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How To Memorize Piano Music Faster


How To Memorize Piano Music FasterHave you ever wondered how to memorize piano music faster? Memorizing piano music is a really important tool have to have because it makes playing music easier. Sometimes it’s a struggle to play the piano when reading sheet music, so having it in your memory is a helpful quality to have.

Here are 12 tips for how to memorize piano music quickly

  1. Play Hands Separately
  2. Memorize Small Segments Of Music
  3. Play With Your Eyes Closed
  4. Focus On Harmonies And Melodic Structure
  5. Sing Through The Music
  6. Listen To Recordings Of The Music
  7. Utilize Spaced Repetition
  8. Take A Nap
  9. Learn The Music From Random Locations
  10. Play Slowly
  11. Watch Your Hands As You Play
  12. Place Landmarks In Your Piano Music
  13. Play Without The Music In Front Of You
  14. Use Good Fingering
  15. Create Music Flash Cards
  16. Record Your Playing
  17. Increase Your Practice Time

As a concert pianist myself, memory is almost a requirement. Below I’ll go into each of these memory techniques, and how I use each of them to improve my playing. I am sure that when you employ these methods that your ability to memorize piano music will only get better! Let’s start off with playing hands separately!

1. Play Hands Separately

Whenever I start on a new piece of repertoire I can’t help but control my excitement. It’s really tempting to just jump into the music playing hands together. Unfortunately, a lot of early mistakes can be made that way, and those are hard to rectify once they become a habit.

For memorizing piano music it’s a much better idea to start with hands separately. Playing hands separately has a positive impact on memory. Playing one hand a time allows pianists to limit their focus, and that usually leads to more consistent results.

Separating the hands allows you to see what’s happening in each music staff. This is a chance to figure out what notes are being played, solidify the rhythms, and work on articulations and dynamics without being distracted by the other hand.

Once you’ve polished those particulars in each hand then it makes sense to begin putting them together. At this point, there will be a great degree of muscle memory to go along with what your brain has processed.

2. Memorize Small Segments Of Music

memorizing piano music notesWhen trying to memorize music for the piano, it’s a good idea to break things down into smaller segments. There’s not much success to be had if you were to try to learn an entire page all at once, let alone the whole piece.

When I segment my repertoire, I go as small as 2 to 4 measures of music at a time. Doing so allows me the most limited scope to work on so that I’m not missing anything. This works well when combined with playing hands separately too.

A good method to use is playing the music through at least 5 times in a row perfectly. The more times you can play it accurately, the better results you’ll have. This is also a good way to test if you really know the music inside and out.

When segmenting measures you should focus on trying to get everything as mistake-free as possible. A good method to doing this is to play those measures through at least 5 times in a row perfectly from memory. The more times you can play it accurately, the better results you’ll have.

If there are still gaps in memory then it’s much easier to fix this with a smaller segment of music rather than the entire development section of the piece.

As you memorize these small segments, start piecing it together with other small segments until you have the entire piece together. This is also a good way to test if you really know the music inside and out.

3. Play With Your Eyes Closed

While a great deal of piano playing is based on what you can see and read, much of it is also based on feel. Being able to feel your way from note to note is a crucial aspect of playing. Playing eyes closed is a good way to train yourself to not be so dependent on note reading and helps you avoid constantly staring down your fingers.

The more comfortable you are with the landscape of the piano, the better your memory will be. Playing eyes closed helps pianists feel the distance between keys as well as work on their choreography while playing.

To do this properly, start off with a small segment of music; maybe 2 to 4 measures. Play through it once slowly, hands together or separate and then try it once eyes closed.

If you’ve made a mistake make sure to mark it in your music, and then look down at your hands to determine what might have caused you to make that mistake. Close your eyes and give it another go and repeat this process until the mistake is gone.

4. Focus On Harmonies And Melodic Structure

A greater understanding of the harmonic structure of a piano piece goes a long way towards memory. Each piece of music has some sort of melodic and harmonic structure that can easily be identified with some basic analysis.

