How to Memorize a Song

How does one memorize a piece of music? Every music student/musician encounters this. Whether it is that Classical Piano Sonata, Rock song, or the chord changes to a jazz tune, memory seems to “fail” us at one point or another. Or is it us that “fail” our memory? (Please see “(Perfect) Practice makes Perfect”)

There are 4 main ways that the human mind/body tends to remember:

  1. Physical/muscular
  2. Aural/audio
  3. Visual/photographic
  4. Analytical/theoretical

PHYSICAL

This is often known as “muscle memory”. This is one of the strongest, but also one of the most fragile. Do you ever find that if you lose your place, you cannot continue, but have to start from the beginning? You are relying a little too much on muscle memory.

Repetition is key to strengthen muscle memory. This is why if one “practices wrong”, he/she will most likely perform “wrong” (in whatever area). This tends to be the most common way for (especially younger) students to practice, as they are usually simply told to practice a piece of music X number of times.

AURAL

This is the “remembering how the song sounds like” method. This works well with short pieces, or short sections of longer pieces. Students who mainly “play by ear” will be quite strong in this area. It is highly encouraged for students who learn mainly by sight to spend more time strengthening this aspect of their memory.

Asking students to sing what they play will most likely enhance their sense of listening. If they can sing by memory, they most likely will be able to play by memory. This goes beyond just singing the melody – many piano pieces have 2 or more voices that must be managed, and it is very common for even the students who have strong ears to struggle with parts that are not “singable”. However, trying to sing even the unsingable would create a stronger imprint into one’s memory.

VISUAL

This is the common “photographic” memory that seems to be quite sought after or admired. In some circles it tends to be seen as a rarity, almost in the same classification as those with perfect pitch. However, this is more common than one may expect.  The North American Culture is, without doubt, largely a visual one – children are brought up TV, movies, video games, books, magazines, comics…etc.

Without going into which visual medium is more healthy than others, all of the listed media can be referenced to when learning a piece of music.

When one is committing a song to memory, physical sheet music is usually involved. Those who learn completely by ear usually memorize the piece as they “learn” to play it at the same time (more on that later).

Good, intentional use of colors on the written page can enhance one’s memory of order in a song. Memorizing a song is much similar to memorizing a story. A Story is most often broken up into characters and scenes. In other words – who is involved, and what happens to them? In a musical context, simply look and see when attempting to memorize. Who (which hand/voice) is involved, and what happens to them? Realizing this will lead us into the 4thmain method of memorization…

ANALYTICAL

How does the story unfold? One can recognize chords and harmonies, but this needs to make personal sense to the one memorizing the piece. If a C chord going to an Ab chord means nothing to the student, it is of no use for the teacher to point out the harmonic movement. Identifying musical phrases and/or chords (or even single notes) as characters or situation/scenes will most likely strengthen one’s recollection of the piece at hand. Draw little pictures if necessary!

The musical score can be quite static or even abstract at times, and “personalizing” the score with colors and pictures can not only help memory, but also make it more enjoyable. When one enjoys something, they are also more likely to remember it!

To take it a step further, these colors and/or pictures can be drawn in sequence, so that they create a complete, logical story that the student can tell in words. Can the student “talk through the piece” in question? If so, they most likely will be able to play it by memory!

A closing thought – why do students (particularly piano students) spend weeks, months, and even years to “learn” a piece of music, and only spend the remaining few weeks before a performance/exam to “memorize” it? Does learning a song involve memorizing it? If so, the tactics used to memorize are really tactics to musical practice!

About Us

Resound School of Music was started in 2009 with a vision of providing the finest music instruction available from the comfort of your home. But don’t be mistaken; we’re not your typical, stuffy music conservatory, nor do we want to be. Instead, we are the music school that was designed with you in mind.

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