Memorizing Piano Music: Why Pianists Do It


Memorizing Piano MusicHave you ever been to a classical piano concert? If so more than likely you’ve seen that the pianist does not use any sheet music when they play. For a music program that is often 90 minutes to two hours in length, that’s an incredible feat! The practice of memorizing piano music has gone on for centuries, and the reasons why pianists do it are quite interesting. 

So, why do pianists memorize music? Pianists memorize music because it helps them to play with better musical expression. Memorizing also helps better perform technically demanding repertoire and help eliminate page turns nad breaks in the music.  Memorizing music is mostly reserved for soloists and less frequent for collaborative playing. This is a practice that dates back to the 1800s and has become the professional standard in solo piano concerts.

There are many benefits to memorizing music; a practice that Clara Schumann is widely credited for. We’ll dive into some of the benefits in this article and share ways you can start implementing memorization into your performances too. 

How Do Pianists Memorize All Those Notes

The first question you may have after attending a solo piano concert is simply how? How do pianists memorize all of those notes, dynamics, tempo changes, under all of that pressure? 

There isn’t a simple answer to that, but one thing all pianists have in common is practice. Practicing efficiently and consistently can help pianists take a complex music score and turn it into a wonderful work of art. 

When it comes to memorizing music in general, pianists are often credited with using the following types of memory

  • Muscle
  • Auditory
  • Visual
  • Analytical

Muscle memory is entirely about feeling and probably the most important way to memorize. If this does not function, the performance fails. The auditory has to do with what the pianist hears while they play. They can begin to latch their ear on to certain harmonies which they will have identified during the analytical phase of memory. Visual is often overlooked, but what a pianist sees in their mind and also what they can physically see on stage matters. 

Most pianists start off by analyzing the musical score. This includes marking all of the large sections of music to understand what the composer is doing from start to finish. Pianists will often identify unique chord qualities, sudden key changes, changes in tempo, changes in style, and look for consistency. 

The next step is to listen to a recording of the music while reading the score. This gives the musician a chance to internalize the sound into their ears. this way when they practice, they are more able to identify a wrong note or missed tempo change. 

The physical practice is the last and most demanding step of the process. A typical practice session will include breaking the piece of music down into smaller fragments. Pianists will typically choose one of the large sections they identified in the analyzation process, and break the music down even further.

As a professional pianist myself, I know for me, it’s beneficial to do 4 measures at a time. I slowly memorize them hand by hand, and then together at a tempo that does not allow me to miss notes. Missing notes in the memorization process can actually set musicians back, so it’s important to always play them right from the very start.

After those measures are solid I choose another four measures and then add them with the previous four. This is the stacking up method which allows me to not chew off too much music all at once for memory.

Muscle memory is a major factor in memorization. With quality, repetition comes results. The more a musician plays the same notes and passages over and over again, the more it sticks in their fingers. This is why it’s important to always play the right notes and why tempo is not a major factor in the early stages of memorizing music. 

Sometimes it’s helpful to practice the piano away from the actual instrument to improve muscle memory. This consists of finding a flat surface and going through the motions. Pretend as if you are playing the keys themselves. The lack of security from having any keys press down really puts the focus on playing the right fingers and doing the right emotions note matter where you are. This is a true sign that muscle memory is working at its highest level. 

Musicians, in general, will also use visual aids to help guide them in memory. The concert stage can be a scary place, and with adrenaline and nerves running high it helps to have visual aids to guide your performance. Pianists will identify certain images in their minds to remind them of what’s coming next.

They can associate certain smells or images with specific chords or landmarks in the music. This helps them to know what’s coming next even if they aren’t explicitly thinking about the notes themselves. When looking at the keys pianists can also take snapshots of certain notes so that they know where they are moving to in parts of the music.

One thing I see pianists do a lot of is to close their eyes during performance. This might seem illogical, but the idea is to fully immerse themselves in the music and to get rid of the distractions. A huge part of playing music from memory effectively is to calm the mind and play freely. Without that, all of the hard work to learn the music can be quickly erased with a wall of mistakes.  

How Long Does It Take To Memorize A Piano Piece

A big part of memorizing music is not trying to learn too much at once. Pianists for that reason take a very methodical approach to it. They break the music down to it’s smallest fragments and slowly build it up into the mega performance audiences see often weeks and months later. 

It can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to memorize a piano piece fully. There are a lot of factors that contribute to that wide range which include:

  • Length of the piece
  • The difficulty level of the piece
  • Practice time available
  • The technical facility of the pianist
  • Unfamiliar music genre

The length of a piece of music is the biggest factor. A piano sonatina is often a short 2 to 3 pages in length. For a professional pianist memorizing this would take just a few days. It’s not the most difficult piece as many of them are built on scale patterns hat pianists have been playing all their lives. IT would merely be about putting it all together in the composer’s vision.

On the other hand, a pianist could be tasked with having to learn a three-movement piano concerto. Most pianist concertos last anywhere between 25 to 45 minutes in length! So surely, it would not be as simple as learning a sonatina, and would thus take longer to learn.

Piano concertos are also much more difficult for the pianist. Not only do they have to be solid in their part as a soloist, but there are timings to work out with the orchestra too. Pianists have to memorize both their part and the orchestra’s part so it’s double the work. The same can be said for piano players who want to memorize chamber music or other forms of accompanying. 

The technical facility of the pianist can also affect how long it takes them to memorize a piece. If a certain passage of music is stalling the learning process, then it can take longer to memorize the piece. Difficult finger passages, awkward turns of the hand and unusual rhythms can take time to dissect and polish. Pianists need to also memorize the feel of their arms and hands at certain passages and be able to recall those motions on demand. 

I know for me and other piano players, the genre of the music can have an effect on the memorization of it. If your main genre of piano music is Classical, then playing the Jazz repertoire will be a learning curve for you. That’s just an example, but the technique required to play each style, the change in rhythmic approach and more can slow down the memory process.

For this reason, you will often find pianists performing Contemporary music with sheet music. It’s a much different style and not necessarily structured the same way as standard classical music. The chord qualities, articulations, and innovative things the composer want pianists to do is sometimes very demanding and not easy to memorize. 

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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