As a classical musician understanding how to memorize classical music is an important part of the development of an artist. Memory is part of the entire performance process. Not only is it impressive to audiences to hear someone recite such amazing music without any sheet music in front of them, but it’s helpful to the performer as well.
Memorizing music allows for freedom of expression and it’s the standard in the classical community. Understanding how to memorize classical music is something many have struggled with, so I decided to put together a helpful list of tips I’ve gathered over the years in my performances. Read on to see what strategies I use in my practice and how you can incorporate them into your practice as well!
1. Learn Music In Small Fragments
If there’s one mistake I see most music students making, it’s that they try to learn too much music in their practice sessions. However, the best way to learn a new piece of music and memorize it is to work through the music in small fragments. By learning music this way, classical musicians are able to work not only on correct notes but also correct rhythms, technical approach, sound projection, and balance.
Instead of learning all the notes on the first page at once, consider learning 2-4 measures at a time. By doing this you allow your brain to digest the music in smaller fragments and build somewhat of a bridge. The more measures you add over time, the longer that bridge becomes. By doing this, musicians have the ability to recall small melodic fragments, not just the entire section.
In classical music, accuracy is essential, so it’s important to know each note in detail and rehearse it well so that it sticks. Our brains can only handle so much information at once, so memory should be done in small, progressive increments.
This is an especially helpful method if you play an instrument that requires coordination between both hands. The piano is a great example of this. By breaking down the music into smaller fragments you could learn each hand separately and then quickly get them playing together.
One thing to keep in mind when learning music in smaller segments is to work on bridging the gaps between the measures. By doing this, musicians can eliminate pauses that might happen and memorize how each measure transitions into the other.
Smaller fragments of music can be further expanded into musical form as well. Those 2-4 measures can eventually turn into an entire exposition, transition, development, or transitional section. As your memory improves on the piece you can consider those larger sections smaller fragments of the overall piece of music.
2. Practice Without Your Instrument
Whether you’re a pianist, guitarist, violinist or another instrumentalist, it’s sometimes helpful to practice without your instrument.
This might seem silly, but when you think about it, a lot of music preparation is mental and not physical. Simply sitting at the piano or strumming your guitar is not going to make the memory magically come. That might be helpful for muscle memory (which we’ll discuss later), but sometimes putting down the instrument is more helpful.
Practicing away from the instrument can include the following strategies:
Practice Playing In Front Of A Mirror
Mimicking the motions you use when you play your instrument helps in a few ways. Utilizing a mirror while practicing allows musicians to self assess a variety of issues. Musicians can use a mirror to monitor the following:
- Work on body posture
- Refine movements associated with playing an instrument
- Spotting problems in playing technique
- Developing a feel for what body movements contribute to memory and flow
- Getting the perspective of an audience member or an instructor
Practicing in front of a mirror can allow you to see deficiencies in your playing technique and it’s also a way to check your posture. One thing you can easily find out when it comes to memorizing music is what body movements you tend to make as you play. Certain body movements aid in memory.
This can include swaying back and forth, or even sitting positively still as you perform the music. Perhaps it’s something as simple as blinking multiple times whenever difficult passagework comes up. Likewise, you can also figure out what movements are causing memory slips and ways to avoid them.
The most helpful part about it is the last benefit on the list. If you take music lessons you may not always understand what your instructor is trying to convey to you about how you play. In addition, you’re able to see what an audience member might see when you’re performing music.
Practicing in front of a mirror can help you see what they see and presents an opportunity to correct it. A combination of working on all of these areas can help greatly in musical memory since all of those moving parts contribute to performing a piece of classical music successfully.
Reading Through The Musical Score
Reading through the score is a form of visual learning. Musicians can train their eyes to follow the melodic passages or certain harmonies that intrigue them. This is also an opportunity to uncover mistakes that may have slipped into your practice over time and to double-check notes.
As you read through the musical score, take a pencil or highlighter and mark interesting finds.