Take a pencil and mark in the music where the tonic harmony is; this is usually the indicator of the start of a new section, as well as when something is concluding. Also look out for dominant harmonies which are indicators of a cadence that will soon arrive, or the foreshadowing of a development section.

For pianists playing more advanced music, the development section is often the most difficult part to memorize. This is usually where many sequential patterns are happening as well as awkward chord progressions that break basic compositional norms.

After marking these areas in your music, spend some time segmenting those sections, saying the harmonies out loud and then identifying what exactly is happening there.

Make note of how the melodic structure is fitting within these harmonies and how each of those patterns develops. As you sort through the music you’ll notice consistencies and sharp differences in scale degree patterns, accidentals, and much more.

This is your chance to point out where that happens and then to internalize it as you segment the music in practice. While this method is more academic, it’s a great way to approach new music; especially Jazz, late-Modern, and Impressionist genre pieces.

5. Sing Through The Music

Whether you’re an instrumentalist or vocalist, it always helps to sing through various parts of the music. Singing the music helps with understanding what’s happening harmonically, but it’s also a great way to label musical landmarks (more on this later).

Singing the melodies also allows us to memorize when certain changes are going to occur, which scale variations are occurring where and more.

Singing also helps with solidifying the rhythms too. This way when you start playing the music you’ll be able to point out any discrepancies and fix it much more quickly.

Music that has a lot of markings and alterations should be approached this way especially. It’s also a good idea to sing the bass lines as well as the different pitches of the harmonies. It’s also a good idea to sing through the music while not playing. Play the first tone of each measure and see if you can sing through the rest of the measure without any assistance.

6. Listen To Recordings Of The Music

Sometimes staring at the sheet music can be intimidating; especially with memory. Beyond making markings of the structure and harmonies, it’s really a good idea to listen to the music.

With so many music streaming apps available chances are you can find a high-quality recording to listen to. I like to start off by listening to the piece in its entirety at least initially. During that listening session, I’ll make a couple of mental notes.

Things I’ll latch onto are dynamic contrast, certain harmonies, sudden changes in tempo as well as melodic liberties. Whenever you listen to music it’s always a good idea to read through the sheet music at the same time.

After that initial listen I’ll start segmenting the music and listening to it in small chunks. If you’re familiar with musical form then this is your chance to write out the introduction, main theme, development section, and prime sections.

As the music becomes internalized through listening, it’ll be much easier to anticipate what happens next. A big part of memorizing piano music is knowing exactly what’s going to happen next no matter where you are in the music.

7. Utilize Spaced Repetition

Repetition is often preached at piano lessons around the world. Knowing when and how to repeat your music is what truly affects your success with memorization though. I like to use a technique called spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is when you learn a short segment of music, wait a certain amount of time, and then review that segment of music and try repeating it again. This works best when you already have something that’s familiar, however, you can also try it with freshly memorized music.

Work through a couple of measures, memorize it and then leave it and move on to another section of the music. Once the timer strikes 25 minutes, revisit that portion of the music and see how many of those notes and rhythms you can still remember.

Using spaced repetition is a good way to challenge yourself when it comes to your initial focus with music that’s new to you. I use a rating system where I score the accuracy of my memory.

Anything below 80% means that I need to go back and really focus on what went wrong. Spaced repetition is also useful for other things such as gradually improving tempo, making progress through a long piece of music and meeting deadlines.

8. Take A Nap

Practice is essential for any pianist, but so is quality rest. Studies have shown that the more you sleep, the better you’ll be able to learn and retain information. After a long practice session, I always take a nap.

Not only does a nap reenergize me, but I find that everything I practiced the day before is more solidified in my fingers. That’s because sleep helps consolidate memories. The other reason napping is important is because over practicing can have a negative effect. If you find that you’re practicing a lot yet the notes aren’t sticking, it’s probably because you aren’t resting nearly enough.

