Okay, let me start with my own story. I jumped straight into playing classical pieces on the piano without much in the way of formal musical education. By now I know how chords are built (but it takes me a while to name them) and some (pre-?)intermediate music theory, but it doesn't really help me with the memorization of music as 'patterns', as I hear other people do. I found that I gradually forget pieces, with the symptoms being that I know how it's supposed to sound, but my hand fails to find the right position on the keyboard if I haven't played something in a while. It's scary, but I think that until now I learned to memorize with only muscle and visual (keyboard position) memory, which fades over time.

So how do you manage it? What do I need to know and how do I develop skills to memorize music better, without relying on unreliable instinct? Also, I'm wondering, do other musicians know exactly what both their hands are doing at a given moment? I often find that if for example I'm playing some fast passage with the right hand and jumping on chords with the left, I often let go of the faster hand so it's going 'on auto' and focus on the other (usually the one that jumps around the most). Is it normal? Or maybe lazy and dangerous?

Thanks for any insight into the matter.

EDIT: Actually, what I meant by 'from the sheet' was learning to play the piece from the sheet music but playing it from 'memory', whatever memory it was (I'm not sure myself). My sight reading skills are quite weak, as can be expected without much musical education, and I had to repeat passages over and over to get them in order so memorization seemed to come naturally, only that it proved to be very unreliable later.

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    To be completely honest, it seemed like a great idea at first to jump right in and disregard 'everything but the music'. Eventually it turned out I actually missed the music by about, uh, well, a huge stretch. ;) Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 1:18
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    A small sample of what I managed to "play" without actually understanding anything, if you care to watch: youtube.com/watch?v=NrBeA6duki4 Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 1:21

4 Answers 4


Musical memory comes in two flavours: unconscious (muscle) memory and conscious (mental) memory.

Muscle memory comes with repetition and can prove to be surprisingly long-lasting - provided it has had sufficient reinforcement over time. It's something that gets ingrained every time you play a piece - provided you know it well enough to play it without errors every time.

Consicous memory consists in knowing what you are supposed to play in musical terms and being able to play it whenever necessary.

Whenever you try to memorise a musical fragment, it will fall in one of two broad categories:

  • a. melodic shape

  • b. standard pattern

I'll address standard patterns first, since they provide a form of musical shortcut. A standard pattern is a musical fragment that is common to many compositions and stems from the rules of chord or scale construction. Thus, standard patterns will include chord forms, chord changes, arpeggios, scalar runs, sequences and progressions. Learning standard patterns is a fundamental element of mastering instrumental technique, exactly because they are so commonly used.

Melodic shapes, on the other hand, are fragments without a clear construction rule, generally specific to the piece in question. While longer melodic statements may include phrases that have been used in many other pieces, overall, the melody will be piece-specific.

In order to develop playing from memory, you should make a directed effort towards memorising your repertoire and playing it from memory. If thus far you have mostly been playing from sheet music, you should begin to incorporate pure memory playing into your practice. Thus, once you have memorised a piece (more on that in a second), you should try to henceforth play it from memory only, when practicing.

To develop a conscious memory of the piece, you'll need to analyse its construction in order to identify the standard patterns and melodic shapes that make it up. Don't try to take the whole piece in at once; rather, break down the form into its constituent sections and memorise one at a time.

To begin with, note the key, meter and tempo of the section you are studying. Next, look at the harmony and chord progressions - if your knowledge of harmonic theory is lacking, note and memorise the acutual chord names, if you're confident enough to identify the functional relationships, all the better - you can simply apply the memorised functional structure to the key you're playing in and not have to worry about naming each chord. Look at how the harmony is executed: whether it is through chord fragments, arpeggios, repeating patterns etc. and note how the chords change. You should be creating a mental map of the part, with any standard patterns serving as mental signposts.

When analysing the melody, be on the lookout for any runs, sequences, repeating patterns - anything that you can conveniently name and commit to memory. Again, the aim is to create mental shortcuts; rather than trying to memorise the melody note-by-note, standard patterns allow you to mark larger fragments with a name and starting note and can then be played from your knowledge of the pattern.