Listening to recordings of the music
Whenever I learn a new piece of music at the piano or any other instrument, I find a quality recording to listen to. Take a few moments each day and find new recordings of the music you’re working on. By listening to recordings, you can start to master the overall form of the music.
Upon returning to practice at the instrument you’ll find that your ear recognizes the harmonies much more quickly. Listening to recordings can help musicians identify wrong notes in their playing, decide on a reasonable tempo, identify certain transitions and other specific details.
Using Flashcards With Notes/Measures Written On Them
Just as much as visualizing music and imagery when you play helps with memory, so does actually writing it down and studying it. Many music students in the classical community use flashcards as a way to drill memory. There’s a couple of ways to do this that can make the experience fun, especially for younger students.
Musicians can use big flashcards and write out a measure or two from something they are currently working on. That includes all of the notes, dynamics, finger numbers and articulations as it appears in the score.
On the backside of the flashcard is where the answers would be. You can challenge yourself to recognize which measure the passage came from and even more. The flashcards can also be arranged in random order with the goal of sorting measures out by order of appearance in the score. The possibilities are endless and this is extremely helpful with memory.
Researching the music
When’s the last time you looked at a piece of music and wondered “why was this written”?. A great way to practice your music is to get a better understanding of it. That’s why I highly suggest researching everything you play. Find out when it was written, who it was written for, and even what state of mind the composer was in at the time.
Those details can help with memorizing a piece, especially when it comes to scenery and specific events. Perhaps a sonata was written during a cold blistering winter in the 1800s. In that case, you can start associating that vivid imagery with sixteenth-note passages which can help you remember when they occur in the score. The possibilities are endless.
3. Analyze The Score Using Music Theory
Whether your favorite composer is Beethoven, Bach, Schumann, or a little bit of Cage, music theory is a part of everything composed in classical music. Reading through and memorizing a musical score is one thing, but applying theory to it is another. By music theory, I mean understanding the different compositional techniques the composer adds to the music. This can include
- Unique harmonies
- Changes in notation and texture
- Connecting the various movements together
- Understanding the melodic content
- Following the progression of tones
- Breaking down the musical form
Even for younger musicians, a basic understanding of theory can go a long way with memory. If you’re able to identify basic chord structure that can help greatly. It’s also helpful to identify where the same thematic material or changes in that material occur in various parts of the music.
Musical texture is important too, especially when it comes to notation. Musicians should be able to identify where certain aspects of the melody return in a modified form within the musical score. Understanding how harmonies work with one another is helpful with memory too.
If a piece follows the basic principles of chord progression that’s even better for memory. Musicians benefit from knowing where the tonic and dominant harmonies are. As you write through the music, try locating where certain cadences are and identify their quality as well. Knowing the harmonies can help you identify wrong notes too.
Imagine a scenario where you’re playing a melody line and the piece was in D major. In that case, you would expect your selection of notes to be D, F-sharp, and A. As you play the music you add a G into the chord. At this point, you’re not even making a seventh chord, but rather something that is far from what’s written in the score.
Now the chord has become grossly incorrect, but it can easily be avoided if you understood what type of chord came when. Understanding the theory and memorizing what chord happens where can help you avoid that memory slip and choose the right note when you’re under pressure.
That’s just one example of where theory can help eliminate mistakes. It’s much more than just knowing what the chords are, you need to have an understanding of how the harmonies function together. Take a musical cadence for example at the end of a piece. Normally that cadence ends with some form of a dominant chord followed by the tonic. If you didn’t have that understanding though, you might end the piece in the wrong key by mistake.
Simply running the overall chord structure and musical form through your mind a few times before you play will help solidify your overall memory. Music theory offers a roadmap to the entire piece, how it’s built and what the composer is aiming to do with the music.
4. Work On Developing Muscle Memory
The more repetitions a task receives, the more muscle memory will develop. No matter what instrument you play, muscle memory is an essential part of playing music. Without some degree of muscle memory, it would be difficult to recite any music.
Too much of the focus would be on reading the notes and then trying to communicate to your hands what to do. However, if you’ve played something enough times, your fingers, mouth, and other motions associated with playing your instrument will become automatic.
