Effective Memorization In Music

One of the most important parts of learning music is memorization. Whether it's a small piece. a couple of licks, scales, chords, or an entire performance, memorization is something that musicians have to deal with on a daily basis. Yet this is rarely mentioned in textbooks and music courses. One thing that should be part of every musical education is how to effectively use your memory. Simply learning a piece isn't enough: memorizing the piece is another process entirely. It must be dealt with accordingly. If you don't believe me, just look at how you would approach trying to remember a phone number. If you had a pen and paper, you would simply write it down and forget about it. But, if you had to memorize it on the spot, you would probably go through a couple of exercises or techniques to help you remember the number. You know that simply repeating it to yourself just once isn't going to work*

*Unless there was a memorable pattern or special characteristic in the number. Marketing companies are well aware of this fact. Just see how many times a number is repeated on an infomercial or how companies like to make their phone numbers into simple, easily memorized sequences.

It's the same with music. Learning something and memorizing something are two separate brain functions and two separate processes.Once you decide to learn a piece, you go about learning the fingering and different sections of the song. Some parts may become part of your internal memory through simple repetition. Musicians will rely on this most of the time. They figure that if they repeat the piece enough times, it will be internalized. This is only half true.

Like the phone number exercise above, if the number is repeated enough times, it will be memorized. But what happens if you suddenly forget it? Or, what if you remember the first part but can't remember the rest? What happens if there is a long time between uses and the memory gets lost? This is where the memory needs help.

Stuck in the Middle

One thing that happens to a lot of musicians is the 'stuck at the bridge syndrome'. They'll have the verse and chorus down no problem. But when it comes to the bridge or a separate section, the mind will suddenly go blank. This happens a lot with the bridge but also happens with sections that are complicated, or obscure parts that occur at just a single part of the song. There are a couple of reasons for this. The usual reason is that since it's a part that isn't played as much, it's easier to forget. Another reason is because parts like this are easily overlooked when learning a song. If a song has a unique section or part. it must be noted in the memory. Or, they may have the lick memorized but missing other parts. The lick may be memorable in its own right whereas you might be saying to yourself 'how does that bridge go again?' because it's not in your musical memory.

Going Blank

Most musicians have been through this. Sometimes when playing a piece, (usually with longer pieces) your mind will simply go blank. For the life of you, you can't remember the next part, Sometimes you can even 'hear' the part in your head, but for some reason, the fingering just isn't coming to you. Of course, if you're relying solely on your physical memory (more on this later), you won't remember the part that comes after that either. There may be many reasons for this but the biggest reason is because you've memorized the piece based solely on the physical. You've memorized the fingering or how it looks on your instrument and nothing else. The problem with the physical memory is that it's based solely on feel. If something changes in the feel, you lose focus, or the picture in your mind changes, then you completely lose your place. There is nothing else to fall back on.

Two Planes

When it comes to memorizing, there are two different planes that we're dealing with here; there is the mental plane and the physical plane. You want to have both at your disposal. All too often musicians will depend completely on the physical and ignore the mental. They will memorize a piece based solely on the fingering and how the piece looks and feels on their instrument. The biggest problem with this method is that it's too linear. The way one section feels is completely dependent on the section that proceeded it. Have you ever tried and started a song from a completely illogical point? By this I mean not at a new section but right in the middle of a phrase? If you have, you'll know what I mean about memorizing based on the physical. Sometimes it's impossible  to remember (or even play) a piece from a completely arbitrary point. The tactile method also becomes problematic when looking ahead. If you've mentally memorized the piece, it's easy to see the whole piece or separate sections. If you're going completely by the physical, it's a lot harder to see one part without the part that proceeded it.

Memory Techniques

Memory techniques have been around forever. The Romans were famous for their ability to remember facts and dates. The reason for this was the Romans had many different techniques that stimulated the brain to remember facts (and the fact that pen and paper weren't usually handy!). Some of the methods used were association, patterns, chunking, and repetition. 

Ripping It Apart

When memorizing a piece, one of the first things you're going to have to do is organize the piece (or whatever you're trying to memorize) into a logical thought or progression. That means dissecting the piece; separating pieces into sections, separating sections into phrases and parts, and creating highlights and milestones within the piece. Most orchestras will do this automatically when rehearsing a new symphony. The score arrives with all of the relevant sections separated and the bars will be numbered. The musicians will make notes within the score to remind themselves of special phrases and performance notes. If it was a song, you would analyze the different sections. You would then write it down on a single piece of paper so you could see the entire song at a glance. You would then be able to memorize the entire song, along with any special notes at once. The same process would apply to anything that you're trying to learn. The breakdown and organization must come first, because this is what your memory techniques are going to be based upon.

Chunk King

Much like trying to memorize a phone number, memorizing pieces of music becomes a lot easier when using the 'chunk' method. It's simply a matter of taking pieces and memorizing them in chunks instead of trying to memorize the entire piece at once. Also, like the phone number, it's better to piece the chunks together in a logical fashion. That would mean memorizing separate sections, highlighting certain parts, noting milestones and special characteristics, and putting the piece together in a logical fashion.

