To memorise or not? Happy 2013!

I hope you all had a fantastic Christmas and I wish everyone a very Happy New Year.

I recenly read an interesting article in the New York Times written by Anthony Tommasini regarding memorisation. It refers to a new French movie called ‘Amour’ which features French pianist, Alexandre Tharaud who appears in a dramatic scene performing a Beethoven Bagatelle (Op.126) for his retired former music teacher.

The drama of the moment is apparently made more effective by the fact that Tharaud is alone in the scene conveying his prowess and consummate musicianship whilst being totally involved in the music and crucially playing without the score completing the ‘romantic’ concert pianist persona. Tommasini then asks if the trend for soloists to play from memory is in fact subsiding; concert pianists are using scores much more frequently during concerts over the past few years.

I have written several times on this subject here on my blog; Memorising your piano pieces and More memorisation tips. Playing from memory is a huge undertaking which does heap tend to pressure on an artist; there is no doubt that it can detract from the more important task of delivering a quality performance. Memorisation has been de rigueur for soloists since flamboyant virtuoso Franz Liszt developed the concept in the Nineteenth Century and many regard it as a form of showmanship.

Recently I was invited to lecture on sight-reading and memorisation on a piano course held at the Yehudi Menuhin School.  I will write more about this wonderful experience in a future post, however, it was interesting gathering together my thoughts about this topic and delivering them to students of approximately diploma level. I lectured in small classes and then worked individually with each student, finding quick and hopefully painless ways to develop their memorising skills.

I have played from memory since I started playing the piano aged ten, and, therefore, I don’t have many problems, but I do feel playing from memory allows the pianist to become completely absorbed in the music.

It may not be important to perform a piece in public from memory however memorization has so many benefits beyond the obvious advantage of knowing your piece very well. It develops all sorts of mind skills and has helped me considerably in other areas of work. It really does assist in cultivating razor-sharp sensory skills; Auditory, Muscular or Kinesthetic, Intellectual and Visual. I’ve found  these senses to be more developed and definitely more reliable since working regularly from memory.

Young instrumentalists should ideally be encouraged to commit music to memory just to be aware of the mind skills involved. It is  possible to  ‘learn’ how to memorise; it is very much a mind process rather than a haphazard trick picked up along the way. If you play an instrument, or you have a child you does, then try to learn one piece by heart and see for yourself how your thinking ability changes once you master the art of memorisation. It could prove to be a fortuitous new year resolution!


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Harriet says:

    Hmmm … don’t know what that last comment has to do with your post … but anyway, another benefit to memorizing piano music is that you can put the music rack down, removing the barrier between you and the sound. It’s amazing how much more you can hear, and it affects touch, volume, really the whole experience of playing.

    1. Hi Harriet, yes the last comment has very little to do with memorization so has been removed! I agree with that completely – it’s amazing how much more you can hear without the music desk in the way.

  2. kurtnemes says:

    I love this post. Nowadays in education, rote memorization is frowned upon as not being creative. Well, as you point out, building one’s memory has tons of other benefits. I was inspired by this orchestra today, where the performers have no choice but to memorize:

  3. Ceinwen Bran says:

    Everyone is different – regardless of mental health, memorising is all “mind over matter” I struggle with it so it takes a while but once I do, I feel on top of the world 🙂 Like sight reading, do it every day and its not hard at all. If you leave something for too long then your brain forgets and then you tell yourself you cannot do it! Great motivating post as usual Melanie and I`m glad you remove miserable negativity – its pointless! your vlogs and blogs should generate happiness and great playing 🙂 happy playing

  4. isdigby says:

    I prefer to learn from memory for several reasons: because it enables me to focus better on playing. After all, it’s one less thing for the senses to have to perform in the very demanding task of playing. It also removes page turning issues. One drawback is forgetting, or overlooking, the nuances of musical direction, pedalling and the like that some composers specify in great detail. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with using a score. It’s the result that counts!

    1. Hi Ian, Many thanks for your comment. Yes, you are right when you say it’s the result that counts. Memory does usually enable a pianist to focus completely on the music though…..

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