Melodic shapes that aren't standard patterns must be memorised note-by-note, but even here you should be looking for characteristic elements that can serve as mental signposts. Be especially aware of any phrase repetitions, directional changes and the like.

The key is to think as little in terms of individual notes to be played as possible. Every time you can "dump" a group of notes into a collective shape, pattern or progression you are saving mental overhead for memorising the rest of the piece. Naturally, your ability to do this will depend on your knowledge of standard patterns, so it's a good idea to devote some time to studying theory, harmony and fundamental techniques. This will further your understanding of what you are playing and thus make memorisation easier. You'll also probably find it easier to concentrate on one hand at a time so you are consciously aware of what each hand is supposed to be doing at any point.

Once you have the individual sections memorised, you'll need to bring them together by memorising the form of the piece. Again, you should be trying to think in terms of mental blocks (the sections you have studied) and be aware of any repetitions.

Thus far I've been focusing on the issue of notes (pitches) to be played, but the above also applies to rhythmic values - any time you can identify a repeating rhythmic shape, you can memorise it as a block, rather than thinking in terms of the individual values of each note and rest.

  • Thanks for your effort in writing a detailed answer. I realized my question was misleading in regard to 'playing from the sheet', because I seem to play from memory, but actually I don't know what kind of memory it is, and it fails quite often after I stop practicing a piece because (I think) it's not reinforced in theory enough. Edited to reflect. Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 1:31

You might want to try learning songs by ear - from a recording instead of from sheet music. Playing a song that's in your head is a skill in itself and it's not something you'll pick up by reading sheet music and playing it.

Someone with more experience will have to say how much it applies for classical music, but it seems like it's a good skill for an all-around musician. Each way of remembering a song should reinforce the other if you know how to convert between them. Muscle memory is normal and it's why we practice, but it's only one way of remembering.

(Note: ear training takes practice and you should probably start by learning intervals and working on simple tunes.)

  • I will add to that if you don't mind: If you want to play a song by ear (including the fullness of the music, not just the main tune), it helps to listen to it frequently for some time, so you don't have to pause and rewind during the time you put it to the piano. Commented Jun 5, 2011 at 17:19

Your other question ( How do I begin finally making music on the piano? ), also boils down to how one can fill the gap between Declarative memory and Procedural memory (i.e. more 'scientific' terms for unconscious vs conscious memories other answerers mentioned).

The answer proposed for there (see above link) i.e. learning to think in relative pitch by singing solfeggio and playing songs from memory in different keys are specific practices to help your hands "to find the right position on the keyboard". You do need to spend time doing the practice with different material to gain proficiency.

The "stickers with solfeggio name on piano" trick there (see above link) helps you unite your 'muscle memory' with your 'visual memory' by associating BOTH with NAMES (i.e. 'verbal memory').

To answer your equestion in the title: improve how you remember music by using AT THE SAME TIME multiple ways of remembering the same material.


From what you wrote, I would suggest practicing scales and arpeggios. This might sound to you dauntingly tedious, but it's actually for a different reason than those professional (classical) pianists who devote hours into practicing them.

Since it seem that you can recognize the patterns on the score conceptually but find it a bit hard to realize it on your instrument, practicing scales and arpeggios could help you get familiar with the keyboard and thus build/strengthen the mental and muscle memory connection between what you conceptualize in your head and what you actually play. However, don't simply play those scales in ascending or descending order for full octaves, but change directions and even change the scale/arpeggio you're playing whenever you like. For example, when playing a C major scale, you might play C D E F G A G F E G F E D E D C B A G F# G A B C D E F# E F# G A B A G F# E D..., changing directions and also moving to the G major scale while playing.

This practice (or the like) is actually advocated by many professional pianists for the reason that it makes practicing scales and arpeggio more inspiring and creative, thus making it not as tedious.

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