have copied all passages to be memorized onto flashcards, shuffle the deck and use the cards to quiz yourself on playing the passages from memory.
    • Never play with the music-notation side visible.

Notes:

  • I could design a smartphone app to generate these flashcards, but the process of copying the music out is so enormously helpful to the memorization process that it is absolutely worth doing this work.
  • Make sure to copy everything in the passage, including tempo markings, dynamics, articulations, text to be sung, piano pedal markings, and your own pencil markings.)
  • Make your label for the passage both descriptive and colorful so that you will more easily remember the music on the other side of the card. “Melody in m. 4” is not a good passage name, but “E major arpeggios leading up to the climax” and “The ‘circus’ theme where it appears in the development with intervallic alterations” are better.

Try it

Give these techniques a try on your next piece to memorize. I’d love to hear your reactions, successes, difficulties, and revelations, but only once you have given it a try. Send me your comments using the contact form on the right.

4 Responses to How to Memorize Music: Memory Tips and Two Strategies

  1. Sheri says:

    I found your tips useful and will incorporate them into my routine. I have a friend who is hopelessly in the muscle memory routine and I can’t convince him to get beyond that so I hope to suggest your website to give him a better solution to his memory lapses.
    Thank you, sheri

  2. Pingback: More Memorization Tips | How to Play Music | Music Practice Tips | Molto Music

  3. Pingback: Memorizing music | Key to study

  4. Alyssa Reit says:

    Bravo! I have come to similar conclusions in my performing and teaching experience.
    I would add one piece of information: everything (music included) is laid down in memory much more deeply and thoroughly if it is linked to emotion. This means that as much as intellectual study is essential to secure memorization (and I include every aspect of knowing a piece of music), I find that connecting and creating the emotional territory is highly useful. By emotional territory, I include shades of color, and indefinable emotional whims.

    The role of emotion in this process has another side. I have found that if I practice a piece and find myself becoming emotionally distracted (say for some reason, remembering an unpleasant event) strangely, that same memory–and the same thoughts– will often surface at the same point in the music! This means that when we practice, we may be laying down into memory everything that is going on within. So it is very necessary to take great care to notice our emotional state as we work, and to cultivate an “inner climate” that corresponds to the music. Much more can be said here–this is a note to suggest a line of inquiry and discovery.

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