Hear, feel, see… and memorise the music

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Have you ever thought about your preferred way for memorising music? What comes easiest to you – remembering the melody of the piece? The finger movements? Or perhaps at the end of your practice you realise that the image of the score stays really vivid in your mind?

Everyone is different and uses some combination of the above to recall a memorised piece. Sometimes these combinations may even vary from work to work. If you work on memorising a contemporary composition you may consciously choose no to rely as much on remembering the melodic line of the piece as you would in a work composed in the classical period, and instead focus on a different aspect of memorising.

What would happen if you could strengthen your memory by exploring the connections that could be made through other senses even further? And which of these would be most beneficial to you? Try this quick test to find out.


The least favourite?

Think of the piece you work on now, even if you started very recently and only progressed a couple of bars with one hand. Got it? Great! Put the score on your music stand – but don’t open it just yet! Think of the section you played recently – it can be as small as a bar, or part of a bar. Then try answering these questions:

  1. Can you see the image of your chosen bar in the score? Where on the page is it located? Try “zooming in”. How accurately can you visualise the bar you’ve been working on? Could you write it down from memory if requested without having to play it first? Could you play some of the section you played recently, relying on this mental image?
  2. Now open the score. How easy it is for you to play from the middle of your chosen section? Do you have to start from the very beginning in order to play some of the middle notes?
  3. Change your pedal setting to something random and completely different than what the piece requires. Can you still play the bar you have just tried to memorise, even if it sounds all wrong?


Music that you can see

If you have answered “no” to some of the questions from no 1, you probably don’t necessarily rely on your visual perception when memorising (and later – retrieving from your memory) a piece of music. Would you like to strengthen this mental path? Try working more with the printed score (perhaps away from the instrument). Experiment with some of the following:

  • Look at the chosen section and try to remember as many details as you can. When you think you have remembered everything, close your eyes and try to visualise what you saw.
  • Using some manuscript paper, rewrite the sections you want to memorise better. Be as accurate as possible and include pedal markings, dynamics, fingerings. A note: it is probably better to write by hand rather than using music notation software. The connection between the movement of your hand and the motor part of your brain will help to strengthen your memory. Observing the movement of a pencil on the paper reinforces this even more.


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Fingers on autopilot? Back them up

If you have trouble starting from a randomly chosen section (question 2), it may mean that you’re relying too much on your fingers moving automatically to get you through the music.

Our body’s potential for learning to perform certain types of movement automatically is a precious asset. It allows us to free up the mental space to think of other elements of music, our artistic expression… and most importantly – to enjoy performing! However in order to serve us well, automatisation needs to be supported by other systems.

Our first instinctive back up is often familiarity with the sound of the piece (see further for more information on this). But it may not be very helpful if we make a mistake in a middle of a phrase, as picking up the melody right there may often feel almost as awkward as starting a narrative mid-sentence, or even mid-word!

While starting your account from the beginning seems a natural thing to do when interrupted during a conversation, it may not necessarily work in a performance situation. So how do we train our fingers (and ears) to be able to to carry on right away?

  • You will need an “emergency exit” plan. It’s a map of sections of the piece from where you can start playing with confidence. Ideally you should have a good number of them so regardless where a slip happens, you always have a convenient starting point within a bar or two ahead of you.
  • Once you have marked your “rescue points” in the music you need to practise starting from each one of them, so it feels almost as natural as playing the beginning of your piece. A tip: start practising from the final one and go backwards. We tend to know the beginning of the piece much better then the end. Also as going back feels less natural, you will probably have to be much more mindful when learning the music this way.


Turn off the sound (just for a moment)

I hope you had some fun with no 3. That was probably quite an interesting mix of sounds! If you have managed to get until the end of your chosen passage, and you were still sure that you plucked the right strings – well done!

The reason why this can be really difficult is that melody is often what firsts sinks in our minds. When this sounds wrong, we usually take it as a clue that we plucked the wrong string and we begin to question the interval that we just played.

However this can be very misleading. Different pedal or lever setting mean that plucking the correct string does not produce the sound we are used to. To recover more easily from such situation, we need to be really sure of the names of the notes as well as the intervals between them.

How to have the confidence that the sound you hear in your head is backed up by the knowledge of what your fingers (and feet!) should be doing?

  • Sing the melody, naming each note in the passage. It would be ideal if you can be really accurate and name them including all chromatic signs, but for a start it’s enough if you can name the string.
  • Play the melody, naming each interval on your way (a fifth, an octave, a series of thirds, etc).
  • Now go again through the first task of playing the melody with a random pedal setting.
  • When you’re confident you can do it, try playing this one more time and try to change the pedals back to the original setup of the piece while you play!


Take action

By consciously choosing how you want to memorise the music you can greatly speed up the whole process. The more connections you make between the different senses, the more reliable will your memory be.

Everyone is different, and I would love to know – which of the above will you check out in your next practice session? What was most useful, and what was most fun to try?

Let me know in the comments below!