All of the key motor skills will work in harmony with one another and you can shift your focus to other things such as playing more musically, experimenting with dynamics and more. With muscle memory, specific nerves associated with that muscle are trained.
Muscle memory involves putting motor skills into a compact form through repetition. When done right, muscle memory can work hand in hand with developing other skills. Pianists rely heavily on muscle memory, especially when it comes to complex hand positions and finger combinations. What’s great about muscle memory is that it has longterm effects.
Pianists, for example, have the ability to recall passages of music they have not played in years because it’s been trained so well into their hands. Vocalists can retain pitch and other instruments can run through hard passages without really even focusing.
Muscle memory is process-oriented. This means we have the ability to recall things and simply do it without much thought. It begins as a conscious thought in the learning phase, but over time becomes an unconscious movement. In the first phase of developing memory, musicians must be detailed.
This is the stage where all of the rhythms, air support, fingering, or whatever else is required are identified and sorted. The work should be methodical because as those habits become ingrained in your mind through repetition, it’s entirely possible to work mistakes into your performance.
In something complex like classical music, it’s extremely important to get those details right the first time or you may end up memorizing the piece incorrectly.
In order for something to stick well in the brain, it requires a certain number of repetitions. For muscle memory anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand is necessary. If something is learned incorrectly, then it takes thousands of repetitions to correct those mistakes.
Muscle memory can be further advanced by using the following techniques:
- Shortening practice sessions
- Learning music slowly
- Breaking up the music into smaller fragments
5. Sing As Your Play
Every piece of classical music has a melody or set of harmonies that connect to the ear. This is why I highly suggest singing through the music as you play. If you play a wind instrument this is tough to do, but you can learn the other parts of the band or orchestra and sing that during any rests.
Singing the music helps identify if a note is played incorrectly. It also helps with overall timing, making sure that any rest or counting is spot on. Start with small fragments and gradually put together an entire section of the music when you do this.
Singing as you play can help in the following ways:
- Help with improvisation
- Improve tone recognition
- Develop better phrasing
- Improve musical memory of melodies, chords, and motives
- Develop the ear
6. Create Checkpoints In The Music
I like to look at a brand new piece of music as a map. From start to finish, the musician is on a journey. Naturally, as you work your way through a piece of classical music, you’ll hit certain highs and lows. Whenever you find something of interest, then you should mark it.
This creates a checkpoint in the music. Having a point of reference is good because you can easily return to those sections of the music in practice instead of constantly starting from the beginning.
Below are great areas to create checkpoints in your music:
- The beginning and end of large musical sections
- When accidentals or key signatures occur in the music
- On specific chord qualities (a Neapolitan is a good example in Beethoven’s music)
- Areas where the overall texture or motives change
- Tempo changes and other markings
- Areas where clef changes occur
- Spots where memory is consistently weak
- Scale passages
So how can we use these checkpoints to memorize our music? One way is to start your practice by going directly to these sections and then working on the muscle memory and visual memory associated with them. You can even write some of your checkpoint sections into flashcards for further development.
As you play through music or even listen to recordings, it can be helpful to loudly call out what is coming up next int he music. For example “measure 32 the piece moves to C major”.
The other thing checkpoints can do is help you find spots that are weak and where most of your practice time needs to be focused on. Sometimes memory is not an issue of the overall piece of music, but rather getting into and out of certain measures.
Transition sections, changes in the key signature, and unique chord qualities are particularly tricky in classical music. Those tend to be the areas where most memory slips can occur.
7. Eliminate All Distractions While Practicing
In the age of smartphones, television and constant access to information, it’s easy to get distracted when the focus is needed most. This is especially problematic when practicing music. Distractions can affect musicians in the following ways:
- Can cause musicians to play wrong notes
- Reduce the effectiveness of memory
- Affect tone production
- Disrupt the flow fo the overall practice session
Distractions can be categorized in a number of ways. It’s not just electronics, but also other humans and daily activities. Here are a few distractions musicians might end up dealing with during their practice
- Using electronics (phones, watches, computers)
- Getting notifications on smart devices
- Cooking a meal that interrupts the practice
- Watching TV as you practice
- Having a face to face conversation with another person
- Forgetting to eat a meal and having hunger distractions
Outside of the physical distractions, there are mental ones as well. These are the thoughts in our head, mostly negative but sometimes positive that relate to the music. Sometimes these thoughts have absolutely nothing to do with the music, but they still have an effect.
