when memorizing music, what is it that they're memorizing?

is it the music like all the note/chord names (like E E F G G F E D C C D E E D C)? the piano keys? muscle memory?

  • 3
    Generally speaking, it is not conscious or abstract memorization like that. Richard's answer is great and I agree; you'll note it's all picked up purely by repetition, not by thinking about "what is the specific name of this note, then the next, then....".
    – user28
    Oct 3, 2016 at 15:26
  • This isn't a duplicate; at least of that question. They ask different things despite having similar answers. Also I want to reply here because it will complement an existing answer.
    – user19087
    Aug 21, 2017 at 4:03
  • To clarify, this question is asking which characteristics of music are internalized by the brain during the memorization process while the other wants an enumeration of those memorization processes.
    – user19087
    Aug 21, 2017 at 4:05

5 Answers 5


The best musicians will memorize much more than that. As a piano player in undergraduate, my instructor had me memorize the music in several different ways:

  1. First, break the music up into approximately 4-measure chunks and be able to begin with any of these chunks on command. The idea is that, if you do happen to get lost in a performance, you know exactly what "chunk" you're in and can immediately proceed to the next chunk with little to no interruption.
  2. Be able to play the music from beginning to end. This is what most people do when they memorize, and they stop after this step. But this isn't enough, in my opinion; this is just pure muscle memory! The player must also be able to:
  3. Play the music at the keyboard without making any sound. In other words, they're just fingering the music. It's amazing how much our brains rely on sound to remind us what to do next; when that sound is taken away, suddenly we realize just how many spots we don't actually have memorized! This combines muscle memory with aural memory and a slightly higher level of thinking.
  4. Be able to play the music as slowly as you possibly can. In doing so, you again remove the aural crutch discussed in the previous step. This will guarantee that you know every single pitch you're playing at any time. Like Step 3, this combines muscle memory with aural memory and a slightly higher level of thinking.
  5. My final step was to perform the music on a flat surface, away from the keyboard. (The keyboard cover is a great spot!) Sound helps orient us, but so does the feel of the keyboard; when that feel is taken away, you suddenly find yourself wondering, "Wait...is that a G♭ or an A♭ in that chord?!" Mastery at this level, in my experience, ultimately means mastery of every single pitch in the piece; this combines muscle, aural, and tactile memory all in one.

I'm sure others may have some more extreme steps they take for memorization; I guess the ultimate would be to rewrite the score, but I've never felt that was necessary.

I have, however, found it helpful to have people ask me various questions at any point in the music: "What part of the form are we in?" "What chord is this?" And so on.

In my experience, it's impossible to know too much about a piece; the more you know, the better!

  • 2
    Do you have any reason for the player to memorize the piece without the sound? It makes sense if there is latency (e.g. old pipe organ) or poor stage environment (loud with no monitors), etc., but in a normal setting aural memory seems to me to be most important. There are some pieces I could play from memory in just any key (that is, transpose it to any other key), but not without the sound. Some I could even write down (in any key) without the keyboard, but to play without the sound - no way!
    – dtldarek
    Oct 3, 2016 at 18:11
  • 6
    I think it's just a form of conditioning and over-preparing. I will say that, from personal experience, that process helped open my eyes to sections that I thought were memorized but were really just surface-level muscle memory.
    – Richard
    Oct 3, 2016 at 18:14
  • 1
    I see, good point. It's true that even being able to play the main line and all the secondaries/counterpoints on a different instrument is not enough to be sure that all the details of intermediate parts (where no melody/counterpoint happens) are 100% correct.
    – dtldarek
    Oct 3, 2016 at 18:37
  • 1
    @dtldarek I have had just such an issue while playing bass in a poor stage environment. Thanks to not having the music properly memorized, I had to try to rely on feeling the vibrations in my hands ... which was interesting, but far from ideal!
    – user28
    Oct 3, 2016 at 19:04
  • 1
    As you progress, you (should!) move from "learning individual pieces" to "knowing how to play your instrument". I suspect "memorization by muscle memory" applies more at the "learning individual pieces" level than later. I find it hard to believe that "muscle memory" works as well as it does, when playing from memory something I haven't played at all for several years - but I haven't spent much time trying to self-analyze how my own musical memory actually works!
    – user19146
    Oct 4, 2016 at 2:24

Think about an actor memorizing a movie script. You certainly don't memorize the letters. You could also memorize the words, but even that would lead to a pretty poor recital. You memorize it at a sentence level, with the intent of also conveying a certain "feeling" that goes along with the words.

