When I'm learning a new piece of music (for piano), I tend to read the notes each time until I know the movement for my hands by memory. At that point I don't know what note I'm playing anymore only the location on the keyboard for my fingers.
So when I need to know which note is at what point I need to walk the piece mentally to see where I place my fingers (or on the piano if I'm physically at an piano).

What I was wondering is if this is important to actually know the notes from a piece by head or the motoric memory is enough and if it would bring limitations into the future?

2 Answers 2


The only time I can see this being an issue is if you're attempting to improvise on a song. Since you'd be playing something different that what you memorized and attempting to build on the notes that were there in the first place, it would basically be impossible.

Of course, this assumes that your motor memory is good enough. Quite often all it takes is a single mistake, or a strange environment like a performance in front of people, to break your flow. If this happens it's rare that motor memory is good enough, since you're used to playing in order and not restarting from a portion in the middle.

Beyond this, the notes are just abstract concepts; really no different from the position/muscle-feeling concept your brain has when you rely on motor memory. There's no reason one is better than the other, just do what works for you.

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    I agree with this. And I also think that you cannot trust only in your motor memory. When I was a beginner I ran into this very often, and I couldn't pick up where I left, so I had to start all over again (which might be a little annoying) May 5, 2011 at 21:31
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    I agree that you shouldn't trust your motor memory. I usually do analysis and then break the music into chords. In the early stages of memorization I usually only bother to remember the chords. If you forget something, then you can just fake it. On the other hand, as the piece matures, I do remember every "note", but I'm not thinking "G B A C blah blah" as I perform... Dec 8, 2011 at 0:29

It's perfectly natural that when you practice a piece, muscle memory takes over. But you should always know which measure you're in or you can easily lose your place.

One trick is to learn a piece from back to front. Practice the last measure until you have it down, then the measure before that, and so on, so that you're always starting with the measure that's newest to you and you can start anywhere.

Also, one thing that might limit you is spending a lot of time reading and playing music without really listening. I'd recommend getting some lessons about how to play music by ear - that is, from a recording instead of from sheet music. It's difficult at first, but it's a good way of making sure you have music in your head and not just in your fingers.

  • I like the "play music by ear" idea. I'll ask my teacher about this.
    – Stormenet
    May 12, 2011 at 6:41
  • Thanks for this answer! I was very uneasy with the fact that whenever I tried to play from notes I eventually ended up playing from muscle memory (which can't get me too far on its own), good to know that's a common thing. The idea of playing back to front sounds brilliant!
    – Kos
    May 26, 2011 at 17:50
  • I've read that mediaeval choir masters also taught by this back to front method, singing the final phrase for the choir to hear first, then the last two phrases, etc. I've taught this way too, and I noticed that it really helps memory, as you're always moving to something familiar. It might be worth experimenting with the method phrase by phrase to develop a better musicality with the piece, rather than one bar or measure at a time, which is an artificial convention. After reading this I'm going to try it with some sight singing exercises.
    – Marian
    Jul 21, 2012 at 9:48

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