Two Unusually Powerful Ways to Strengthen Music Memory

Two Unusually Powerful Ways to Strengthen Music Memory

It’s probably happened to all of us–

you’re performing and your mind goes blank, your memory slips.


Mostly we’re about dealing with slips, but I’ve got ways to prevent slips in the first place.

I’ll share two unusually powerful ways to prevent memory slips, but I’ll stress one fact:

You can apply tactic after tactic (and they’ll work), but you’ll just repeat the same mistakes again and again if you don’t understand the theory or system behind the tactics.

The following steps will help you almost guarantee that a piece is securely memorized, once you’ve gotten the notes and musical ideas in your head.

(Or waste hours playing the same passages over and over againplease do yourself a favour and save your body some time + frustration!)

And it works with pieces of any level.

(I used a photo of a track because we think of music as a journey, but really, you can run around the track in circles forever because there isn’t a set finish line.)

Step 1: Play on a Closed Keyboard

Sit at your piano and run through your program a couple times with the keyboard cover closed. It might take a few tries before you can play from memory without the keys, but it’s worth it.

Why this works:

You’re probably thinking, “But Grace, this sounds ridiculous. How is this going to help me?”

It strengthens your muscle memory. When you take the keys away, you’re effectively forcing yourself to rely on nothing but muscle memory to play the piece.

You’re also imagining the sounds as you play, so that it comes out exactly the way you want it on the piano.

And being at the piano means that this is what your performance will be, with the notes and real sounds, as you’re recreating the situation.

Of course, when a keyboard isn’t available, playing on any flat surface will suffice, although it’s best to be at a piano.

Step 2: Rewrite the Music (almost) from Memory

a) Write out the music onto manuscript paper and see how far you get before you need to peek at the score. (Most people don’t get very far at all.) Finish rewriting the entire piece, peeking at the score if you need to.

The key is to hear the sounds in your head as you write.

Advanced pianists: Your pieces might be longer and more complicated, but if you can spare 5 minutes out of your playing time to write, then the results will impress you. In fact, the more complicated the piece, the more effectively this will work.

b) Pattern interrupt: Take 5 minutes away from everything; your paper, music, piano, anything with a screen.

We spend lots of time consuming information, and it exhausts us. When we break this pattern, we can generate good ideas and find new perspectives. This will improve your memory.

c) Next, rewrite the music from memory again, but consciously try not to look at the score. Keep the sound in your head or sing if you need to, as long as you can ‘hear’ the music.

Why this works:

Because you hear the sounds in your head when you write, your mind will ‘follow’ the score when you play, to produce those same sounds.

As we memorize a piece, we become detached from the visual notes; this exercise reconnects us with the notes so that you canalmost follow the score in your head as you play. And when you do feel uncertain, the score’s stored in your head.

This type of memory works a little differently for everyone; some people can actually follow the score as they play, but others connect the notes they play with the image of the score as the music unfolds, so that they’re never uncertain of what’s coming next.

And when you’re concentrated on this moment, there’s no time for self-deprecating thoughts, and even less chance of a slip-up.

Think of this as adding an extra layer of icing to the cake; you, as a pianist, have so many flavours to process at the piano, that your mind has no capacity to process anything else.

This means that you direct your full attention to your playing, earning that extra mile.

Now I’d love to know: how do you memorize music? Leave a comment below to join the conversation.

If you like this post, do share it with a friend. : )

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  • Suzy August 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Great post – I especially like idea #2. I never thought about actually rewriting the music out on paper!
    Relying on your other senses can help a lot. We recently touched on this on our blog as well – check it out here:

  • Nicole August 28, 2012 at 10:32 am

    These are absolutely genius ideas! I tried this system yesterday with Pathetique and Liszt’s Un Sospiro, and I can’t believe that I gained so much confidence and saved so much prep time by not playing a single note.

    Personally, memorizing means that music gradually gets imprinted into my memory once I start learning a piece. When I’m fully familiar with the piece, a part of it is already memorized, so I spend time working on the sections that aren’t already memorized. Of course, this is can become tedious– by the time I perform, I’ve already drilled the music into myself, fulfilling the traditional musician stereotype.

    I had a past teacher who liked to tell students to memorize the bare notes of any given piece first, then adding in the intricate musicalities into memory later. This might work for some, but I find it hard (and weary) to change my playing once I’ve taken a liking to one interpretation.

    I’ll be following this system from now on, and I’ll happily pass this onto my students. Thanks for sharing these valuable tips– your writing here is worth much more than lots of the paid content around the internet.

    • Grace August 28, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, Nicole! Solid memorizing doesn’t have to be that painful and you’ve just proven it again. :)

  • Destiny Muhammad March 20, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    wow. thank you:)

  • Catherine Petrimoulx October 31, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Truly very clever suggestions. I xm hardly wait to try them.