Playing Music from Memory: Pt 1 of 3

For musicians, an ability to play from memory opens up the world of practising via the imagination, which grants freedom from notation. Performing from memory indicates a deep understanding and internalization of the music. Playing from memory involves performing a piece one has learned as a result of rehearsing with notation, to the point where notation is no longer required as a guide. Some musicians claim that memorization allows them to develop their expressive ideas more freely and to communicate those ideas more effectively. One study found that an audience with musical training rated memorised performances higher in terms of communicative ability. An audience feels a greater connection when notation and music stands are omitted, and when distractions such as page turning are not an issue.

Playing from memory is a skill that should be encouraged during lesson time. Young musicians can start by memorizing easy pieces they like, as they already will have a mental idea of what the piece sounds like. Remember that early success in any endeavour is important for confidence, so musicians should consider the constraints of short-term memory. Rather than aiming to play an entire piece from memory too soon, focus on a given section, perhaps no more than a phrase or a couple of measures at a time. Even a small weekly target will develop this skill, and the process of trying to play from memory is in itself a valuable exercise.

Studies of chess players, athletes, mathematicians, and musicians suggest that a good memory tends to be domain specific. Increasingly complex memory loads form due to specific subject knowledge of how to chunk and categorise data. Everyone is capable of improving memory skills in his or her area of interest. Learning to play music from memory requires an understanding of musical-chunking processes, which is greatly assisted by understanding the score. Teachers play a role in developing this knowledge by asking exploratory and analytical questions. Here are some examples.

• Describe the piece to me. What is the form?
• Tell me about the major themes and how they are treated in terms of modulations, sequences, and so on. How are these themes linked? Play through the piece slowly, commentating on these features.
• Where are the climaxes in the music?
• Discuss prevalent harmonic structures. Where does the composer use tonic-dominant harmonies on this page?
• Which melodies and rhythms do you find the most difficult to play? Please sing them for me.
• What are your favourite sections in the piece?

This post will be continued soon with Part 2 of ‘Playing Music from Memory’.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

“A must read for all music educators” – Robert Adams, Music Educator, New Haven, USA.

“A must buy for every music teacher and music student” – William Bruce, Guildhall School of Music, UK.

“A deeply impressive work, the breadth of research is fascinating!” Robert Chamberlain, Team of Pianists and Monash University Piano Staff, Victoria Australia.

“I have read your book and it has made an amazing difference in my teaching and in my studio.” Beth Cruickshank, Past President – Ontario Registered Music Teachers Association.

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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Posted in Music Education
3 comments on “Playing Music from Memory: Pt 1 of 3
  1. I love the idea to play through slowly and comment on the structure as you go. It’ a good way to set markers and signposts that will help memorize and guide a player back if memory momentarily fails.

  2. pianolearner says:

    This is something I am really making sure I practice.

  3. Reblogged this on Sketchbook: Notes About Music and the Arts and commented:
    “Performing from memory indicates a deep understanding and internalization of the music,” says Michael Griffin in the first of his three-part series, Playing Music From Memory. Memorization, which leads to a more intimate connection with both music and audience, is a skill that can be learned.

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