9. Learn The Music From Random Locations

One way to ensure that you know the music well is to learn it from random locations. Before you panic, I don’t mean learning the notes in reverse order. Instead of starting from the first measure, how about starting from the end of the piece?

Perhaps you might start in the middle of the piece, or seven measures in. This is called spot playing, and it’s a great way to challenge yourself to memorize each and ever measure thoroughly. Too often, pianists get stuck on learning pieces from top to bottom. Only learning the music top to bottom can have a negative effect in the long run.

If you were to lose concentration at any point in the performance, then it’ll be hard to get back on track. That’s why it’s a good idea to learn the music in a way that allows for starting anywhere in the piece at any given moment.

10. Practice Slowly

Speed and finesse are essential parts of advanced piano playing. The only way to develop speed is by properly memorizing the notes and knowing exactly where to go on the piano.

To do this effectively, you need to practice everything slowly. Slow playing is your chance to digest everything that’s going on mentally. It’s really hard to memorize anything if it’s traveling at the speed of light.

To help hold myself accountable, I set the metronome to a really slow tempo like 66 beats per minute. I then group the measures and try to play through them accurately several times at this slow tempo.

When I feel it’s memorized and can be played at this slow tempo, I’ll start inching the tempo up little by little. Practicing this way will eventually lead to the optimum tempo you want to reach.

11. Watch Your Hands As You Play

Many piano teachers preach to look away from the keys whenever you play. However, it’s never a good idea to only stare at the notes for the entire practice session. For the sake of memorizing piano notes faster, it helps to look at your hands occasionally.

Watching your hands allows for the great amount of visual memory possible. Not only do you feel what’s happening, but you can associate an image to it. Doing this allows pianists to work on their choreography; measuring the distance between leaps, octaves, intervals between the white and black notes and much more.

Sometimes it helps to not remember ever letter name you have to play, but rather visually which finger will go where and when. Being able to see if it’s a white or black note can sometimes help you get over a mental block.

Spend a few minutes each time you practice watching the moves you make at the piano. Please be careful to not stare down your hands all of the time though as this will become a bad habit in the future. Instead work this in periodically and I guarantee you’ll notice a big difference with memory.

12. Place Landmarks In Your Music

A great way to memorize music is to set aside specific musical goals throughout. This involves marking sections of the music that is significant for a variety of reasons. Sometimes this can be where the melody repeats, and other times it can be based on unique harmonies.

I call this the landmark strategy and it works perfectly for any piece. This strategy works best when marking your music as you listen to a recording and doing an analysis. When you hear a repeat of the melody it’s a good idea to make a marking in the music and then label that section.

You can use form analysis like A, B, A, or call it something completely different that you will remember. See if you can mark all the other times a similar melody or phrase happens and then note what makes each one different. Perhaps you can call one section A1 and the other A2.

Likewise, with harmonies, you can put a marking when you hear something very unique take place. Perhaps the composer repeated a section but skipped third and went to the dominant. Anything of significance like this should be highlighted in some sort of way.

After making all of the markings, your goal is the memorize the start of each of those sections. This allows you to start the music from multiple locations without any issue. In addition to starting from those sections, this allows pianists to anticipate what is coming next in the music, which leads to fewer memory slips.

13. Play Without The Music In Front Of You

Those who only play with sheet music can sometimes become too dependent on it. One simple method for lowering your dependence on sheet music is to remove it from the equation.

Play through a few measures and see how much of it you can digest in a short period of time. Then remove the music from the piano and try playing through it accurately. Try playing the music a couple of times in a row even if there is a mistake.

Chances are your mind and fingers will start to remember where to go and what comes next. If the sheet music were sitting on the piano then the urge to look at it increases. The only way to really get past that mental block is to laser focus when the music is not in front of you.

There are two issues with leaving the sheet music there.