Distracting thoughts can be caused by whatever events occurred during the day, that week, or at that very moment. Sometimes these thoughts can occur because of something that went wrong in the practice. Equally so these thoughts can enter your mind when something great happens in the music too.
This is why it’s never a good idea to try to practice let alone attempt to memorize a piece of music if your mind is not focused. It’s a good idea to plan your practice sessions out when you’re mind is at ease. Think about moments in the day where there is less stress, fewer tasks to take care of, and when you know you won’t be bothered by friends and family. It’s in those moments that you should center your attention on the music.
8. Use Technical Exercises With Specific Musical Concepts
Much of the classical music that we play is centered around these basic concepts:
- Chords with basic harmonic functions
- Repetitive rhythmic motives
Because of this, if you can nail down the concepts in your practice sessions, then classical pieces as a whole will be much easier to play. With less focus on how to execute the music technically, the brain can focus more on the memory and musical aspects of things.
Take a piano Clementi Sonatina for example. It’s completely filled with C major scales from start to finish. In this case, it would make sense for the pianist to practice scales in C major as part of their daily warmup. By doing this, they’ll not only develop an ear for the right tones in the C major scale, but also build muscle memory in the finger patterns for that scale.
Combining this with listening to recordings and studying the music in fragments, musicians can rip off sections of music without much thought. This is because the process has been ingrained into their daily tasks whether they study that piece of music that particular day or not.
For most musical instruments, there are technique books specifically geared to these things. In a good technique book you’ll find the following:
- Scales exercises
- Breathing exercises
- Sightreading activities
- Etudes and short pieces
- Advanced technical fingering
To make a technique book truly effective, musicians should make sure to work on exercises that align with their current repertoire. There’s no sense in playing falling thirds sequences if the piece at the moment has none of them and visa versa. It is also not a great idea to play technical exercises just for the sake of it.
Technical exercises should be worked on just as diligently as the repertoire. They should be learned at a proper speed so the musician can develop the right muscle movements and timing needed to play it fluently when it arrives in their current repertoire.
9. Don’t Just Play The Music Over And Over
One common mistake musicians make is to play the same passages of music too many times. Playing the music over and over again alone won’t fix the mistakes. It takes a deeper understanding of the musical form of the piece, the harmonic functions, and breaking the piece into fragments.
If you were to work on a Beethoven sonata and stop and start over every time you made a mistake, then the area where the mistakes are occurring wouldn’t necessarily be fixed. Instead, the focus should be on isolating the areas where the memory slips are happening, refining those, and then putting them into a larger context.
Repetition is important, but only when it’s done in a systematic way. I recommend putting certain limits or thresholds onto your repetition practice so that you can process the information better. M
ost studies show that it takes around 30 repetitions to remember something well. Over practicing and by going beyond a reasonable number of repetitions is only going to tire you out and make the practice session way less effective.
In general, musicians should space their repetitious practice out over a long length of time. The repetition that is spaced out leads to better results.
For long term retention of music, active repetition works best. This means not only memorizing what you are repeating but putting it into context. Musicians should be able to visually and aurally recall what is happening in the music. They should know what kind of music theory is occurring in that spot of the music, and the techniques required to play the area effectively.
There needs to be an understanding of what harmonies and notes came before that passage, and what follows immediately after it. Even with effective memorization techniques, temporary regression can occur.
This can lead to the slip of a note or even sometimes blanking out on what comes next in the music. That’s entirely normal and is not an indicator that you’ve done something wrong in practice. In fact, memorization tends to occur unevenly and sometimes the results of memory can be different depending on the day.
