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Tips for Memorizing Music

I have trouble memorizing. Do you have any suggestions? —–Gina D.

In general, if we have played a piece enough times, we often find we have memorized it without trying. However, some pieces (and styles of music) are more difficult to memorize than others and may require special attention. Also, on occasion, we may also find that we don’t have sufficient preparation time to memorize a piece easily before performance. In these cases, it helps to have some specific tools to work towards memorization.

Try memorizing it in small, easily digestible sections. Memorize just the first 4 or 8 bars. If you are working from sheet music, try memorizing one line at a time. Once you are solid with this, add the next section, or line. You can work this on your instrument, or away from it, or you may wish to do both.

I have found that one of the most important things to be aware of when memorizing a new piece is its musical form. Learn it and be aware of it as you play. Examples:

  • Is it a 12, 16, or 32 bar form? Is it something different?
  • Does the key center change? If so, when, and how?
  • Is it a Sonata Allegro form, Rondo form, Aria form, or something else?
  • Are sections expanded or contracted from their usual length? If so, when and which ones? How are they different?
  • If sections are repeated (e.g. A-B-A) is it an exact repeat or is the second time slightly different?
  • If the repeated section is different, what is different? Is it in your part? Another part? All the parts?
  • Is there an intro, coda or tag?

Obviously, analyzing the form of a piece involves a working knowledge of music theory relevant to the style. Knowing musical theory is a great help in memorization and I strongly encourage applying it.

I have also found it helpful to know all the parts, and not simply the bass part. If you are working with a classical solo, play the accompaniment part at the piano. It doesn’t have to be performance level by any means, just be aware of what happens when, and how things work together. For instance:

  • How do the parts converse with each other?
  • If you are working with jazz, rock, bluegrass, etc., can you sing or play the melody? What about the harmony lines?
  • Do you know the lyrics? Can you hack through the chord progression on a piano, guitar or on your bass?
  • Are you aware of what all the instruments are doing and how they work with the bass part?
  • Are there cues the other instruments play that can help you know what comes next?

If memorization is a problem for you, you should also test your memorization once you think you have it. Try starting in the “B” section. Test your memorization by writing your part (or all the parts if you are adventurous) by hand on some blank staff paper, or on a music notation program. How much can you remember? Bowings? Fingerings? Slurs? Dynamics? If the tune has lyrics can you write them down like poetry? Can you sing them and play your part at the same time? These are all ways you can test and solidify memorization of a piece. Get creative and come up with your own tests.

Lastly, I will say that memorization is a habit and it gets easier over time. If there is nothing urgent on your memorization plate, start with short, simple tunes. Try and memorize one work a week. Start simple and increase the difficulty over time.

Make it a habit and before you know it, you’ll be memorizing with ease.