  1. You won’t be able to properly challenge yourself to memorize the music
  2. The process of memorizing is lengthened

So, the next time you go to the piano; try challenging yourself this way. You might be surprised to find that you actually do know the musically more thoroughly than you thought.

14. Use Good Fingering

When it comes to playing the piano, there is no substitute for good fingering. Those who use bad fingering are almost always struggling with memory. It’s a bad idea to change fingering during a performance too because there’s no time for it to settle into your brain.

From the very start, you should be digging through the tough sections of your music and making sure the fingering fits your style of play. There are some tips here for pianists will small hands, that goes into how to choose good fingering and make adjustments. Even if you have a normal size hand, the idea should be to make it as easy as possible to shift from one note to the other.

After choosing the fingering that works best, it’s time to solidify that in your memory. I find fingering can be more helpful with remembering notation too. Knowing the finger patterns of difficult passages makes it much easier to digest.

Combining this step with visual memory and choreography until brings you more in tune with the instrument. This is because having solid fingering can speed up and further improve note memory. The less you have to think about what is going on in front of you, the more successful you will be with memory.

15. Create Music Flashcards

piano flash cards

Sometimes piano repertoire can present us with really difficult measures to memorize. In this case, direct isolation of those measures is the only way to really get it ingrained in our mind.

Something I teach my students to do is to make flashcards of those difficult measures. They are simple to make and only require that you draw out the notes and rhythms on one side, and the fingering on the other side of the flash card. Here are the flashcards I use to make my memory materials.

The goal is to memorize the measure number, what pitches are played, and which fingers are being used. Since the notes and fingerings are placed on opposite sides of the flashcard, it can be used in multiple ways.

To really make things interesting, I suggest color coding certain measures to identify what area in the piece you are in. If it’s the introduction maybe color that in blue, or if it’s the cadenza then color that in red.

Doing these things will help make the memorization process of those flashcards much quicker, and enable you to associate something else with the music other than notes and rhythms.

For pianists learning really large-scale works, this can be time-consuming, so I only recommend this method for beginners and those needing extra motivation to memorize.

16. Record Your Playing

If you’re not recording your piano practice, then it’s time to start adding that to your regimen. Recording your piano practice is an important step when memory is the goal. Sometimes when we memorize things, we might still be making mistakes and not realize it.

Listening to a recording gives us an opportunity to pick out those mistakes. Make sure to pull out the score and read along and make notes as you listen. Things you should be listening for should are note accuracy, articulations, phrasing, tempo, and more.

I would also record your repeated attempts at memorizing a section too. This way you can make notes on which sections are still giving you trouble and find the consistencies there.

To ensure that you have a quality stereo recording to listen to, you should use a Zoom microphone or something similar. Audio recording is fine for this step, but making a video recording adds another layer of analysis. This is where you can take a look at your posture sitting at the piano, determine if you’re sitting high enough at the piano, adjusting your choreography and much more.

17. Increase Your Practice Time

The final and perhaps most important thing any pianist can do to improve their note memory is to simply practice more. An increase in practice time consistently translates to better results and better note accuracy.

This is a step you should be careful with though because it’s possible to over-practice. Over-practicing can lead to worse results and worse retainment of short-term memory.

You should practice your piano note memory in compact groups, multiple times per day. For example, one session might be 25 minutes all focused on memorizing a passage, and then the next 25-minute session can be on learning a new set of measures.

In the third 25 minute session you can then review the first set of measures you did, and then in the fourth session, you can revisit the second segment of measures. What this method helps pianists do is double down on the new material without spreading it across multiple days. Click here for more details on how to improve your piano playing.

 

Joshua Ross

Hello & thanks for stopping by! I'm a professional concert pianist and piano instructor. In the United States, I've given successful performances in several places including New York, Florida, Connecticut, & New Jersey, I have also performed internationally in Italy and made my Carnegie Hall debut in 2014. I enjoy blogging about the piano, the art of performance, general music, current events and the latest in music production.

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