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Please share your memorization techniques for piano music. I'm good enough at sight reading to have avoided learning how to memorize effectively, which is now holding me back on tougher pieces. For such music I need to transition from constantly looking at the music to looking at my hands (at least sometimes), when I increase the tempo. I practice 2-3 hours a day, usually in two sessions, usually 3-5 times per week. I've tried visualizing the notes but that's so abstracted from the actual music and my tempo already fast enough, that I can't visually recall and process in time - especially for pieces with many concurrent voices. I also have more difficulty memorizing contemporary pieces which I don't understand theoretically. For example, Bach preludes and fugues are much easier to memorize than Shostakovich preludes and fugues. In time actual mistakes made tend to erase my visual recall. I also try "air piano" (playing on a flat surface) but without the sheet music in front of me I don't improve.

Edit (in response to @Tim & @David):

I try to minimize mistakes during practice. If I take a piece I can play perfectly with sheet music and try to play it from memory, the mistakes accumulate until I can no longer play it perfectly even with sheet music. In fact the approaches outlined in Answer: What exactly do pianists/musicians memorize? all seem to lead to this outcome.

Also, I'm as close as can be without actually being tone deaf. I'm pretty good at telling when two notes are slightly out of tune, but in any other situation I can't even tell which note is higher, even with octaves. It goes without saying that I can't carry a tune.

That said, I agree that I must be internalizing something auditory and melodic during practice. I sometimes hum along, though I've been told (though I can't tell) what I hum is completely discordant with the actual music. That said, I learn such pieces much faster.

What to hum for more contemporary music? For example, I have Prelude No.2, Op.87 (Shostakovich) up to half speed. That's fast enough to think of each half-measure as a single chord. Except subsequent chords change just one or two notes. I don't think the approach outline in Answer: How do you remember your music and how do I improve in this regard? applies; there is no standard pattern or melodic shape.

I'm currently playing that piece just once each hour with sheet music (only on weekends, unfortunately) in the hopes that will increase acquisition. That said, I don't think repetition and muscle memory are completely dependable. I play smoothly until I stumble over an unexpected section. Rather than my muscle memory having failed; I suspect my conscious brain broke the concentration of my muscle memory. In either case I suspect memorization must also include some form of conscious future expectation be it melodic or visual.

Edit v2:

So I've memorized that piece and can play it perfectly without sheet music. While there might be a shape component to the memorization (i.e. the shape of the arpeggios) in addition to a melodic/auditory component, I find no visual component. I don't look at my hands and expect a certain finger to play any concrete upcoming note. If I get lost, I "consult" the shape of the arpeggio in my mind to then determine which note to play next. And since my eyes aren't any help - except when needed to calibrate jumps - I can pretty much play blind.

This has helped me play the piece using sheet music. In fact with sheet music I can play at full speed (excluding those four difficult measures). Unfortunately and despite constant and extensive daily practice my memorization, as usual, seems to be deteriorating. Despite my best efforts and slower tempo, without sheet music I make more and more mistakes. I actually play better if I look at music of a different piece, or at least away from my hands. Worst of all, this always happens. The most common mistake is either to play the wrong measure or to forget what follows. The second is to make disparate connections between distant measures. If both measures contain the same sequence I'll unconsciously splice them together, ignoring everything in-between. How do I stop this?

My current theory is that I use the sheet music as a "focus point" in aiding my concentration, which without I simply zone out. Contrary to one answer, despite focusing on sheet music I have full control over its interpretation (dynamics, speed, etc), though I am unable to improvise or transpose the music.

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Practice tunes that you know without the music in front of you. If you can't get through a whole piece, play as much as you can without checking the sheet music. Learning to play from memory is a skill like learning to play from sheet music, and it takes practice.

One extremely helpful thing to do that will help you in many areas of your playing is to sing the notes as you play them. Don't sing the notes that you play, rather play the notes that you sing. The idea is to internalize the music so that you know it by heart.

@Tim has made a good point in the comments about singing over chords: what note should you sing then? Sing the root. Is this then a harmonic approach to memorization?

For the most part I also think harmonically, but that isn't really what I meant. First and foremost I meant that you need to practice playing from memory in order to be able to play from memory. Singing as you play, with the focus on singing first, playing second, is a great way to internalize tunes. You can do it with melodies by singing the melody, or with harmonies by singing the roots. In either case you probably need to try to hear the changes in your head, and that is the focus of an exercise like this: to shift attention from playing to listening. Even if you don't know the theoretical basis for the music you are playing, or the names of the chords, you should still be able to hear the sounds internally.

It is also helpful to develop your understanding of tunes by analyzing them, and every new way that you have of thinking about a tune will help you remember it. But when theory fails, you should always be able to fall back on your inner ear. Further, playing from a position of listening tends to lead to more musical playing, in my opinion at least.

