Or equivalently I am having trouble remembering the memorized ones. I know that if I work very very much on it, I can memorize a loong sonata. But I want to put the music in my mind in a plausible amount of time.

Maybe an example would clarify things up:

When I am playing a piece, I know there was a G7 chord with three notes. G and F was there. Was the other one a B or D? I don't know. Maybe a bigger problem is: I feel like that the composer just randomly chose B or D there, which is not true of course.

Is there a way to shorten the time to memorize music note memorization?


After a long time edit: The example I gave above is from Chopin's a minor waltz, KK4b, No.11 . I don't really know what causes the difference between the 4th and 8th measure left hands.


4 Answers 4


It sounds like you are trying to cram the piece into your head as semantic knowledge, that is to say a string of facts ("...then comes the G7 chord...").

I do not think most -- or possibly any -- accomplished musicians store whole pieces in semantic memory. They store it in procedural memory, and they store it, above all, as the series of sounds of the piece being played!

Off the top of my head, one thing you can do -- which I suspect you haven't done if you're leaning so hard on semantic memory for memorization -- is to get a recording of the piece you're trying to memorize, and then listen to it all the time. Put it on endless loop on your commute. And mentally play along as you do -- or sometimes physically play along, either at a keyboard, or on a table silently. Sing it to yourself in the shower. In doing this, you're engraving the sound of the piece into your memory, such that you can remember the piece by listening to it from memory. And that's what you should be playing from.

If you can't find a commercial recording, you can record yourself playing it; even yourself playing slowly, or poorly, can be better than no reference recording at all.

And I'd like to add, this is the sort of memorization which pays dividends in expressiveness and interpretation. Music is not a string of facts, even if that's how midi works. Music is sounds, and ultimately you need to experience the music as sounds and engage with it directly that way. To make music you have to free yourself from the score (or at least, it's vastly easier for most people to do so) and from the representation of the sounds as marks on paper or letter names or solfege or any other mere conceptual allusion to the actual sounds which comprise the piece. These things, phrases like "G7 chord of three notes", they are names for these sounds, but not the sounds themselves, they are the signs but not the signifieds, they are pointers, not the values. You must engage directly with the values -- the sounds -- themselves, to inhabit them and bring them to life.

And probably to remember them at all in the first place.

  • 1
    Is just like to add that an important subtype of memory is muscle memory -- you won't need to know the sound or shape/composition of chords at all if your hands are simply forming the right shapes at the right time!
    – user28
    Commented May 11, 2014 at 12:58
  • +1! Your answer is spot on, although you might have stretched the point a little, since I don't remember the sounds per se, I already know the song (I don't even bother learning songs I've never heard of, unless composing), what I remember is what I need to do to the instrument to make those sounds. I play a few instruments, and there are a couple of pieces that I can only play on the instruments that I learned them on. To play a song I already know on another instrument, I can't play it immediately, I have to quickly learn how to play it all over again. Commented May 11, 2014 at 20:19
  • @MatthewRead just so. I think that's what's meant by procedural memory. Commented May 11, 2014 at 21:27
  • @LeeKowalkowski Yes, that is absolutely also a part of memorization of music. However, relying too hard on it has various problems: it's very brittle in the face of physical changes, e.g. slight variability in stiffness in your hands, because it's not a feedback loop. Also, it's notorious for encoding the errors you make as you learn; a piece memorized entirely procedurally is typically one which is hard to improve, because procedural recall is "autopilot". It can be hard to intervene in. Commented May 11, 2014 at 21:30
  • Yes, well, the real errors are ones that sound out of tune, all other such deviations are fair game within reason, I'm pretty relaxed about that being just the way an individual interprets a particular piece of music. People enjoy hearing different interpretations. It could be I don't play anything exactly as transcribed for all I know, I never play along to an original recording of the music to verify my accuracy. As long as it is recognisable and sounds good, that's good enough for me. I don't find that memorizing things procedurally prohibits improvisation, especially not once in autopilot. Commented May 12, 2014 at 12:56

Learn a bit of theory on chord composition. Then, after understanding G7, you will also be able to get A7, B7. C7, etc without further learning. Same about G or Gm. This really saves a lot of effort.

When learning a melody line, I found more easier to remember how many halftones up or down from the previous note. Also, melody lines often use much less various notes than it is possible to write on the stave, so try to remember which notes are in use for the particular melody.


For your example with the partial voicing of a chord, read up on voice leading, which is about how different voices move in a piece. The composer hopefully made some less than random choices, understanding these should make memorization easier.


I memorise all songs that I play, since I do not read sheet music well enough to play from it. I only use (decipher) sheet music if there's a song I have always wanted to play, and I haven't been able to figure it out for myself, and there are no 'how to play' tutorials on YouTube, or cannot find a decent midi version and get the notes out of a midi file editor.

Some songs are very easy to learn and remember, other songs take longer. I usually learn a song's intro for example, just the intro, until I have the intro in fluent memory. If the intro is simple, that doesn't take long, it can be memorised in minutes, but if it's not, it can sometimes take days to master, even memorising a bar at a time.

When I am happy I have a part of a song memorised (whether minutes or days) I then start to learn the next phase of the song to what I've learned. Sometimes a phase of a song has to be broken down into manageable pieces (e.g. left hand / right hand).

When I can play the new phase of a song, I need to practice playing it immediately after the part I already know, ensuring the transition is smooth and seamless.

If I learn a new song, it won't stay in memory if I don't return to practice it soon, preferably the next day.

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