Mastering Musical Memory: Essential Strategies for Memorizing Music

Byvu lita

Jan 21, 2024

Ever since it became fashionable to play without music, a number of well-proven memory techniques have evolved that have served musicians pretty well. We asked some of the top soloists working today to find out how they learn music from memory to play without a score.

Top tips for memorising music

Learn the piece as a whole

Pianist Susan Tomes experimented with learning longer pieces of music by heart and found that seeing the full narrative of a piece of music helped her develop an instinctive memory. ‘I found intellectual memory techniques—understanding the music’s shape and structure, location of bridge passages and so on—helpful, especially when photographic and muscle memory, an instinctive memory that is acquired over hours of practice, failed me.’

Try visualisation techniques and practice away from your instrument

Pianist Alexandra Dariescu relies on what she calls ‘visual memory’ for memorising music. ‘It’s what I use the most,’ she says. ‘I can “see” where I am on the page, but it only comes with huge amounts of concentration and after hours of “mental practice” away from the score. I can’t overstate how useful mental practice is. When I go for a walk or watch TV, my mind drifts and if I can shut out any noise and concentrate on that particular passage, I know I’ve got it.’

Play the music using just the chords

Alexandra Dariescu also employs intellectual memory to lock down the notes. She’ll look for clues to the music’s shape and how it unfolds. She’ll reduce a passage to its harmonic essence, playing it as a sequence of chords.

Study the score before you play it

‘The pianist Dinu Lipatti always analysed the score for a long time before even starting to sight read it, and I have adopted his technique for memorising music,’ says Alexandra Dariescu. ‘Of course, some musicians are born with a gift for memorising. I once asked pianist András Schiff about his skill at memorising. His answer was simple: “It’s a blessing.”. But his kind of extraordinary memory can be achieved through lots of hard work and super-strong will power.’

Look for patterns in the music

Pianist Stephen Hough uses intellectual techniques to memorise music: ‘I will map out patterns, black and white notes, repetitive shapes and so on.’

Try word association

Singers face a different set of challenges in memorising, as soprano Lynne Dawson explains: ‘The verse nature of recital songs can make it hard to memorise. You just have to find what works for you—mnemonics or straightforward repetition—until it’s ingrained. Abstract subjects can be hard to memorise. Association helps—singing one verse in the hall, another on the stairs, and so on. Or creating a picture for each verse. It needn’t be literal, just something to prompt recall. In an opera, it helps that you are told where to stand and can associate a position with a word or phrase.’

Develop a’multi-layered’ approach; there’s no quick fix!

For soprano Daniella Sicari, the challenges of memorising music are all too real. She relies on an approach she calls ‘multi-layering’. ‘Memorizing a work begins with the text,’ she says. ‘That’s harder when it’s a foreign language, so if it’s not one I’m familiar with, I’ll first do a poetic translation of it, which will help colour my interpretation, before a word-for-word, literal one.

‘Next, I go to the piano to learn the music before combining it with the libretto. I’ll exaggerate the music’s colours and sense to embed it in my mind while at the same time conducting myself. I create an inner monologue, too, that helps me navigate the music and the text. If it’s opera, I take the same approach to a lesser degree with the other characters I appear with, so I understand how to react when not singing and to be aware of my cues.’ Her approach applies equally well to a recital such as a lieder, she says, with the role of other characters being taken by the accompaniment.

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