Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation: The Memory Game

Next week I’m coaching at the Overseas Masters Winter Piano Academy held at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey (UK). My classes will focus on sight-reading, studies and exercises, and memorisation. To prepare, I’ve been re-visiting notes and articles on these topics and found the following on memorisation techniques; it’s the first article I wrote for the Piano Professional Magazine (Autumn 2013 edition, Pg. 22-24), which is published by EPTA (the European Piano Teaching Association). If you teach the piano or wish to start teaching, you might consider joining this excellent organisation.

I hope these suggestions and ideas might be useful to those studying for their diplomas or teaching memorisation to students. There is a helpful PDF download at the end, with ten tips largely built on the ideas in the article.

Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-1886) developed the concept of the solo piano recital and, as a result, the Romantic era became the golden age for the piano.

Liszt not only masterminded the solo recital but he devised how the piano was to be positioned on stage too; with the instrument side-on so that a pianist’s profile could be admired with the lid up facing the audience to ensure full volume. Crucially, he was also the first pianist to play from memory in public.

This potent combination guaranteed total devotion from his fans and more importantly set the stage for all future piano recitals. Liszt apparently often commented on the importance of playing without the score:

‘Look up and away from the keys, and you will play with greater inspiration. Neglect of this is the cause of much of the crippled playing one hears’

(Living With Liszt: From the Diary of Carl Lachmund, ed. by Alan Walker)

He benefitted tremendously from performing in this way and successfully conveyed a charismatic romantic image; one which he had worked hard to cultivate. However, for subsequent generations of pianists, who have since made the concert platform their home, playing from memory has indeed been the cause of much misery. There are, of course, pianists who find memorisation a fairly straight forward process and would indeed never want to play with the score, but for most, playing from memory can cause grief and terror.

Today’s concert pianist is expected to play their entire repertoire from memory (with the exception of complex Twentieth Century works and chamber music). Successful memorisation often eludes students and they rely on learning a work digitally, praying their hands and fingers will remember where to go during performances. This approach doesn’t bode well because stress will often intervene and cause the dreaded memory lapse.

Those taking amateur music exams are not required to play from memory but if you are preparing for a concert or music festival it’s a good idea to be brave and perform without the music as it shows you really ‘know’ your piece. There are many unexpected advantages to memorisation and perhaps one of the most important is a regular brain ‘workout’. There is no doubt that once the human brain learns to retain and process information then this generally becomes a habit and one which can be very useful in many different life situations.

Memorisation does put extra pressure on public performance. A pianist needs to develop a different kind of mind-set entirely in order to perform large concert programmes without the score accurately. If you know you are going play a piece from memory before learning begins, the best approach is to learn in a very focused way from the outset, making a conscious effort to memorise every bar, nuance and phrase as you are going along. A lot of memorisation takes place in the early learning stages as you become more familiar with a work, therefore it saves much time and energy if you are able to capitalize on this, rather than to study a piece by repeated reading and focus on memorising it at a later date.

Memorisation can be a daunting prospect particularly if you have never done it before. However, this should not deter you because it is entirely possible to develop this skill at any point in your piano playing career, and your confidence will soar when you become accustomed to playing without the score. Many find memorisation ultimately affords greater freedom.

There are so many ways to enhance your memorisation technique and if you implement many of the following suggestions, you will be well on the way to developing a reliable memory.

Here are four popular methods;

Visual memory

Try to remember what the music looks like on the page. At first you might recall certain patterns of notes, key signatures or where particular passages occur in the score. This is photographic memory. It helps to keep going through the work in your mind, first of all with the score in front of you and then without the music away from the piano. The latter is a skill that is really worth developing as it allows for mental practice which can be a very useful tool.

It’s best not to rely too much on looking at your hands as this type of memory can cause problems or memory slips during a performance if not backed up with other types of memorisation.

It might be a good idea to remember or recall the physical gestures involved in playing a piece; certain movements and finger patterns can act as a guide for example. Perhaps memorise difficult passages first then practise them as a technical exercise every day.

Auditory or Aural Memory

Listen to everything you play meticulously. This might seem an obvious instruction but many do not consciously ‘hear’ what they are playing or learning.

Most humans have the ability to remember a tune and this is really about nurturing that skill to a highly sophisticated level. As with many skills, it takes a while for the mind to assimilate all the nuances that occur in a piano piece but eventually you will learn to ‘hear’ everything you play from start to finish.

Kinaesthetic or Muscular Memory

The ability to remember or recall all the actual physical sensations and movements; remembering the finger patterns and shapes as well as arm, hand or wrist motions, pedalling, note repetitions and repetitive patterns. Fingerings also really help memorisation which is one of the many reasons why fingering is such an important element in piano playing.

Play through the piece each hand separately without the score; this is especially helpful for the bass or left hand. Practising and concentrating on the left hand really is a crucial part of developing piano technique so it may be beneficial to always practice the left hand first and commit it to memory securely at the same time.

You could trust your instincts and try to play a work through in the dark; can you feel your way around the instrument and play everything precisely? This is a challenge but good fun too; it’s quite difficult just to find the correct place to start your piece.

Intellectual Memory

Undoubtedly the most important element in your memory armour; it involves total ‘immersion’ in the score. You must know your piece backwards.

Look out for typical signs in the music that will ‘jog’ your memory; key changes, chord progressions, scale passages, large leaps, dynamics etc. All these elements will support successful memorisation.

Thoroughly study the structure of a work and assess the style. The way it has been constructed, particularly harmonic structure as this helps with the sound as well. To do this you need to have studied music theory so that you are familiar with four-part harmony, chord progressions, cadences, key changes and counterpoint etc. It can help to break down complex florid or rapid passagework into chords or make a skeleton of the harmonic pattern in a movement or work, so that harmonic progressions are realised and assimilated.

