My RCM ARCT Performer's Piano exam is one week away, and at my last lesson I had trouble memorizing Mozart's Sonata in B-flat major (K 333). As you may know, memorization is compulsory for the ARCT exam. But my teacher told me I keep getting notes wrong, having poor phrasing, missing out on dynamics, and the such. At this rate, I would not get a passing grade on this piece and in turn the rest of the exam. (I paid $700 to register and I don't want all of it to go down the drain!)

So for the past few days I have been reading through the score, in particular the places my teacher has circled because of mistakes. Yesterday, though, my mother brought up a suggestion to help me memorize the piece: dictating the music from memory by writing it note by note on a blank score. This is somewhat like dictation when I took Chinese language lessons (writing down a word when it is spoken by someone else), which my mom has done with me many times over the course of my piano studies. She believes that by having me copy the score from memory and comparing my version with the original, she would be able to identify the parts where I have trouble memorizing and have me emphasize my practices on those parts.

That being said, has anybody tried this suggestion and/or does anybody find it a good way to help me memorize everything in time for next week's exam? Will it actually do any good in preparing me or will it just be a stem for more havoc when it comes to exam time?


5 Answers 5


One of my teachers talked about memorization as follows. There are different kinds of memorization, and once you've merged them all, you're set.
1) "See" ,in your mind, the score as you play.
2) Play the whole tune from pure muscle memory
3) Play the whole tune from knowing the notes (rather than "seeing" the written notes)

Then there's the other 3-step process, common to all performances, in increasing order of nervousness.
A) play it well for yourself
B) play it well for your teacher
C) play it well for the audience


When I need to memorize some music, I just practice without looking into the scores. If you don't remember the next phrase - look it up and start again.

You can also try to remember it by parts (e.g. memorize the first part, then the second, then try to play them both).

As of your question - I've never heard of people memorizing music by dictating it. It works with words/poems though, so why shouldn't it work with music scores.


I do what I like to call the avalanche approach.

It is when for instance if a piece is 8 bars, you start at bar one. You make sure you have bar one under your belt, then you go to bar two, then you play the first two bars together, refreshing your memory on the first bar while you learn the second

You keep on doing this until you get all the music under your belt. The method is greatly aided by proper sight reading skills and the ability to read notes well.

Music, for the most part, is not a set of random notes, there is often parts, certain motifs that repeat in pieces, whether it by rhythm or harmonic sequences or some idea that is introduced and then through the course of the piece, meaningfully evolved

This repeating of ideas often means you are not learning 40 bars of new music you are probably more learning 8 bars of new music and 32 bars of variations on it.


Not knowing your knowledge for music theory, I don't know if my advice will assist you in one week.

For me, memorization is a combination of two or three skills. My memorization process is as follows, I take the score to the sofa or pool where I will analyze the melody, counter melodies, structure, keys and chord progressions (use a copy because scores and pools are arch enemies). I will then go back to the piano without the score and do what I can, then go back to the pool. After several attempts I will use the score at the piano then put it away until my next session. As I lay in bed or drive a car or listen to a homily, I may run sections through my head. Eventually I can see an image of the score in my head and read it from there.

There are two other skills which are absolutely necessary; the first is a strong knowledge of music theory so you know what you are looking at. For instance, you would not be able to read unless you first learned the alphabet. Theory is the alphabet to music. Also, you will quickly recognize that all music is essentially the same once you break it down to its DNA. Secondly, I sing every note and every part. If your inner ear can hear it, and you know music theory and intervals, you will just know what the notes are and if you find you don't remember what a note or passage is, you will hear it in your mind's ear and just know what it is. For instance . . .

You probably know the song "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Sing it. Obviously it starts on the third so, using my ear and knowledge of intervals, without ever seeing the music nor having memorized it, I just know that it is: 3212333 222 355 3212333322321

This is the base secret to memorization, improvisation and transposition. Go ahead, if you know your scales, start on the third of any key and play those numbers. Poof, you can transpose. The trick now is to relearn to read numbers instead of letters.

Sure, it is more complicated with a sonata but with time, it gets easier. I played a year of weekly one hour lunch time concerts and each week memorized an hour worth of music. It was hard at first but became easier each week.

Never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever memorize by rote. You're just wasting your time. However, your arms must know where to go so basic scales, arpeggios and patters are good to know from "muscle memory." Technique, too, is in the brain. "Muscle memory" is a myth. The brain controls everything and your muscles are irrelevant.

So my three suggestions are to sing everything away from the piano, learn to read numbers instead of letters. Most of our teachers do us a disservice teaching us letters because they are absolute. Numbers are everything. I consider letter readers to be musically illiterate. Just because you can read letters and match them to a key doesn't mean you know what you are doing. Just like a dyslexic person who can speak but not read. I can drive a car but I don't have the confidence to repair it so, as a car owner, I am mechanically illiterate, but I can drive a car. Finally get a pool. Or a hot tub. Or at least a quiet place to lay down to study. WARNING, lying prostrate make cause drowsinezzz . z . . . zzzzzzzzzz


In European music education, there are several instances of memory engagement. Your professor is right. - make music dictates. First, you'll remember two measures. Next, keep in mind the dictation of 8 measures. Let go three times and try to write down. - Exercise piano compositions by phrase. You can not start and finish anywhere. If happens to stop, you have to know what part to go back and go on. - Psycho liberation: Exercise with closed notes. - Take notes and play. There is anything you forget to go back to where it's convenient to start (you've already done it)

Good luck!

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