Memorizing is yet another ability that society dupes us into thinking is fixed. Pianists, unfortunately, buy into this fiction.

I sure did. I thought I was a good memorizer because I did so quickly and unconsciously, and it mostly worked. One teacher wryly joked that I must memorize pieces by looking at the cover!

My reality check came in grad school during a performance of a Bach Partita: at one of those cruel Bach-ian forks in the road, I took the wrong one, stopped dead in my tracks, and exclaimed, “What the f….”

We all have performances we’d rather forget, and that is definitely one of mine. I finally had to reckon with the question: how do we memorize music?

What I’ve learned since is that memory, like any facet of piano-playing, can be developed. The secret is that there is not one monolithic musical memory … there are four!

The four types of musical memory are: aural, visual, physical, and structural. To achieve secure memorization, you need to secure all four. I’ll make the case that most people rely too much on the first few and find themselves in a pickle because of the last one.

Aural Memory

This is the memory that tells you how a piece “goes.”

You don’t even have to play the piano to have this; any beginner with a good ear can play tunes by plinking keys in a melodic whack-a-mole until they find the right notes. As musicians, this might be the memory we rely on the most.

Aural memory is very accessible, but the problem is that it’s reactive, not preventative. If you find yourself fixing wrong notes after you hear them, you may be relying too much on this memory.

Visual Memory

Visual memory includes not only a view of the score but also of the keyboard and your hands. This memory tells you, for instance, that the note you want is somewhere around here.

However, few of us have photographic memory, so this doesn’t help in a pinch. It does explain memory slips caused by unfamiliar visual stimuli, such as when you practice with music and then go on stage without.

Physical Memory

One of the internet’s top tips for memorizing is simple repetition, essentially, building your muscle memory. This tip suggests that, with enough reps, you’ll never forget! This is of little consolation to the concert pianist who practices six hours a day and still suffers a memory slip. I’ve seen it happen.

Here’s the problem with muscle memory: any deviance in your physical setup can affect your physical memory.

Michelle Obama talks in her autobiography about being distracted in a recital by the piano’s smooth keys, unlike her teacher’s snaggle-toothed ones. It’s okay, Michelle. We’ve all been there. Muscle memory is a fickle thing.

You might have an over-reliance on muscle memory if, when it cuts out, you have no idea what happened or where to go next, even if you’ve played the piece a million times before.

Structural Memory

Here’s what I believe: most memory issues stem from a lack of structural memory.

That’s why I took the wrong turn in that Bach; it’s why people forget what notes go in a particular chord; it’s what makes playing from memory scary at times.

By structural memory, I mean an analysis of the piece. If you’ve got some theory background, it’s knowing things like the form, motivic development, and harmonic progressions. If you don’t, then it’s having a storyline or noting any aspects or patterns that make the music more logical. If the piece folds in an inevitable fashion (to you), you will lose the trail less frequently and pick it up quicker when you do.

Ultimately, structural memory gets at how the piece was built. It’s having the insight of the composer. Remember that even genius composers like Bach, Mozart, and Mendelssohn worked at studying pieces by copying them out by hand. By golly, if you can rewrite a piece note by note, you definitely know it.

Even if you decide not to memorize a piece for performance, working on its structural memory will benefit you — and your audience.

Ever hear a great performance and wonder why? Maybe the piano was dinky; maybe the performer missed notes; yet, it moved you. Consider whether it was because that performer knew the story of that piece by heart and spun it to you like a yarn.

So, don’t be like young me. The next time you’re working on memorizing, check these four memories. It works, even for contemporary music. I promise.

P.S. in this post, I provide some practical tips for practicing memorization and working with these four types of memories.

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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