Tips To Memorize Piano Music

A good memory is a necessity for piano players. Reading and sight-reading are very important as well, but memory also plays a big part in developing these skills. Also, you don’t want to rely on just one technique or gimmick to perform, you want to make sure to have many possibilities at your fingertips. 

In fact, poor memory is a major cause of stress for musicians, and it can make or break an otherwise excellent performance.

Reading

If you want to read music, you first need to memorize the notes on the staff. That is obvious but shouldn’t be overlooked. You also memorize note values so you know how to perform rhythm in time. By practicing scales and rhythmic possibilities, you are building a library of patterns and possibilities in your mind.

When you sight-read at a high level, you are doing what is called “reading ahead”, meaning you read a phrase, and while playing it, you are already reading one phrase ahead. It’s mandatory to do it like this so you can play on time, and not get surprised by challenging passages. So basically you are memorizing small fragments and discarding them fairly quickly. If your mental library of patterns is well equipped, and if you take a couple of minutes scanning the whole score for potentially difficult parts before playing, you will execute the piece flawlessly. Both of these things require a good memory.

Start Small

To train your memory you should start with as little as possible. Even one note, or one measure. 

  1. Look at the score
  2. Read one note
  3. Cover the score
  4. Play the note from memory
  5. Uncover the score to see how you did

Simple as that. You just keep adding notes and repeat the previous steps with two notes, then a whole measure, two measures, one line, two lines, etc. You can get up to a whole section, and even the whole piece (but if that’s too much don’t worry, be consistent and you will build up your mental muscle)

Sound

Another important thing. It’s not about the notes on the paper. What matters is how they sound. So also try to memorize how the piece sounds, not just the notes. 

Singing is the best way to do this. Play the bit that you want to memorize, and then sing it back to yourself. Do it out loud to check if it’s correct. 

An added benefit of this is that it helps you develop both your ear and your sight-singing. That’s 3 for the price of 1!

Some tips

These are some techniques to experiment with. They have been beneficial to many individuals and they can save you if you apply them diligently.

  • Backwards memorization – Try to memorize the piece from the last measure. Go measure by measure, adding them at the start.

    This way of doing it ensures you give equal time to every measure and makes you more confident approaching the end of the piece. Normal memorization tends to give more importance to the first measures and by the time you get to the finish line, you may forget how it ends. So if your score has 4 measures: 

    1. memorize and play measure 4
    2. memorize measure 3, play measures 3 & 4
    3. memorize measure 2, play measures 2, 3 & 4
    4. memorize measure 1, play measures 1, 2, 3 & 4
  • Random start – test yourself starting at random parts of the piece. Like the last tip, this ensures you don’t rely on the first notes to remember the whole piece, and makes it harder to get lost.
  • Spaced repetition: There have been books written about this technique, so I’ll try to be brief. You memorize by “almost” forgetting. You need to try and recall something from memory just before forgetting it, and the memory of it will be strengthened. Applied to music: keep a list of pieces that you need to memorize, and always work on the weakest one Over time try to recall each piece so they stay on your memory. With well-known pieces, once every couple of months (or more) can be enough.

Remember that nobody cares about notes written on a paper, or how you think about them inside your head. They just care about the sound, the music.

Use these techniques to strengthen your memory, and remember that if you get lost, you just need to carry on. Probably no one will notice it, and after your performance, you will know what to work on.

Good luck, and remember to book some lessons with one of our expert teachers to get your playing to the next level!

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