How to Play Music from Memory

Do you have trouble committing music to memoryeven pieces you have played for years? The key to success is integrating the aural, visual, and tactile elements of playing music.

Mozart k331Courtesy of Flickr/Monica Liu

A few weeks ago, an adult student told me that she had a mental block when it came to memorizing music. Although she had played combo gigs for years, she relied on a fake book to play familiar charts. After struggling for years, she had a breakthrough by changing her approach to memorization. Her problem was that she was trying to remember what each measure looked like on the page without internalizing the sound.

1. Aural

Audiation (also known as inner hearing) is imagined music. When an earworm is stuck in your head, you are audiating music.

When we have memory slips playing music, rarely do we forget what notes to play. We forget what the next section sounds like. You probably never forget a line of “Happy Birthday” because you can hear it clearly in your head.

There is no shortcut to audiating a piece, but your inner hearing becomes increasingly vivid with practice. See my article, “Getting Off the Page,” to work on playing music that you can already hear in your head.

The most common way to internalize a piece of music through audiation is by listening to a recording over and over. This method is best for an aural tradition like jazz. By listening to recordings, we also internalize phrasing, groove, inflection, and nuance that we can’t get from a score. Spend time actively listening with all of your attention, but also put on the recording in the background.

Listening to a recording isn’t the only approach to audiating new music. You can play a piece of music from a score over and over until it is captured in your musical imagination. Musicians with advanced sight-singing and solfege skills can audiate an score by simply looking at it.

2. Visual

Visualization is a powerful tool for all areas of music (and life).

Close your eyes and imagine a C major scale.

What did you see? Visualization can take many forms. You may imagine the sheet music, fingerings on your instrument, a piano keyboard, a physical location, or your own abstract visual world. Any of these associations will help you commit music to memory. Even though you are not reading notation, with practice you can train your mind’s eye to see the music.

Visualization helps us keep track of the form of piece, internalize intervals, see connections between chord tones, and much more.

3. Tactile

The physical sensation of playing our instrument can help learn and remember music. Each scale, arpeggio, and phrase has a feel and shape on your instrument. It’s like signing your name. Although you know each individual letter, writing your name feels like a one cohesive shape.

Integrating all three approaches is the key having success to memorizing music in the long term. In his book Melodic Structures, Jerry Bergonzi tells us, “The mind visualizes what the body does in a multi-dimensional fashion. It practices the fingerings and the notes, it hears the sound and the content, it feels the intentions, the emotion and the nuances of what is played. The body then follows suit.”

Here are a few exercises from The Bulletproof Musician’s article, “How to Eliminate Memory Slips,” which help us integrate the audiation and visualization:

  • See if you can hum or solfege the entire piece without referring to the score.
  • Try closing your eyes and trying to mentally rehearse the piece from beginning to end, “feeling” yourself play the piece on your instrument, “hearing” the desired sounds being produced, and perhaps even “seeing” the notes pass by on the score. Can you get through the piece without a hitch?
  • Sit down with some empty staff paper and write out by hand, the entire piece from memory.

– ST

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