Memorising Music – Part I

On June 9, 1840, at the Hanover Square Rooms in London, Franz Liszt gave the first ever solo piano recital. At the time, music concerts would be given by a number of different performers. It was unheard of for a single performer to give an entire concert alone. Liszt, however, was extraordinarily popular, a thorough showman, and exceptional musician. Liszt not only performed the concert alone but also from memory, setting a trend that continues to today.

Playing from memory, however, may not merely be a question of fashion. The great pianist Louis Kentner points out in his excellent book “Piano” that you actually play better when performing from memory. I suppose a suitable analogy would be acting from memory as opposed to acting while reading from the script. For me, however, playing from memory is simply more enjoyable.

While many music students claim to struggle to memorise music, my feeling is that this is simply because they don’t understand how to memorise effectively. Memory is a skill and can be developed by anybody willing to put in the time and energy.

Principles of Memorising Music

First, let me address a common myth. When somebody claims to not be able to remember music well, they will often blame it on a bad memory. Those who say they have a bad memory, assuming they are not suffering from some neurological disorder, have simply not learned how to use their memory. Those who say they can’t memorise music, more often than not, have never tried to memorise music. Instead, they’ll play through a piece of music a number of times with the score in front of them, in the hope that eventually it will “sink in”. This is an extraordinarily ineffective way to memorise music. In fact, learning music this way won’t help you memorise the music at all. One way I test if a student has learnt a piece of music by this method is to point to a random note in the middle of a phrase and ask them to begin from there. Nine times out of ten they wont be able to.

Now it may sound painfully obvious but if you want to memorise something you need to try to memorise it. In almost every other area of study people realise this but, for some reason, when it come to learning music we tend to forget this simple fact. If you wanted to learn a list of foreign words you would sit down with the text or phrase book in your hand, repeat the words to yourself, testing yourself every so often to make sure you haven’t forgotten words you learnt earlier. You would do the same with a poem or lines in a play. So why not do the same with music? Although this approach seems obvious, it is overlooked enough that I felt the need to mention it.

Now we can look at some of the ways memorising music can be made easier. Try to memorise a long series of numbers, for example; 1, 3, 6, 2, 4, 7, 3, 5, 8, 4, 6, 9, 5, 7, 10, 6, 8, 11. If you try and learn this by rote you will probably find it is quite difficult to do and takes some time before you can recite all the numbers from memory. Most people can store about seven items in their short term memory. This series, however, has eighteen numbers in it so it presents a bit of a challenge. How do you memorise an eighteen number series when by the time you get to the 8th number you will likely have forgotten the 1st?

There is a way around this and it is called “chunking”. Chunking involves grouping a string of items into smaller groups. We do this with phone numbers – 0123-456-789, credit card numbers – 1234-5678-9101-1121 (apologies if this is anybody’s actual phone or credit card number), and many similar series of numbers. The following eleven letters, s, u, b, d, o, m, i, n, a, n, t, can easily be remembered by grouping them into the word “subdominant.”

Let us go back, then, to our eighteen number series and “chunk” it into smaller groups. 136, 247, 358, 469, 5710, 6811. We now have six items to remember. Obviously a three or four digit number is more difficult to remember than a single digit, but we have reduced the number of items to remember by more than half so it should still be noticeably easier to remember this way. But we can do even better than this. Music is all about patterns. Patterns of sound are what distinguish music from noise and recognising patterns in music you are learning is a great way of chunking the information. If I now arrange those six groups of numbers in a slightly different way, see if you can notice a pattern. As soon as you can see the pattern, try writing the numbers down from memory;

  • 1 – 3 – 6
  • 2 – 4 – 7
  • 3 – 5 – 8
  • 4 – 6 – 9
  • 5 – 7 – 10
  • 6 – 8 – 11

You can see now that instead of trying to memorise a series of eighteen numbers, you really only need to remember the first three and know how to count. (Using previously remembered material like counting numbers to aid memory can be remarkably effective, which is one of the reasons I am such an advocate of music theory – which is all about recognising pattens and order within music.) Music is filled with this kind of pattern as the following passage demonstrates

Music Memory Example 1

If you wanted to learn a passage like this you could try to memorise the complete sequence of twenty-one notes, or you could group them into seven groups of three, as in the diagram below. Now you will only have to remember seven chords plus the arpeggio pattern instead of twenty-one individual notes;

Music Memory Example 2The passage below is a slightly more complex version of the first example but can still be reduced to the same seven chords. Learning to recognise these patterns, even when they take on a more complex form such as the one below, is tremendously useful to any musician looking to memorise a piece of music.

Music Memory Example 3We can actually go a step further, however. Notice how in the second example all the chords have the same shape and simply move up one step at a time? This pattern is illustrated in the example below and shows just how far we can reduce our original twenty-one note sequence. Now to memorise the sequence all you need to remember is the shape of the chord, where it starts, and where it ends.

Music Memory Example 4I hope you see how effective thinking about music this way can be. In a strange way this kind of memorising can actually be more difficult than rote memorisation but that is kind of the point. Olympic athletes don’t look for the easiest way to train, the look for the most effective. What is useful about this approach to memory is that is forces you to concentrate on memorising, and how else could it be done?

Chunking and pattern recognition are two strategies that can aid not just your memory of music but many other things also. However, those memories are still only short term memories. The next step is to look at way to get your short term memories into your long term memory.

… Article continues in Part II (coming soon)