When I'm playing a piece and I make a mistake, or I just want to practice a certain part, I can't play just that part. When I try to start in the middle or beginning of a phrase I realize I don't know the fingerings, but somehow I can play the piece decently from a specific point or the beginning, where it is easy to start.

This makes me believe that I have not yet memorized the piece by heart. I can play it without thinking too much, and although I can sing the notes in my head, I don't really know where they are on the keyboard


3 Answers 3


You have memorized the piece by heart fine. That's different from being able to synthesize the piece by heart and in-character or verbatim at any point.

Try adding improvisations and embellishments and cadenze of your own. This will throw you off-rhythm, and partly completely off-piece frequently or occasionally at first even while your own additions will start out being embarrassingly simplistic. But it's quite a larger step towards working off-script than just playing without score after your "finger memory" can deal with the whole piece in sequence.

  • memorized the piece by heart... That's different from being able to synthesize the piece... +1
    – Stinkfoot
    Oct 7, 2017 at 11:06

this makes me believe that I have not yet memorized the piece by heart yet

Not necessarily true: Our brains (most people's - unless you have total recall...) memorize things using pattern analysis - in blocks. You know a particular sequence - break it up and you can get confused, but why do that? It's a nice challenging exercise, true. But that's not how you're going to play the music, so IMO it's not that important. (Unless you're constantly late for gigs - in which case you won't have to worry about it very long...)

i can sing the notes in my head I don't really know where its on the keyboard

I think that's a different issue, not necessarily linked to memorization. Since memorization is your goal, you see this problem manifest in those terms, but getting something from your head to your instrument is always one of the fundamental challenges of playing music.

Training your brain and your ear and connecting them to your instrument so you can express the music that's in your mind is something every musician has to work on, most of us for a long time - even a lifetime. I've had musical lines in my head from the age of 5 and it's taken me 50 years to figure out how to express them on my instrument. (I'm not all that talented and I'm not a full-time musician - some people get there quite quickly.)

In general, rather than worry about that "bad habit", I'd say focus less on mechanical memorization per-se, and think more about ear training, generalization and theoretical analysis of what you're playing. Those are skills that will make it easier to play something/anything - "from memory", because you won't have memorize lots of specific details. You'll understand the theory and the patterns underlying the music you're playing, and the right notes will logically follow. Rudimentary example: It's a lot easier to remember "G7" - a G Dominant 7th chord, than it is to remember G-B-D-F. You have one data point to remember, instead of 4!

Analyzing, generalizing and understanding the common, all encompassing patterns that comprise a system is important for learning music, or any deep and complex discipline. (I was taught that approach originally when I studied Law.)

When I learn something new, I read through the chart and then analyze it before I play the piece. When I hit it, I already have a theoretical blueprint in my head of the music I'm going to play: OK - this is a 32 bar tune with an 8 bar head that you play twice. Then it's a II-V-I that starts in Bb, and moves down through the circle of 5ths every 8 measures, with a chromatic section in the last 2 bars to bring it back to the top... - the result is that a large percentage of what I have to play comes automatically. I only have to remember specifically those parts that are different - unique to that particular piece of music. In that example, maybe I'd only have to remember the details of the head and maybe how that chromatic turnaround is played, although that could also be something standard.

Granted: I'm a bass player and I play Jazz and RnB, so sight-reading and absolute memorization are usually not important to what I do - it's more important for me to generalize. Still, IMO this idea is valid for all musicians, and I know that the good classical players use plenty of analysis to get to their interpretations. That certainly helps them to play from memory as well, when necessary.

An accomplished musician can read and analyze very quickly - virtually simultaneously - that's something to strive for. (I cannot do that. I take lessons from someone who can, and he makes a nice living playing bass for every possible sort of gig, in NYC no less.)


Two things may be wrong. The first is you could be musically illiterate. Knowing how to match a note on the page to a key on the piano is not literate. So easy, a monkey can do it for a reward.

In order to learn how to memorize forever you need to become literate or learn music theory. You also need to train you ear. I can hear a song and just know what its notes are. Technically I don't have anything memorized but, if I can hear it, I can play it. Mary Had A Little Lamb, for instance, is: 3212333 222 355 3212333322321 I don't "know" that that is correct but it is what my internal ear says it is. I can now start on the third tone of any scale and play that song.

Music theory is the alphabet of music. You learn the alphabet, you learn to sound out letters, you learn rules and soon you can read, memorize and sound out words. That is all music theory is. Sadly, most teachers teach the letter system which is absolute and quite frankly, illiterate.

The second part is if you are having trouble starting in the middle of phrases, that is probably a technical issue. The arm is like a robot machine full of levers, pulleys, rubber bands and fulcrum. Utilizing in/out, up/down, gravity, forward shifts, grouping and pronator/supinator rotation, the notes should just fall out of our hands effortlessly. If they don't, we are using the incorrect muscles to play. If one leg of a tripod is half the size of the other two, the imbalance will cause the tripod to tip over. Our arms are much the same. The slightest imbalance in the arm will cramp the fingers and render their execution uneven.

Most technical issues and injuries are caused by using two muscles simultaneously to move one bone. Like a dog pulling to the right and you pulling the leash to the left. Either the dog gets hurt or an imbalance occurs between one of you.

When you walk, each foot comes straight down on the ground. If there is a slight imbalance, you can sprain an ankle. If there is an imbalance in the arm, the tendons become strained. Each finger must come straight down on each key and it is the arm that places it there. The finger doesn't lead the arm. Like waxing a car, the arm places the hand.

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