Memorising Music

I have worked as a chamber musician and duo partner for my entire career to date and therefore  I have not needed to play from memory in a concert. Music has been given to me anything from months before the concert to hours before, meaning that the demands I have had lay instead in being able to learn music fast and thoroughly.

Learning music fast and thoroughly is a particular skill…

For me to do this effectively has required a certain way of learning that I equate with memorising. In fact, I would say that the only difference is that I know I don’t have to play from memory in the concert, and that takes a certain amount of pressure off.

So what is it about this approach that is similar to memorising? I would say that it is the delving deep into a piece of music, getting to know that music as well as possible from every single angle. This is essential for a memorised performance otherwise the memory will fail. But it also needs to be essential for any performance, and even more so if there is limited time to learn it!

My approach to learning a piece of music is this: I start by sight reading it through and getting an overall sense. Then I will look and listen to how it all fits together, singing and playing the various different parts, whether they belong to the piano or the instrument/s I am playing with. I make sure I understand the musical structure of the piece and what it means musically and expressively before anything else. Sometimes I will take the score away from the piano, and spend time looking, observing and listening in my head.

Once I have the big picture, I go into the details…

I take roughly four bars at a time, repeating them and making sure I know them extremely well, usually under tempo and with fingering, notes, articulation and dynamics all in place. Then I test those four bars from memory, reminding myself at the same time where this fits in the music as a whole. Once I know that I know them, I then shut my eyes to double check. The lack of visual stimulus concentrates the mind wonderfully, and I find I am really sensing where my fingers are, getting to know the physical moves from the inside out. I also find that having my eyes closed helps me focus on the sound and what I want to do expressively with music.

The next step is to work in this way with the next small section of four bars or so…

followed by time to connect this section and the first four bars and see whether I really know it. I then do this for the whole piece, checking at every stage how embedded it is in my mind and fingers. Then I revisit the big picture, seeing how my increased knowledge of the details informs my overall understanding of the piece.

Obviously if I have to learn music fast, I don’t always have the luxury to go into such immense detail so I might jump stages and go almost immediately to the ‘eyes shut’ stage. To play music from memory on the concert platform, I would take this approach but just give lots more time and lots more repetition. I would also then check my knowledge of the music from a structural, physical and aural perspective, knowing that if one method were to fail, another would kick in and take over.

This aside, I would say that this method of learning music could either be called ‘memorising’ or is at least very similar to the process of memorising. But of course music has to be learnt with the same thoroughness that memorising demands – anything less will show up on the concert platform!

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One Response to Memorising Music

  1. Clarissa Smid July 22, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    Dear Charlotte,

    Thanks for writing about this aspect of learning music. As someone who watched your series on Performance Anxiety (PA), one of the things that really needs to be talked about alongside PA is the science and method of memorisation. It still isn’t really taught or researched in colleges and music schools to my knowledge, and yet for anyone who is working as a solo instrumentalist or singer, memorisation is one of the keys to a career! Singers (I am a singer) are particularly dependent upon memorisation, because they have the text and dramatic direction to respond to as well as the notes!

    As someone who is in treatment for PA (thanks to Help Musicians and BAPAM, memorisation is one of the key things that has been impacted by PA. There is a whole cognitive process in memorisation that relies on low anxiety… apparently.

    Your process for memorisation seems to be the “standard method” that you and I (and nearly everyone else) was taught by professors. Indeed, this and a whole other gamut of little tricks and tweaks was picked up and successfully attempted by me for many years, and served me well. Until I had real PA, and then literally NOTHING worked! Thinking I must have dementia (seriously, I really did consider it) or that I just wasn’t trying hard enough, I worked harder and harder, but literally nothing stuck. It was as if my brain didn’t want to memorise anything. which is of course true: anxiety creates that fight or flight reaction, and your brain simply cannot lay down or access memories in that state – at least not very well – because it thinks that it should either be running for the hills, or in a state of ready combat! Recalling the third movement of a Mozart Sonata or the words from Rigoletto doesn’t really come into it!

    It really wasn’t until I started understanding the role of adrenaline and anxiety through specialised therapy that I have been making some progress with this, and I would encourage anyone reading your post or my response to ask for help from Help Musicians if they find they need advice or treatment for this.

    I hope this helps someone like me, and I thank you for bringing up the much “mystiqued” subject of memorisation in general!

    Best wishes,


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