To tie the comparison together, individual notes in a piece are like the letters in a script. Chords, and some phrases are like words. Putting many of these together forms a musical 'sentence' and this is the level where many musicians remember a musical piece.


It couldn't possibly be the note names. There would be too many to recall, and apart from that, piano players usually don't think in terms of note names, once the piece has been played a few times. It's more like patterns, fingering, chord shapes/voicings in the intermediate stages of learning. Then, as one gets deeper, where repeats go from and to, and eventually into interpretation of the music itself, when the actual notes are probably not even considered as individual notes, but the effect of different blends and passages are played, maybe in subtly different ways, to find effective ways of using that piece to actually say something musically.

Then, if it's a concerto, or piece where others are playing too, other factors creep in, like how to blend musically with the others, how to work with the conductor, etc. At that point, a lot of it will be muscle memory, but the interpretation will be uppermost in the player's mind, as the map of the piece could be ( but won't be!) automatic. As an aside, someone who is performing at that level doesn't need to be a good sight-reader; they have plenty of time to perfect a piece; but obviously, if they are, then the whole process is short-circuited to a degree. Chances are that they won't have the dots to rely on during a performance, anyway, so it needs to be totally memorised - apart from cadenzas, which may be spontaneous!

  • " As an aside, someone who is performing at that level doesn't need to be a good sight-reader; they have plenty of time to perfect a piece" - not necessarily!! There are plenty of stories of professional musicians who have had to learn (or re-learn) a concerto or an operatic role and play or sing it with only 24 hours notice, because the advertised performer fell ill or something similar .
    – user19146
    Oct 4, 2016 at 2:33
  • huffingtonpost.com/jura-margulis/…
    – Lenny
    Oct 27, 2016 at 2:15

In many genres of music, there is a heavy reliance on repetition, which makes memorization easier.

For example, I mostly play traditional American fiddle music. Most tunes have 2 parts, sometimes 3, usually 8 measures each. Each part is repeated twice, then you start over. So an entire tune can be played in 30 seconds to a minute, to be repeated as many times as you choose. There are some tunes that don't exactly follow this pattern, but all follow some pattern of short repetitions.

As a result, memorization is this style is much simpler than in the longer concertos @Richard's describes, and it is expected that a competent player will play exclusively from memory.

For traditional fiddle music, the musician memorizes the tune by parts. You start with the first part (called A), breaking it down into musical phrases. Often, even the individual phrases contain repetition, varying only in the final chord or two. Once you've learned the A part, you start on the second part (B), again breaking it down by phrases.

The size of the phrase you learn depends on the skill of the player. Professional players can often learn a tune with only one or two repetitions. They are familiar with the patterns likely to occur, so they only need to listen for a few large patterns, and pick up on the few points where this tune varies from what they already know.

Intermediate players will usually learn a tune by blocks of 1-4 measures, repeated many times over. An intermediate player will be able to pick up one or two new tunes in an hour long workshop, although it won't necessarily sound great, and will be forgotten quickly without practice.

A raw beginner will usually need a tune broken down into individual notes, or at most phrases of two to four notes. Part of learning to play is learning to recognize larger and larger patterns of notes, making memorization easier.


I think it is personal.

I rely on the melody and the feeling. The others, notes, kystrokes, etc. I have to derive from that feeling. When I played piano everybody knew my mood when I was practising.

I can imagine others rely on notes first and they derive the rest from that. Another group may rely on muscle memory. I cannot see in their minds, so I cannot proove.

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