Tips on How to Memorize Music
Robert T. Kelley
May 2001

Note: This cannot serve to replace private instruction in music. It is intended to function as a resource for students who are looking for help on how to learn and practice music.

I. Three possible approaches:

  1. Memorize the difficult passages first and practice them as technical exercises every day. Then memorize everything else using one of the other strategies below.
  2. Memorize from back to front. That way the end of the piece is memorized better than the beginning (lots of repetitions of the end). When you perform the piece, your memory will just get stronger as you go.
  3. Memorize from the beginning to the end. Don't confuse your brain by learning the piece out of order.

II. Basic technique:

  1. Analyze, work out fingerings and interpretations
  2. Take a small chunk of music and try to play it without the score
  3. Work it up to tempo (or near tempo) with a metronome (without the score)
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 on another chunk
  5. Practice other things and come back to test your memory once or twice
  6. The next day, test your memory on this section before learning more.

III. Strategies and Tips:

Analyze the piece before you start memorizing. Some people find that memorizing is impossible without harmonic analysis, but in most cases it's just a helpful extra memory tool. Whether or not you memorize the harmonic analysis itself, you should be able to figure out the name of the next chord from memory when asked.

Never memorize with the score open where you can peek. Look at the score and then set it aside and play from memory. If you get stuck, stop and look at the score again and then set it aside again to play from memory. When you've gotten it right, work on bringing it up to tempo (or close to tempo) with a metronome. Then select another section and memorize it.

Sometimes I even play the game of sitting away from the piano and memorizing by studying the score and mentally rehearsing. Then I test my memory work later at the piano. Memorizing this way can teach you a lot about the process and technique of memorizing music, but I don't necessarily recommend doing this with every piece.

Don't expect to be able to memorize a whole piece or even a large section of a piece in one practice session. Good memory work is done in small chunks. Memorize for about 15 minutes on that piece, and then practice something else. Maybe come back to the section once or twice to test your memory, but don't learn any more until the next day. The next day, only learn more if you are sure the previous section is solidly memorized.

Mark each of the sections in the score as you memorize them so that you can have starting places you can rely on if you have a memory mistake when playing in public.

Always work out the fingering and interpretation before you memorize. However, you may have to memorize the passage to test a fingering out. It's okay if you change the fingering or interpretation later, but make sure you have only one that you consistently use when memorizing.

Always memorize first! It is the quickest way to learn a piece. If you have the score in front of you through the entire process of learning a piece of music, then you have to relearn the whole piece during the memorization process. If you memorize it first, then you can focus all of your energy on the musical interpretation for the rest of the learning process.

Never back up when you have a memory mistake. Always try to keep going or jump forward. Make sure that you then review what went wrong and try to fix the problem. If you are unable to keep going when you have a memory mistake, then you need to go back and practice stopping and starting a piece from memory. Be able to stop anywhere, play another piece for a while, and then start back up again right where you left off. Also have many places marked in the score that you know you can start from when you need to jump forward.

Memorizing music is hard work, especially when you feel like it's unnecessary since you have the score to play from. But when you really know a piece inside and out, only then is it possible to really focus on the musical subtleties that make learning a piece worthwhile. To do any piece justice, you must truly own it, know it, understand it, feel the emotional content, and get glimpses of what the composer was thinking when he or she wrote it. How can you say you really understand a piece of music if you don't even know what notes are in it?

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