Pianists have the unique privilege of being required to play everything for memory – we play more notes at a given time than almost any other instrument, and we are required to memorise them. It hardly seems fair.
That said, pianists must therefore learn their music better than most other instrumentalists, and as a result, we can communicate and express our music to a remarkable degree. Keep reading to learn more about how to effectively memorise your piano music, the different types of memorisation, and specific techniques to help you succeed in performances.
If you are interested in taking piano lessons in London, please get in touch – the teachers at the London Piano Centre are experienced concert pianists who have had to play concertos, collections, and large amounts of music by memory many times over.
Different Types Of Music Memory
Before we dive in, it’s worth getting familiar with the different ways in which you memorise music at the piano. If you memorize a piece well, you should be taking advantage of a bit of each — although some are much more important than others.
Tactile Memory (Muscle Memory)
This is the most dangerous kind of memorisation technique. After you’ve been playing a piece of music for a while, your fingers may just remember where to go, so to speak — but your mind will not be engaged. You could sit down in a pressure-free environment and play through a portion of a piece, but could you replicate it perfectly? Could you play any of it by memory hands together? Do you know what the chord structure is? Perhaps not.
If you only know a piece by muscle memory, you stand a very high chance of crashing and burning in a performance.
This is memorising sections of a piece “by ear.” If you can hum a tune after hearing it once or twice, you have a good aural memory! You will obviously need to be able to remember how your piece sounds if you are going to play it by memory, but you don’t need to focus on this; aural memory will happen naturally while you practise other techniques.
Instrumentalists will often rely on aural memory more than pianists, and this is because on a trumpet or flute, for instance, you’re only playing one note at a time. If you are able to hear intervals, you could probably play an entire piece off only aural memory. Difficult piano repertoire is impossible for most people to memorise aurally, so rely on more cognitive methods for memorisation.
Visual Memory (Photographic Memory)
If you have a photographic memory, you may be able to “read music” from your mind during a performance. If so, you are fortunate! Many people have a combination of memory types, however, and therefore can’t rely on visual memory alone. That said, it is beneficial to study your music and internalise as much of it visually as you can.
Spatial Memory At The Piano
If you can remember where one note is in relation to another on the keyboard, or where a passage exists in your score, your spatial memory may help you memorise piano music. While you’re playing, you might think to yourself, “I recognise this passage, it’s at the bottom of page four.” That may help you proceed.
At the keyboard, you might remember that you have a leap of a tenth at a tricky spot — your spatial memory has struck again.
Unglamorous, Active Memorisation
The most important and reliable way to memorise your music is to simply study it, practise it slowly, and learn everything about it. Start with questions like these:
- What key is the piece in?
- What is the chord progression of the A theme?
- Can you play the first two measures of the A theme without looking?
- Can you then skip to the start of the B theme without looking?
- What about C?
- Can you play the left hand of the development section alone by memory?
So if a section of your music has an E Major scale that runs up and down, you can recognize that and ta-da, it’s memorised! If the main theme of your piece follows a I – IV – V – I chord pattern, you have it memorised already.
Know how your music sounds (aural), how it feels (tactile), how it looks (visual), and be able to stop and start at random sections and give factual information about it, like it was a test.
Remember: Practising is Memorising
If you’ve been practising correctly — painstakingly, carefully, slowly, with an actively engaged mind — you will naturally start to memorize the music. By the time you can play the piece well with music, you won’t be that far away from memorising it.
In fact, learning to play a piece is memorising! Your brain is learning the music, allowing you to play rapid passages perfectly. The reason you’re able to play them faster and more cleanly is because you’ve memorised it, to an extent. Removing the visual cues altogether is simply another step in the process.
How Do Pianists Memorise Music?
Firstly, a pianist must memorise a piece slowly. Memorise only a few measures per day, and start memorising even before you can play the whole piece up to tempo with music. You will therefore need to start memorising a piece with plenty of time before a performance – the more you rush the memorisation process, the shakier your memory will be.
Since you will only be memorising a few measures per day, you will be able to to follow this advice regarding memorisation at the piano:
- Stay mentally engaged with what you are playing. Always think about what you are doing, and don’t allow muscle memory to take over.
- Memorise the chord structure of the passage you are playing – be able to recite it while you play.
- Write a letter or number at the beginning of each new section in a piece. Then ask a teacher or friend to call out random sections – without a score, you should be able to start at those sections. Having rock-solid landmarks like that will help secure your memory.
- In challenging passages, memorise hands separately.
- Stop playing a section over and over again, then just trying to play it for memory – that encourages weak muscle memory.
Start Taking Lessons Today
The London Piano Centre works with advanced students in addition to beginners, so if you are preparing to memorise music for a performance, we’d be happy to show you techniques that will help you succeed. We’ve taught innumerable piano lessons for children in London, offered piano lessons for adults, and we offer live piano lessons online, piano lessons in Kensington, and more. We would love to hear from you.