Shout It, Shout It Loud

If you've ever spent a night trying to memorize facts before a big test, you know the value of verbalizing. You simply want to take what you've learned and verbalize it into a coherent idea. For example if trying to memorize a song, after you've organized it into the different sections, you should verbalize out loud the order of the song complete with notes and special sections. For example; verse and chorus repeated twice with a tag at the end of the second chorus. C F Am G in the verse, C G Dm in the chorus. A 12 bar bridge in Em and the chorus repeated twice. Most songs can be organized and memorized in this way. If there are special sections or parts, take a second to make a note and remind yourself about these parts.

Games Without Frontiers

There are a couple of ways we can get our mind working and tricking it into remembering things. One thing that humans do well is patterns. Whenever learning a new piece of music or trying to memorize something, look for patterns. It's much easier to remember a 5 figure number repeated 3 times than it is to remember 15 individual numbers. If a section is repeated, or a pattern is repeated, take note. There might be a slight difference on the repeat of the section; just remember ' the A section with a ii V at the end of the repeat'. Another technique that works well is association. If the song you're trying to remember has a chord progression similar to another song you know well, it's much easier to remember the chord progression based upon that association. Jazz musicians do this all the time. They're famous for knowing hundreds of songs (in fact, it's part of their education). Quite often they will associate certain chord progressions with certain songs. Once you're familiar with the chord progression, it leaves up a lot of room to improvise within that tune. Every jazz musician knows the 'Rhythm changes' and can spot them easily within a tune. Jazz musicians also use this technique to memorize the 'B' sections of jazz tunes since these can sometimes be problematic. Also, if there are any changes or substitutions within that framework, having the entire progression committed to memory makes it easier to keep track of where you are.

Messing With the Order

One thing that happens a lot is you'll often remember the first part of a section only to fail to remember the end. One technique that helps the memory a lot is breaking up the song. Try playing a section from the middle. Try playing the last part, then the middle and lastly the first. What this does is make our brain remember each part in its own right instead of the logical linear progression. With this method, if you get lost on one section, it makes it a lot easier to pick it up at the next with no hesitation. Also, if you practice the piece this way, you'll end up practicing the end just as much as the beginning, breaking the 'forgetting the end' syndrome.

Lose the Paper

I have met quite a few musicians who don't read music. While this can be a handicap in certain situations, it can help in memorization because the music must be memorized immediately. I usually will write the music down. I'll have most of the parts there and all of the different sections of the tune marked down. This usually comes in handy when discussing separate parts with other musicians or trying to remember the tune the next day (since it's written down, it's usually pretty accurate). It's really important though, that if you have the music on paper, to get it off of the paper as soon as you can. The musicians who I mentioned earlier, while at some of a disadvantage, had something over the musicians who had written things down. Since they don't have the option of writing things down, they must memorize the different parts immediately. They were usually pretty good at memorizing long complicated parts because that's what they have to do all of the time. There is no other choice. Therefore all of the repetition, association and memory techniques listed here, are things that they had to do all of the time.

Don't rely too much on the printed page.  Try to get it off of there and into your head as quickly as possible. Have the advantage by being able to memorize something immediately but also having the choice to write it down if necessary.

Using All of Your Senses

There is a whole process that jazz musicians go through when learning new tunes. It usually starts with learning the melody. Not just playing the melody but being able to sing it. They will then go through the bassline, chord progression, different voicings within that progression etc. (We'll go into this more in a later post). The point is that there is more going on than just learning the fingering for your part. If you've got the lyrics memorized, you know the bass part and any other extras, it makes it a lot easier to memorize the tune. It then becomes the difference between knowing how to play your part in a tune, and knowing the tune inside out. If you can, try this approach with everything that you learn on your instrument.

Do It Again

The best way to learn anything is through repetition; every musician knows that. The process of memorizing parts, scales and pieces also must be repeated. That means once a piece is memorized, the process must be repeated for the piece to be completely ingrained in your memory. Like mentioned in articles here before. It's best to review as soon as possible after learning something new. Another review should be done the following day, then once again in a couple of days, and then once the next week. You get the idea.

Keep It Separated

Music and musicianship absolutely depends on having a good memory. Having a good memory, much like learning to play your instrument, is a skill that can be developed and honed. When learning a new piece, scale, or technique, memorizing must be a separate process. The material must be put into a logical organization. The piece must be seen both as separate parts and as a cohesive whole. Using the different methods (chunking, verbalizing, association), the piece must be memorized. Then the whole process must be repeated and reviewed at regular intervals. Make sure this exercise is separate from the practice session.


  1. Can anyone tell me who authored this article? I'd like to quote it but can't find the relevant information.

  2. All of the articles on this blog are written by me.

    If you want to quote something, just let me know.


  3. Wow, thanks! Yes, I'd like to quote you for a Master's project I'm working on, pertaining to the brain and memorization. Did you get my email? I sent it to your address. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for the helpful tips! I am trying to memorize my marching band music! :)