Even as you memorize something, more details can emerge that you might not have paid attention to. Things such as an articulation or maybe a change in fingering that works better. Those elements can sometimes slow down your progress temporarily, which is why slow practice is so important to the overall process.
Over time, the music will begin to stick and the memorization of the entire classical piece will speed up. This is why its helpful to work on technical exercises so that things such as scales, certain chords, and common fingerings become second nature.
10. Create Visual Images For The Music You Want To Memorize
The last bit of advice I can give you for memorizing music is to simply visualize it. Classical music is well known for having imagery associated with it. Some pieces were composed during unique events in the composer’s life. And then there are some classical compositions that have character attached to them in the title.
For example, a piece might be titled “Winter Wind”, in which case there is a flurry of sixteenth notes and notes in the higher registers. Then there might be a piece written during a triumphant time for a certain region in history. Some pieces have nothing associated with them, and that’s when you the musician needs to get creative.
In those situations, you could easily come up with some ideas depend on the mood the music places you in. Harmonic analysis can help with this too. Whenever I perform something in a major key, I try to keep a happy character to it. I imagine maybe a beautiful sunset view or relaxing among the scenery in the mountains.
Then if a piece goes into a minor key halfway through the piece, then I’ll maybe change the scene in my head to a rainstorm. Simple ideas like that really do help with memory. Associating harmonies and motives in the music with imagery can help you remember what part of the music is coming up next.
As you research the classical pieces you play, consider applying this same concept to your memorization process. Look for things about the history of the piece you can relate to and try your best to convey that as you play. With time, the piece will stick more consistently with the other practice habits listed above.
11. Try Learning The Music Backwards
An efficient way to memorize music is to practice it backward. This means starting at the end of a section, and playing the measures in reverse order. There are some unique benefits to practicing this way. By practicing backward, musicians are able to know the end just as well as the beginning.
A common issue with memory is that the earlier section are polished, but the later parts of the music are not. This is especially true with any development sections and conclusions to pieces. Simply put, those earlier parts of the music were practiced more, so they tend to be memorized because the practice was unbalanced.
Another benefit is that the music will get progressively easier as you reach the beginning of the piece. Most musical compositions start off with a basic idea and then it develops and becomes more complex as it moves on. By learning the material first, those tough parts have a chance to get worked out. This not only helps with confidence as you play, but it can speed up the overall memory process.
12. Memorize The Musical Staff
Young musicians that have trouble with memory tend to struggle because they don’t know where the notes are. Having a firm grip on what the notes on the staff help in two ways:
There won’t be a need to count the lines and spaces
It eliminates pauses due to figuring out what the notes are
There are all kinds of ways to memorize the note on a staff. Musicians can use the common “Every Good Boy Does Fine” technique for the lines of the treble staff, and “FACE” for the spaces. Another way is to learn maybe one or two notes on the staff, memorize them and then use intervals to figure everything else out.
The better your knowledge is of the musical staff, the quicker memory will come in the piece. As you learn a piece spend just as much time studying the staff too. Both of those practices go hand in hand.
13. Counting Out Loud
In addition to memorizing notation, musicians need to have a solid sense of rhythm. This is why it’s always a wise idea to count out loud whenever possible. Counting out loud can help sync up your fingers with the notation as you memorize. If you play a wind instrument this is not possible, so in that case, tapping your foot loudly can be just as effective.
Counting helps with overall focus when memorizing small fragments of music. It’s also a way to gauge your evenness and is a nice alternative to using a metronome.
Final Thoughts On Memorizing Music
As you can see there are plenty of ways to memorize music effectively. Whether it’s classical, jazz, pop or any other genre, the same principles apply.
A combination of these tips is what will work best for you moving forward in your practice. It’s important to not rely entirely on one method as that can actually end up hindering the memorization process.
One particular note I want to make is in regards to muscle memory. While it’s an essential and almost automatic part of the process, it needs to be done consciously. Muscle memory alone can fail you during a live performance or on a recording project. If you switch instruments and are not used to the feel of it, then it can cause even more issues.
With that said, I hope that these tips inspire you to practice with more focus and in a more effective way!