Memorizing Music: How to Remember What to Play

Have you ever found yourself on stage, about to perform a piece by memory, and wondering if you’d be able to make it to the end without a memory slip? You probably didn’t doubt your memory skills until that point.

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Civic Fellow Denielle Wilson defers to her sheet music during the 2017 Bach Marathon. | Photo by Brian Kersey

I can honestly say that the thing I most fear in a performance is a huge memory slip. I say huge, because there are some passages I flub and just tumble through. A huge one would be where I get stuck and cannot continue. But I think many musicians have had both kinds of moments…right?

I’ve heard many different pieces of advice on memorizing music. Most didn’t hold up by the time my performance came around, but I still used them nonetheless. A few popular ones that you may be familiar with include:

  • Sing it
  • Play through the piece under tempo.
  • Play the piece repeatedly without looking at the music.

Whenever someone has offered me advice on music memorization, the discussion never included information on how the brain stores and recalls data. Does everyone have or use the same type of memory?

I would get jealous thinking of people with photographic memories, because I thought that all they had to do was play off of the picture of the musical score in their minds. NOT FAIR.

The first piece of great news I have for the music world is that musicians’ memories are above average. A study led by Francesca Tamani of University of Padua found that “musicians tend to have stronger short-term and working memory (the ability to retain information as you process it) than non-musicians.” Other researchers suggest it is more likely musicians’ memories improved as a result of their musical training as opposed to choosing to become musicians because of their above-average memory.

After doing some research, I found that there were many types of memory. According to Noa Kageyama in “The Bullet Proof Musician,” there is serial chaining and content addressable access. Serial chaining is using one phrase to remember the following phrase, and then using that subsequent phrase to cue next phrase, and so on. Musicians often use this when practicing, and this is often demonstrated after a huge memory slip. The performer may play a few notes before where they stopped to try to remind themselves of what they’ve forgotten.

The second type of memorization discussed by Kageyama, content addressable access, is more about retrieval and memorizing the piece in chunks– being able to play from any section without restarting from a previous phrase. Both types of memorization have their pros and cons when it comes to performance, but if you were to ask me which I would prefer when playing through something like Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, I would choose the latter.


My current struggle is with the Prelude movement of Bach’s Suite No. 4. Talk about a memory game…

This piece is all about harmonic structure (I mean, Bach was generally all about that, anyway), and it has an extremely repetitive motivic shape of arpeggiated-ish chords. However, the patterns that these follow is not necessarily predictable.

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After practicing this piece for more than one performance, I have a couple methods that I know are (and are not) effective. The first method– playing through the piece mindlessly on repeat and hoping my muscle memory retains everything — was definitely not effective. When it came to performing the piece, I could barely get through the first eight measures.

Not soon after that, I tried following a suggested solution: memorize a few notes at a time. I would mentally picture four notes and how to physically play them, then practice the passage aloud. I would repeat that process with those four notes two or three more times, and if able to do them consistently without interruption, I would add four more notes, and think through, then play, the eight notes a few times. I would continue adding a few notes at a time until I was able to get through the whole movement consistently.

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CSO Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma plays a Bach Suite from memory during the 2016 Bach Marathon | Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

That process took for.EH.ver.
There are too many musicians who learn and perform new music, often with little preparation time, and even if it gets easier with repetition, they couldn’t have all become memory pros by using that method.

So here are my tips for memorizing music:

  • Study the main structure of the piece. The most common one to follow is the harmonic structure, and understanding it helps not only with maintaining an idea of what the notes are, but how to phrase them as well.
  • Practice incorporating musical ideas into the memorization process early on. One way to do this is through singing. Cellist and pedagogue George Neikrug advises musicians that when “learning a piece, from the very beginning sing through the musical phrase and then play, trying to imitate your singing. Memorize the phrase immediately.” Singing, on its own, is great memory practice, and it also helps solidify the bigger picture in your mind.
  • Put words to the music. This idea is similar to how certain text becomes easier to remember once put to music.
  • Play through the piece at varying tempi and/or rhythms. Even try using different fingerings. Doing different things challenges your mind to work around attaching notes to one set way of playing the piece.
  • Memorize parts of music that don’t require memorization (e.g. orchestra music). This habit strengthens your memorization skills and can relieve some of the anxiety reserved for performing more exposed pieces by memory.
  • Sleep on it.

A good test for how well you’ve memorized something is to play through the piece in your mind without touching your instrument or moving your body as if you were physically playing (i.e. moving your hands and fingers). I find that the places where I freeze in my mind are the passages where I struggle in performance, even if I have no trouble with those spots while practicing.

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CSO Principal Bass Alex Hanna plays the first two movements of Henry Eccles Sonata in G, from memory, during a 2017 visit to Illinois Youth Center Warrenville. | Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

My last piece of advice is to trust yourself. Once you are on the stage, it’s no use worrying about what you could’ve done. Depend on the work you’ve put in. Less worry allows for less distraction and can free up your memory.

By Civic Fellow and Cellist Denielle Wilson


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