  • That's not easy to do when three or four notes are played simultaneously. Which get sung? – Tim Aug 12 '18 at 15:38
  • Sing the root; the point is to hear the tune internally and play from there rather than relying on visual memory. – David Bowling Aug 12 '18 at 15:41
  • So a sort of harmonic approach, thinking In chord progressions, which is pretty well the way I tend to map pieces, seeing them as a journey through various chords? – Tim Aug 12 '18 at 15:46
  • @Tim -- I tend to agree, but that is not exactly what I meant. I have updated my answer to add some clarity (?). – David Bowling Aug 12 '18 at 16:07
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David's answer covers more than adequately how to memorise a piece. The other way, which works for others, is the simple repetition.

Played enough times, it's like almost everything else we do in life. It becomes automatic. It may take 50 repetitions, or 500, but when it's ingrained, it's there pretty well forever. I occasionally pick stuff up that I haven't played for 30, 40 yrs. If I had played it enough times when I was learning it, it comes back quite quickly, proving something.

Funnily enough, the French word for practice is repetition, which is telling in itself.

That's not to say that I would expect anyone to be able to play a piece 'automatically', but taking the physical side of actually playing the piece means there is then room for the most important part of playing - interpretation. And with all else set free, that's entirely possible.

  • the repetition method requires practicing more frequently but perhaps in smaller blocks of time. another tip is to work part by part, instead of trying to memorize the whole thing in one go. – kat Aug 13 '18 at 20:01
  • also, if you work part by part, then you don't have to use as much time to memorize that small bit! – kat Aug 13 '18 at 20:27
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I use a combination of methods to memorize music.

First, I study the score away from the piano. Not only do I study the melodic pattern but also the chord progressions, the counterpoint, the voicing and key changes. I break everything down into it's "music theory." I also don't see the letters but their number value and the key it is in at the moment. Any time a melody or pattern is repeated, it doesn't matter what key I am in, the numbers are the same.

Secondly, I sing every part.

Combined with visualizing the score in my mind's eye, by also having it in my mind's ear, I can both see and hear the score. Knowing my intervals, if I can hear it, I just know what the notes are. For instance, my ear is telling me that Bach's little Minuet in G (or whatever key you choose) is: 5 12345 11 6 45678 11 I don't need to know if it is right or wrong, I trust my ear. That is also the secret to sight transposing. Reading numbers, not letters. Letters are absolute.

I executed a year of weekly one hour concerts and most everything was memorized. With practice, this method gets easier and soon, you just know what the notes are. Very little of my memorization is rote. Rote is fleeting and should never be trusted. What is in your brain is forever. Even if you forget what a page looks like, your ear and knowledge of theory will fill in the gaps.

I would parallel it to reciting a fable. You can probably tell me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I'm sure you don't have it memorized but your combined brain, "ear" and verbal improvisatory skills can recite it fairly accurately.

There is nothing hocus pocus about music. It is numbers, theory, patterns and vocabulary. Just like the way you communicate verbally. You don't pre memorize your conversations. You "make them up" as you go along because you have mastered vocabulary and verbal improvisation. Most musicians who can only play notes are "illiterate" in this respect. Like a person who can speak but not read. Most pianists are people who can read but not speak.

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I think the problem lies here:

"Also, I'm as close as can be without actually being tone deaf... but in any other situation I can't even tell which note is higher, even with octaves."

From my own experience, it's hard to memorize when you solely rely on sheet music alone. The problem with reading music is it conditions you to simply translate what you see on the page, so memory recall isn't practiced and your own musical intuition in regards to theory/chords/scale isn't either.

Here's a few suggestions:

Don't worry about playing it exactly as written on the page, especially in regards to harmony. you could just figure out what chord you're on (I,IV,V,etc). After you figure out the chord you could use many types of left hand patterns, inversions, voicings, rhythms, to play it. also if you know the scale of the piece, the melody is just the notes of the scale which makes it easy to find it by ear.

People usually obsess about making every note correct as the sheet. I think it's far more important to know the theory behind what you're playing so you can bend it and add your own interpretations, transpose it to different keys. the more you do that the more songs in the future will be easy to play. as mentioned before, first thing to know is the scale you're on. from there you can derive the melody and chord numbers.

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    If you deliberately play it differently to how it's written then you haven't memorized it correctly, surely? – Brian THOMAS Aug 13 '18 at 14:48
  • @BrianTHOMAS I didn't mean play it so it sounds differently. The melody will obviously remain the same, but the harmony doesn't need to be an exact match because harmony is generally open to variation anyway. – foreyez Aug 13 '18 at 14:52
  • funny thing about those that are downvoting me. know that Bach himself was mainly an improviser and that's how he got famous. you're limiting yourself if you're just mechanically playing other people's music. there's nothing creative about that, you won't be able to internalize it. and consequently, it'll be much harder to memorize. – foreyez Aug 13 '18 at 15:09
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    Sorry, but when "some dude on the interwebs" starts comparing him/herself to Bach, any credibility that they might have had before that point just disappeared. (The same applies to self-styled scientists comparing themselves to Einstein, of course) – user19146 Aug 13 '18 at 17:33
  • I can see what @foreyez is getting at- being free with the music is better than being stuck to sheet music. I really wish I had developed that part of music more on my part. However, when playing formally, I'd only use this method as a cover-up, instead of relying on it. – kat Aug 13 '18 at 19:57

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