My tips and suggestions:

Visualisation can be a useful tool or method. This is the ability to form mental pictures of events, images or situations. Aural visualisation is sometimes known as the ‘inner ear’ which allows a pianist to hear how the melody, harmony, dynamics and all details found in the music, will sound, in other words, ‘predicting’ the sound before it actually happens. If the ‘inner ear’ is working well, then the pianist’s fingers know what they must do in order to produce the sound. This technique can be especially effective and has been used by many artists, not only musicians. Sit quietly and imagine playing the whole piece through from beginning to end; see every hand position or movement, in effect ‘watch’ yourself play the piece. You might be surprised at just how much concentration this involves. Some find it helpful to see themselves actually sitting on the stage or wherever the performance will take place.

The trick to successful memorisation is thorough structural knowledge of a piece combined with a strong awareness of the musical or expressive qualities. Emotional connections seem to really aid memory (I have found this to be the case not only with my own playing but also with that of colleagues and students too).

Hearing the music in your mind really helps, especially focusing on the way it affects you emotionally. By learning and thinking in this way you will never forget any detail in your piano piece. Learn to play from the heart; the music needs to be part of your soul. Musicianship and interpretation play a vital role in memory but they are frequently over looked. Ostensibly, the concept behind this is that you will be so focused on the expressive and interpretive qualities that your mind won’t be overly concerned with memory or the detrimental thoughts of a possible lapse. This last point can be imperative as it’s connected to many aspects of performing; a positive mind-set really does help when memorising. An ‘I can’ attitude goes a long way, so try to quell the negative mental chatter or the ‘inner voice’ that can frequently undermine a performance.

Even after methodical analysis and careful preparation, it’s still possible to get into a muddle on stage. Nerves can sabotage practice and preparation so what do you do when a memory slip occurs? Whatever happens, don’t stop playing. Some pianists have the ability to extemporize or improvise when they lose where they are in the score until they are able to ‘find themselves’.

The majority of classical pianists don’t improvise, so an effective strategy is to make sure that you know your piece in sections and are able to ‘jump’ quite cleanly from one passage or ‘section’ to another. Try to memorise in small sections, passages or ‘chunks’ (the more sections you break the piece into the better and you are completely free to break the work down as you wish); learn the piece so you know each section thoroughly. If a memory slip does occur then you won’t be too flummoxed and will be able to keep playing to the end of the work. It’s not advisable to ‘go back’ and play the elusive passage again as this just encourages another slip and may make you even more frustrated. Once it has gone from your mind it doesn’t usually miraculously reappear a few minutes later, so it’s best to move on and finish the piece in a convincing way. Also, be able to pick up the piece from anywhere, so that if you do have a memory lapse you will always be able to keep going. It might be an idea to try to completely eradicate the slip from your mind too otherwise you will be constantly thinking about it for the rest of the performance.

I use the following strategy in my memorisation classes and students have found this helpful:

  1. Listen to the work before you start learning it and observe the score carefully. Be aware of how the work makes you feel and spend time focusing particularly on interpretation.
  2. Take a short passage (perhaps a four bar phrase or a line or two of a piece) and start by memorising the left hand on its own, and then the right hand. Be able to play them through accurately without the music, noting all the unusual features (i.e. large leaps, scale passages etc.). Also pay special attention to fingerings as they can be very useful as a memorisation aid. When you have done this you may find it beneficial to reverse the roles and play the left hand line with the right hand and vice versa. This allows your mind to really know the shape of the musical lines rather than only relying on digital learning which can be dangerous. Practising a line of music with one finger at a time can be advantageous too.
  3. Then play the passage hands together using the score at first then taking it away as soon as possible. Observe which passages you find difficult to recall. Work thoroughly on those areas (by repeating as well as mentally finding patterns to remember). Most passagework has some unusual feature which will help act as a ‘signpost’. The more ‘signposts’ you can find the better.
  4. Sing the melodies in your piece and then play them with and without the accompaniment so that you become even more aware of the musical structure. Another valuable exercise at this point may include playing the accompanying material in a piece from memory or playing the accompaniment with the bass line first (if there is one) and then with the melody line. It can be helpful to do all this at slow speeds allowing your mind to digest the musical lines and phrases.
  5. Work the passage up to tempo with a metronome but without using the score. It’s really important to emphasize how repetition really does assist memory. As mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to play the piece or the sections within your piece without the score as soon as possible so that your fingers and brain accustom themselves to this swiftly.
  6. Repeat steps 2 – 5 on other sections of the piece.
  7. Practice other pieces before coming back to test your memory during practice sessions. You will probably find that you can’t remember every detail at this stage. Memory takes time and persistence so just keep working on it.
  8. Test your memory on the same passages the next day (and on consecutive days) before resuming working on other sections in the piece.

Once you have committed your piece to memory, work at it backwards, i.e. playing and analysing the last phrase first. Learning backwards can really work well and professionals sometimes employ this method.

Young children will generally memorise far more easily than adults, and we all have highly individual ways of remembering music. The success of memorisation is normally just persistent practice and sometimes it’s necessary to have a memory lapse or a stumble under pressure whilst playing in public, because only then do we realise what we must do to safeguard our memory for the next performance. Don’t expect to memorise in one practice session either, memory takes time and work, so divide your piece into small sections or passages and you will make progress every day. Good luck!

Ten Top Tips for Effective Memorisation


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.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. This is really helpful. I’ve only recently discovered that I much prefer playing from memory as I feel like I have more freedom if I know a piece ‘inside-out’ and it’s a much more enjoyable way to play!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments Jess. Glad you liked the article and also playing from memory. As you’ve discovered, it can be a ‘freeing’ experience.

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