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How to memorize music as a pianist

how to memorize music as a pianist

Memorizing music as a pianist is an important skill to develop. It is extremely easy in our modern world to simply access information via phone or computer and retain very little. Memorizing helps us to build a base of knowledge that we can use and extrapolate to other dimensions of our lives, helps us to keep our memory fresh and strong, and provides a worthy challenge to our skills.

Practicing memorization is not terribly difficult. But, like all things related to music, it takes time and dedicated effort to master. Check out these tips you can use to help build your memorizing skills this week.

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What is memorization in music?

Memorization in music is simply the ability to remember musical ideas and concepts without needing to look at notated music. Memorization can take many forms including memorizing scales, chords, melodies, chord progressions, and entire songs, whether you look at physical notated music or use a learn piano app.

The importance of memorizing music

Why do you think it is important to memorize music? The skill of memorizing is being slowly removed from everyday life. We now have near constant access to any piece of information we desire. However, this constant contact with the collected compendium of human knowledge has produced a state where we actually memorize less and less, simply because we do not have to.

Memorizing music is extremely important as a musician because it forms the base of our musical identity. In order to memorize something, you need to spend a great deal of time learning and practicing. By spending this much time, you develop a deep understanding of what you are doing. Repeated exposure to this method helps you develop a musical knowledge base that forms your identity as a musician when you are learning how to play piano. Without it, you will not be a musician. It is that simple.

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Strategies to improve your memorization skills

If you find yourself struggling with memorization, fear not! There are many strategies musicians use to develop their memories. There is a way through any block. Check out some of these strategies and try applying them to your practice!

Memorizing with associations

Music is an abstract art form. It is ephemeral and transient. It happens, and unless it was recorded, it disappears. As such, it can be difficult to grasp musical concepts in a tangible way.

A simple way to break out of this problem is to create associations for your musical concepts. For example, what sorts of feelings come to mind when you play a C major chord? Or an F major chord? Or the melody to one of your favorite pop songs?

The more you build connections between music and extra-musical feelings and sensations, the deeper your understanding of music will become and the easier it will be for you to memorize pieces of music and read piano sheet music faster.

Clarify the compositional structure

If you are overwhelmed by memorizing a long piece of music, a simple strategy is to break the piece down into its constituent elements. This is a great strategy to simplify complex pieces of music. 

All music has a form that can be deciphered and broken down into pieces. Understanding the tools of music theory will help you in this endeavor. If you can understand that a certain piano chord progression repeats four times with a particular melody on top, then another chord progression happens twice with a different melody, then you have memorized the form of your piece. Easy, right?

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Break the song down into manageable pieces

A complimentary strategy to clarifying the compositional structure is to break the song down into manageable pieces. This is a particularly valuable strategy especially when you are practicing longer, more challenging pieces of music. For example, if you have a piece with multiple time signatures, memorize the sections with one time signature before moving on to the next.

If you build your skills piece by piece, you will slowly tackle a much more difficult problem than you otherwise would be able to. Instead of expecting yourself to memorize an entire piece in one week, try instead to memorize four measures. The process will take more time, but you will most likely feel less stressed and more in control.

Play along with recordings

Playing along with recordings is another strategy you can use to memorize music. Music is an aural skill. It is important to memorize the sound of music inside your brain, not just inside your fingers. Without memorizing how the music actually sounds, you will inhibit your memorizing abilities and miss out on at least half of the possible music you could make.

Take the time to practice along with recordings. Practice with the piano notes, practice without the piano, practice imagining yourself playing the piano with the recording, practice listening to the recording in your head without the recording playing, and come up with your own variations on this theme. There is no shortage of possibilities.

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Write it down

A more advanced strategy to practice memorizing music is to actually write down the parts in musical notation. This is similar to the strategies used to memorize poetry or other literary skills. You can begin by simply copying down the music and then progress to notating the music from memory. If you develop this skill long enough, you can even get to the point where you can listen to music for the first time and write it down! A true superpower.

Recognize repeating patterns

Music is built around repeating patterns. If you are having difficulty memorizing a passage or a piece of music, try to identify any patterns in the music you can latch onto. This is a similar strategy to the other analysis-based strategies we explored previously and is quite useful.

Non-musical aids: colors, numbers, and words

In addition to the musical concepts we have explored to memorize music, there are a handful of non-musical strategies you can use to help boost your memory skills. By giving yourself certain cues in the written music, you can enhance your ability to memorize parts.

For example, if you have two difficult right hand passages, you can notate the first pattern in a particular color and the second passage in a different color. This way, you have a mental association with each passage on the piano keys that is non-musical.

You can use similar strategies with numbers and words. For example, you can write memory cues for yourself on difficult passages and create numerical associations within forms of music.

Memorizing is fun

Memorizing music is a great skill to practice. If you feel like you are having difficulty memorizing music, there are a handful of strategies you can use to develop your skills rather easily. Try incorporating some of these strategies into your practice with Skoove lessons this week and see how they go!

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Author of this blog post:

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

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