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Despite playing keyboard / piano for many years, I don't think I could play a single piece from memory. In one of my earliest lessons, my teacher specifically told me not to learn the music by rote. I think this was to try to ensure that I was learning to read the music, and not just remembering the notes. This has stuck with me - I read the music, and have never actively tried to learn to play a piece without it.

Is it beneficial then, to learn the music, as opposed to 'just' learning to play it?

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    Do you mean 'memorize' in '...never actively tried to [memorize] a piece' and '...beneficial then to [memorize] the music...?' I think this is your meaning, but and edit to your question will make it clear. – Michael Curtis Jan 16 at 21:24
  • Some people just can't play without a visual guide (I can't, and neither can my teacher who's been playing saxophone for 30+ years). That's perfectly normal, especially for a complex instrument like piano. Not everyone has eidetic memory. – Pyromonk Jan 16 at 22:10
  • @Pyromonk you don't need an eidetic memory to memorise a piece of music - there are other terms in which to think of music than a visual representation. – topo morto Jan 16 at 22:41
  • @topomorto, please elaborate. I'm relatively new to music (13 years of experience). – Pyromonk Jan 17 at 2:26
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    @Pyromonk If you have a reasonable ability to imagine and remember sounds, and the experience to be able to translate sounds into sequences of played notes, then you can remember what the piece sounds like (rather than what an abstraction of it looks like) and play it back. Or... If you have some knowledge of theory 'from the perspective of your instrument', you might imagine the piece as corresponding to sets of chords and scale shapes and then be able to play it again that way. You can also remember the overall shape of a piece by thinking in terms of the broad harmonic analysis. – topo morto Jan 17 at 11:10
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Yes, it's a very good idea for a beginner to read the music rather than just copy a teacher's demonstration! But once you progress to music that requires repetitive, analytical practice, you obviously won't be reading afresh each time in quite the same way.

Try playing a well-practiced piece without the music. Your brain may think it can't remember what comes next, but it's very likely your fingers will!

But don't worry about it. As long as you can learn a new piece from the notation, and work it up to performance level, no-one cares if you've memorised it or not.

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Learning to play music from a score on sight requires a particular set of skills. It requires some understanding of music theory (to allow the score to be understood), some understanding of musical style, development of a sense of rhythm, development of finger strength and dexterity, and of course the student must build up the key skill of being able to rapidly read through a score and map the dots to a set of fingerings.

Learning to play from memory requires some different skills, but many of the same ones. Most people (unless they are incredibly blessed when it comes to memorisation) will still need a good knowledge of music theory, in order to be able to build up a map of a piece in their mind. They'll need that skill of internalising the details of a piece. They will probably need an even stronger sense of counting and timing, as the written music is not there to share the load. But of course if you're playing from memory, you don't need the raw reading skills.

Ultimately, a teacher's job is to teach the student what will be of benefit to them. If a student is clear that they only want to learn to play from score, then it seems reasonable to focus on that - but simply telling the student not to learn the score seems an odd way to go about it, as it's impossible to simply "switch off" one's memory. A better way would be to teach the student to cope with genuinely unseen scores.

If an instrumental teacher has no reason to think that a student wants to focus only on one set of skills, my opinion is that the teacher should be aiming towards teaching a balanced set of skills - which of course would include learning to work out a piece by ear, and play from memory.

Is it beneficial then, to learn the music, as opposed to 'just' learning to play it?

Ultimately, it just depends what skills you want to end up with. Any skill is good to have in and of itself, but all skills take time to learn, and invoke an opportunity cost in the time spent. Generally, different musical skills tend to reinforce each other rather well - which is why I think a teacher's presumption should be towards teaching a balance of skills.

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Can you recite to me the story of LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD from memory? Of course you can. You know the structure of the story, the plot, the characters, you've mastered the vocabulary and grammar and what you don't remember you can fake.

Memorization is the same. Once you master the vocabulary (music theory), learn how to spell (music theory) then memorizing music will become easier and sometimes instantaneous because there is so much repetition in all music.

Ear training is also a strong component. As you play, your ear often knows what is coming next and if your brain does too, it will just happen.

When you combine the two you don't even have to memorize. For instance, I don't have memorized the hymn JOY TO THE WORLD but my ear can hear it and my brain can transcribe it from my ear. Without thought I just know that it is: 8765 4321 56 67 78

Not only can I just "fake" that but I can play those numbers in any key because they are numbers. Start learning to read numbers instead of letters. Letters are absolute while numbers unlock the universe.

Just as there are rules for spelling (i before e, an e lengthens the vowel preceding it (cap cape, tap tape)) there are rules for music and knowing them makes everything else easier.

Rote memorization will fail you most every time. Study your scores away from the piano and use theory and your ear. I memorize most of my music by the pool.

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    IMO, "Little Red Riding Hood" is a poor comparison precisely because close to nobody remembers the precise wording of any published version: I'd bet almost everybody just remembers to hit the crucial plot points, improvise the precise wording as they go along, remember to use complete sentences, and often (but not always!) have the hunter free Grandma at the end. The closer analogy is me coming up with an arrangement of "Joy to the World" on the spot. True memorization, where every note (i.e. every word) is precisely remembered in order, is definitely harder. – Dekkadeci Jan 19 at 14:49
  • Given how often people detect mistakes in interpretations of music--and point them out in YouTube comments (e.g. one performance of the Overture to Candide I've listened to)--full memorization is likely crucial if you want to perform classical music in a public setting. – Dekkadeci Jan 19 at 14:56
  • I think the point of this answer is rote memorization leads to an inability to recite a published version of the story. But, we don't learn English through rote memorization and so we can tell the story from our grammatical skill and basic memory of the plot. Currently music teaching is the opposite of that. Student memorizes the recital piece and then forgets it, because they followed rote memorization. – Michael Curtis Jan 22 at 20:43
  • Apparently the OP can sight read very well, but doesn't really have the music grammar (theory) to see common patterns and structure. He's having trouble with complete memorization and (I think) recalling a rough outline. But, I really don't know what the trouble is for the OP. I tried to draw out some more detail with a question on the post. – Michael Curtis Jan 22 at 20:46
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Learning by heart will always benefit, but to avoid that you only play by memory of the fingers or the ear, try to write the notes down in a staff, try to identify the chords and write a lead sheet for the chords like guitar players use to. Finally try to design a mind map of the whole music.

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