Some musical situations all but require the use of printed music. For example, larger ensembles, such as a Jazz Big Band or a Symphony Orchestra, universally use printed music. This is primarily due to the complexity of the compositions/arrangements, the short rehearsal time for each work, the sometimes-enormous length of the works, etc. However, in smaller groups (i.e. jazz combos or classical soloists) we may alternatively see performers with sheet music, or without.
Of course, in some styles of music memorization is a given. I’ve seldom seen a rock band with music stands, for instance. In jazz and classical styles, however, we may find some players using printed music and some playing from memory. So, if the use of printed music is an accepted practice in these situations, why would anyone memorize? Surely it is easier to play with sheet music? What is the benefit of memorization?
Some would say that there are multiple benefits to memorization, many small, a few large. I would agree. In my opinion, however, the greatest benefit to the performer can be summed up as increased artistic control and freedom.
Memorization frees up the conscious mind of the performer and enables it to focus on things other than the reading of a script (i.e. the sheet music). With the work memorized, our conscious mind is free to more fully focus on other, more musical, aspects of the performance. The more completely we have memorized the work, the more we will reap the benefits.
No longer chained to reading the printed page, the performer can put their attention to aspects of tone, technique, musicality, and nuance more completely. This is helpful not just in performance, but also in the practice room. Great strides in tone production and intonational accuracy more easily occur with memorized music than when we are print-reliant. Additionally, when rehearsing or performing with others we may find we are more acutely aware of what they are doing, and are thus more able to respond musically.
Memorization not only frees our conscious mind, but it also frees our ears. Most people seem to hear more, which is especially important when improvising. If you have only improvised over tunes using sheet music, you’ll be amazed at what you’ve been missing when you are freed from the page.
Memorization may indeed require extra time or effort, and it’s not appropriate for every performance situation. However, in my experience, memorization results in a greater musical and artistic freedom for the performer, enabling a greater attention to the “in the moment” aspect of music making. In short, it’s worth it.