Why Memorize Music?

Sheet Music

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.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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  1. Frank

    I’ve always played bass by memory. So it was a given to me when my choir conductor asked everybody to sing by memory.
    The result is incredible: sound, expression and connection with the audience all improve.
    Sure, some minor errors crawl up, but most of the times the benefits outweight this problem.

  2. Alex

    I do not completely agree with the reasons why sheet music seem to be required in classical or jazz ensemble. When you say “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. “, in my opinion the only real and understandable reason is the short to non-existent rehearsal time. Progressive rockers are the perfect exemple of memorizing enormous lengths of über-complicated tunes that are no less complicated than classical or jazz tunes.

    So from my point of view, for the performer sheet music is essentially cheat music: you need it when you can’t do otherwhise, but jump at the opportunity not to use it. Actors on stage are the equivalent, they will use the printed text on early reharsals, but given sufficient time, they can memorize incredible length of texts.

  3. Being both once a stage actor and currently a musician for over 45 years, I understand the necessity for the sheet. However, at some point you must free yourself from the the sheet. You don’t see a well learned stage actor carrying around a piece of paper to deliver his lines. so, I say to you all, get your sheet together and drop the sheet!

  4. Cyrille Briegel

    Well, it’s not that simple. It all depends of how well the music is memorized.
    If you just happen to learn a tune and memorize it, you might just have memorized the surface of the tune, not as deep as it should in order to really free up your mind.
    You might constantly trying to recall the information from your memory and that process can interfere with your reaction time on musical events.
    When reading music (if you’re trained well enough), that process disappear since the information you see on the paper through your eyes is instantly processed by your brain (no need search deep into your memory). Furthermore, you can anticipate better what is coming next as your eyes can read ahead of time.
    So my suggestion is to memorize music at a point where the information is processed instantly from your memory. If you need a few millisecond to recall the information from memory, that’s already too late, and you didn’t memorize it well enough.
    So my point is reading music is still the way to go until you memorize really deeply (no just the name of the notes or chords but also the pitch, tone, color, feel that go with it.

  5. In my experience, I am working with 2 dozen orginal artist and we perform once every 2 to 3 months with usually one maybe two if you are lucky rehearsals before a show. I find it hard to memorize everyone’s material at this rate so I rely on chord charts just to keep me in line. Once we have a few gigs under our belts then memorization starts to happen and I rely less on the charts but its not always black and white. Sometimes the artist will ask not to use charts o stage, its rare but it happens. I will do my best to memorize but then this just adds stress when you have so many other gigs going on and then you second guess a note because you are trying to not think and just perform and then it happens. Opps bad note. It happens to the best of us. :)

  6. that bass guy

    The ability and/or need to memorize music means different things in different situations. I disagree that sheet music is a crutch for classical players (like myself) as I disagree with the comparison made to prog music. Prog music can indeed be complex but often the final arrangements are the results of much smaller musical fragments and way fewer parts . The average symphony score might have 20 individual lines of orchestration occurring simultaneously. Additionally, some symphonies are longer than an hour of non-stop playing. I don’t know of a prog band with a similar situation and I’m not disrespecting prog – I’m a huge Crimson fan and have played in prog and jazz bands. I think the ability to memorize music signifies that you understand what you’re playing, and the less time you spend memorizing it, the better your skill level. I’ve played jazz and sometimes we ran a new tune 4 or 5 times in rehearsal – with or without charts – and the tune would be ready for show time. Why? Because the band was that skilled. I’ve also played shows where the production group did not want sheet music on stage, so the musicians had to memorize the show, but we started off reading the show from a score, often written out entirely and not just changes. So you need to be able to read, memorize and play, but whether you can memorize depends on how much you want to work.