Consider what would happen in a dramatic theatre production if all the actors read their lines from a script, instead of memorizing them. It wouldn’t make much of a play. Learning their lines allows them to express and emote, to live the play. Likewise, memorizing your music allows you to live the music.

Memorization seems daunting to those who assume that memorizing is a talent some people have and others don’t. But in fact it’s a skill that can and should be learned like any other skill: through instruction and practice. It should be taught to every music student, because it’s an essential part of musicianship.

Memorizing is actually easy and natural. People do it naturally with everything else – like tying your shoes or remembering your birthday – so why approach it in music as though it were so difficult? If it is hard for you, it’s only because you haven’t been shown an effective way. Before you say, “But I’m different – I just can’t do it; I can only play by reading music from paper,” consider that paper-training is not ear training. In other words, if you’ve not been taught how to memorize, how can you expect to do it as easily as someone who has?

Before there was musical notation, everything was either memorized or improvised. The bards of Europe and the Griots of Africa could memorize songs and poems that were up to several hours long, word for word and/or note for note. The human brain is capable of great feats of memory. But what we don’t practice and experience, we don’t realize can be valuable. And if we don’t use it we don’t know it’s there.

Obviously, orchestral players, those who play in restaurants, and those who do studio work need a repertoire so vast that referring to notation and/or charts is necessary. But for solo or small-ensemble concerts, folk bands, therapeutic music, sessions, jams and social music-making, dependence on notation is a hindrance.

Do you carry your repertoire in a tote bag? Can you truly say that you know the music you play? For every gig, carrying around a bag of music books, setting up the music stand, finding the pieces you plan to play or sing, referring to the notation every few seconds, turning pages, and so on, is a bit like building a house that has to be reconstructed each time you come home. Why not just build it permanently?

When playing in group situations, constantly reading notation prevents you from listening and analyzing what you hear (not what you see – music is sound, not paper), and also prevents you from fully participating in the incredible fun and elation that come from having your focus on the blend of the group and adding to it rather than just “playing a part”. It’s not just a mental/intellectual exercise – it’s visceral and emotional. The real fun of playing the music isn’t just to get all the “right” notes in, it’s the musical conversation with other musicians, and the conversation that occurs between you and your instrument. (Traditional and folk music, by the way, are all about absorbing, integrating, and feeling the music, and that is BY NO MEANS inferior to playing specified arrangements.)

When repertoire is memorized, not only do you have it forever, but it is easily accessed, and you are much more free to put all your creative energy into your playing. With no third party (notation) between you and your instrument, your attention can be more focused.

When someone tells me they can’t memorize, I ask them how they are trying to go about it. Most often, they say they look at the page and try to remember what’s on it. No wonder there’s a problem! Memorizing music does not mean “seeing the page in your head”. That’s not the music; it’s just paper! If you memorize the way the notes look on a page, you still have to “read” them in your head to play them, so the actual notation may as well be used.

Nor is it practical to try to memorize a piece by reading it through in its entirety and expecting to remember it. Memorizing is more easily done a bit at a time. You wouldn’t take a meal on a plate, dump it down your throat in one enormous lump, and hope to digest it.

To memorize from notation:

  1. Make a point of noticing the time signature and rhythm, and count the first phrase aloud.
  2. Notice the key and, of course, the clefs.
  3. Now you’re ready to scan the notation, not to read it in detail but to notice the visual patterns formed by the notes of the melody and of the accompaniment.
  4. A melody is like a spoken sentence with phrases separated by commas; decide where your musical “commas” should be (not necessarily ending at bar lines!) – each section is a musical phrase.
  5. Look now at the first phrase and read it in detail.
  6. Play or hum that phrase and only that phrase. At this point, tempo is not important; playing should be very slow no matter what tempo you will eventually work up to.)
  7. Close your eyes and play or hum it again. If you didn’t remember it, read it again and repeat.
  8. When you can remember and play that phrase easily, go on to the next one. Don’t do the whole tune yet, just a few phrases.
  9. Observe your hand placements and fingerings on the instrument and remember those visual patterns as well. Listen to and remember the music’s patterns and “shapes”.
  10. Play the phrases you’ve done enough times for muscle memory to begin to take effect, so you can do it without thinking.
  11. When you go on to learn more phrases, don’t play the ones you already know before each playing of the ones you’re learning. You need to play all the phrases the same approximate number of times in order to memorize them all equally.
  12. Repetition is important. It sets muscle memory as well as conscious memory. Make each phrase an exercise and play it over and over.
  13. Then put them all together.
  14. When you know all the phrases and can play the tune in its entirety without referring to a written page, play it every day for at least 21 days. Neurologically, that’s the number of days required to permanently set new information.

Some musicians prefer to memorize the last phrase first and work forward, instead of starting from the beginning. That’s fine. Whichever you do, be sure to memorize all the parts equally well.

When a piece is truly memorized, if you make a mistake you won’t have to go back to the beginning and start over; you will be able to pick it up anywhere or to simply play through the “unexpected notes”. Also, you should be able to play it at any tempo – from very slow to much too fast – equally well. (Of course, you’ll perform it in the correct tempo.)

One of the most common mistakes we musicians make is to try to make a piece we’re learning sound musical right away. This shortcuts all the precise attention to detail that is needed to give it character and accuracy. Keep the tempo slow and let it be a work in progress for as long as it takes. Don’t force it.

Everyone has the ability to memorize. The musician who can play or sing well from notation and from memory has a definite advantage, and our musical training should include both.