I have the experience that when I learn a piano piece, what really happens is that I memorize the key patterns of the song, instead of understanding on a harmonic basis what is happening (The common notion of "your fingers playing the piece by themselves"). The consequence of this, is that the performance of the piece can be altered critically depending on my emotional status, for example not feeling in control when performing, or not being able to restart from any random place.

Instead of pattern/shape memorization, I try writing out the harmonic analysis (what chord in which inversion am I playing, what mode, or what scale degrees are the target notes of the melody, etc) so that I also have full 'intellectual' control of the piece and I feel in control. But regardless of how much analysis I do, I find out I end up just memorizing patterns anyway.

Is there any standard way of avoiding this? Is this even feasible/recommended?

What method of "memorization" prevails on professional classical musicians?

My guess at an answer, to motivate 'intellectual' understanding of a piece, is to learn the piece in all keys. This enforces playing by understanding rather than muscle memory. For my level of playing this would require quite a bit of time, and at the end I am not sure if I would just end up memorizing 12 different muscle-patterns anyway.. (if I have memorized 12 different pieces, then it shouldnt be a problem to memorize the same piece in all keys..)

A second issue might be that my sight reading is poor, which leads to fast keyboard-shapes memorization and not much real reading. Maybe better reading skills would tackle the shape-memorization problem?

3 Answers 3


Instead of pattern/shape memorization, I try writing out the harmonic analysis (what chord in which inversion am I playing, what mode, or what scale degrees are the target notes of the melody, etc) so that I also have full 'intellectual' control of the piece and I feel in control.

This is quite a good start. Additional to this there are some other ways that I practice when studying all the other Inventions and Sinfonias by Bach (2 part and 3 part) which I've never looked at before (over 50 year I was always playing the same few nr. 1, 8, 13, 14).

  1. Transpose the piece in other keys
  2. r.h. plays the subject of both hands and the l.h. plays the harmony
  3. both parts with one hand (assembling wide layers together or helping with the l.h. only if needed.
  4. one part in octaves (finger 1 and 5)
  5. play one part and sing the other (do re mi or the real note names)
  6. play from ear memory and improvise (variation) on the chord progression by changing the rhythm, (triplets, dotted notes, syncopation, jazzing, changing the time (transform as a Waltz or a funeral march, or all the dances of a Baroque suite)
  7. compose a Choral (underlying fitting lyrics of a poem, children song, church choral or Ave Maria.

(Exercice 1. and 2. can be practiced from a lead sheet (just notating the chords) or adding (minding) the lyrics of point 7.)

Btw. I know exactly what you mean. I had the same problem: I didn't play with concentration and every time I fell out of the fluency I was totally lost - even when I knew what is happening.

This advice is not for every one as the way of playing is actually quite individually. Some musician have a perfect muscle memory - and in addition with the memory of the tune and the harmony (without any analysis!) their fingers find their way and know what is to do.

  • These are some great and creative suggestions I've never thought of before
    – hirschme
    Mar 28, 2020 at 15:20
  • I’m right now applying this in Bach sinfonia 11 in g-minor: ex.2 ... ;) Mar 28, 2020 at 16:26

With poor sight-reading usually goes the need to learn by rote - playing over and over until muscle memory has it. That is repetition, and is far more a mechanical process.

The 'analysis' of a piece usually comes later - the brain is pretty well occupied in the initial stages merely getting the right notes in the right order in the right timing.

For your 'problem', learning in all keys isn't going to be the answer. Once it's 'learnt', mechanically, vary the pace - a lot. Make yourself start at different ponts. Not only the beginning of a phrase, but anywhere. If needs be, when starting in the middle, pretend to play the first part before actually playing.

As far as mentally examining and understanding the piece, for good sight-readers, that sometimes comes much later. In fact, for some players, it doesn't happen at all. If you didn't know that this part was where V/V was played in order to lead into a modulation, does that really matter? Does it stop you playing it well? To some, yes; to others...

I think one key is to improve your sight reading, so that you don't have to spend (waste?) so much time actually learning where the fingers go. It's not an easy journey, but certainly one worth making.

  • thanks Tim, yes while reading other similar threads on this site it ocurred to me that sight-reading might have a big influence on the way one learns and internalizes a piece.
    – hirschme
    Mar 28, 2020 at 15:21

Great question, and equally great answers and suggestions. The only other suggestion I could add is to make yourself a spectator for a while. Stop playing the piece for a few days. Find a recording of it that you like and listen to it a few times a day. Listen to it in different ways, emotionally, melodically, harmonically, analytically, anything you can think of aside from, “What notes am I playing in this or that bar?”. Where does it start? Where does it go? How does it get there? Just let it wash over you for a while and absorb it as a whole, then come back to it at the piano. It might give you a fresh approach and a different perspective.

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