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15 minutes reading time (3051 words)

A choice to be made

The tradition of memorizing music has been traced to the mid-nineteenth century, a time in history when the concept of the performer as a virtuoso was paramount. At that time, suspicion emerged that memorization was undertaken as a means to impress audiences, rather than to enhance musical communication. Performers who are reported to have initiated memorization in concert performance include notables such as Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt.

In subsequent decades the tradition of memorized performance took root in those instances where the performer was given star billing, notably in recitals of solo literature and post- Baroque concerto appearances. Memorizing became mandatory for music students, especially those who sought to become professional musicians. A few exceptions to the tradition also emerged: artists who performed regularly with scores, such as Dame Myra Hess; performances of unusually complex works, especially those using avant-garde techniques; and collaborative performances. 

Despite the fact that memorization became the norm in many performances, periodic challenge arose as to whether memorized performance supports optimal musical communication. In recent times, that challenge has been mounted with renewed vigor. Challengers point to the fact that collaborative pianists use scores in most performances with effective musical results. Moreover, there are those for whom memorization is so difficult that performing without the score is anxiety ridden. In some cases, successful memorized performance looms sonorously that expressive music-making is dwarfed. The solution to this problem seems simple: just use the music. 

This article will survey the question of memorization. The first part will examine the advantages of both playing with the music and playing from memory and point to the fact that each mode requires developing somewhat different mental preparation. The second part will recap techniques that serve those who choose to play memorized performances.

Franz Liszt was one of the first pianists to perform from memory.

Performing with the score

As with all learning, growth and understanding depends heavily upon how the process is undertaken. If one regards memorization as simply the ability to play the music without having the printed score as a reference, the task can become burdensome and even frightening. Under these circumstances arguments for simply putting the score on the music desk become potent, and several benefi ts may ensue: 

  • The stress of fearing a memory lapse is diminished or eradicated. 
  • Observing the score can serve as a constant reminder of the composer's performance directions: dynamics, articulation, phrasing, tempo changes, etc.
  • Following the printed page can provide an anchor with which to help control tempo (rushing, if this is a problem) and the shortcircuiting sometimes caused by adrenalin. 
  • The presence of the printed page may serve the physical process of playing the music, even if the performer is not reading the score in detail. A mere glance toward the printed page can help keep the physical response on track.

Spatial awareness

Successful performance with the score must be supported by efficient physical responses to visual cues, as well as a secure command of spatial relationships on the keyboard, so that the keys may be found with minimal or no visual assistance. Many pianists are blessed with a seemingly innate sense of being able to move about the keyboard accurately. Others find that they must develop this skill through practice. Moreover, accuracy in shifting hand positions or reaching to outlying registers of the keyboard is influenced by the relationship of the body to the keyboard, as well as the physique of the performer. To improve keyboard spatial awareness, the performer's physical relationship to the keyboard should be relatively consistent, for it is difficult to establish the desired awareness with constantly changing physical parameters. 

Exercises to improve spatial awareness are easy to find or devise. If they are not written in a score for your eyes to focus on, they should be practiced without looking at the keyboard, keeping the eyes turned toward the music desk as if a score were present. One might begin by moving each hand separately from an initial hand position to a new hand position, expanding from small intervallic skips to larger ones. The left hand will need special attention, for it is often required to play low notes and middle register notes alternately in various accompaniment patterns. Practice movements triggered by mental imaging of the intervallic relationships, and then seek out and practice examples in music wherein the eye hand coordination must respond to such patterns. 

In practicing such exercises, the hands must move smoothly as they learn to judge distances. A moderate amount of forward motion should be present, using a tempo with enough momentum to keep the hands moving without hesitation. Pianists for whom discerning spatial relationships is difficult may be frustrated initially by playing more wrong notes than they would normally allow. Patience and continued mental focus should result in improvement and eventual mastery. This process of learning by targeting, making mistakes, and correcting has counterparts in many sports or recreational activities. Examples include learning to ride a bicycle, surfing, roller skating, or skateboarding.

Performing without the score

Now let us turn to playing without the score: memorization. Several virtues are often cited: 

  • Memorization invites examination of fundamental elements of the score. Techniques often used to memorize include analyzing harmony, rhythm, and structure, thus building an awareness that enhances the performance. 
  • Memorization allows for greater physical freedom at the keyboard, since the player is no longer oriented toward material sitting on the music desk. This freedom may be helpful when playing music of high-level virtuosity, especially pieces which encompass extremities of the keyboard or contain large or rapid skips. 
  • Some twentieth-century literature uses the inside of the piano to the extent that the music desk must be removed for performance, and placing the score in some other location is often impractical for reading. 
  • A debatable point, but one often made, is that memorization leads to a heightened involvement with the emotional content of the music. Triggering memorized music from within by remembering aural, visual, or physical cues generates a feeling of ownership, resulting in a more personal identification with inherent expressive qualities. 

The advantages cited for both playing with or without the score are not exclusive to either. Obviously those who play with the music in front of them may be just as knowledgeable about the fundamental elements of the music as those who memorize it. Those who memorize may be as observant of the composer's directions as those who keep the score in sight. Either procedure allows for developing a personal relationship with the expressive content of the music. The question arises, then: if both methods of preparing a performance can lead to optimum results, why legislate either one? The answer that has led to the tradition of mandating memorized performance may lie in the fact that many believe memorization sets the preparation bar higher. If one must play a memorized performance, one must undertake a specific study process that supports the challenge. On the other hand, if one knows the score will be there to support the performance, one can prepare by becoming fluent in reading the notes. 

Such reasoning is, of course, imperfect. What's the saying? "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." Indeed, memorized performance can be nothing more than a recreation of a learned physical response. While it is true that most performers will delve more deeply into the music when they know that memorization is mandated, for many others memorized performance also generates an anxiety level that encumbers the performance, often impeding concentration so that physical responses are interrupted and so-called "memory slips" result. 

For some performers, having suffered anxiety or embarrassment is traumatic enough to give birth to a cycle that alternates between fear and "slips" in all subsequent attempts at memorized performance. For others, the uncertainty of the cycle acts as a challenge, one that generates more intensive efforts to conquer the demands of memorized performance. Those who undertake this quest learn that mastery can become the rule, but can also never completely be taken for granted. 

So what should it be? To memorize or not to memorize? The answer depends upon the individual. Those who learn to deal with the challenge of memorizing and the stress of memorized performance may indeed prefer memorizing on a regular basis. With experience, they begin to feel prepared to perform without the score. They develop a mindset that includes memorization as part of the learning process and incorporate techniques to meet the memory challenge from the moment they begin to study the music. Memorizing, then, is not a separate or delayed activity.

Essential memorization strategies

There are many learning processes that feed into secure memorization. Most of these are well known and have been elucidated many times. A review of some of the most frequently encountered might include the following: 

Structural analysis. This technique involves recognizing and thinking about the basic structural elements that make up the music. Some are so obvious that focusing on them, bringing them to the top of your consciousness, might seem like a waste of time. Still, you may be surprised at how many insights you discover as you observe intervallic relationships, rhythmic patterns, and structural components as you move from the overall form or plan of a movement or work through large and small sections, down to groups of measures, phrases, or motives. Indeed, there may be many instances where you say, "I didn't realize that connection!" 

Harmonic analysis. The purpose of this activity is to build what one might call "harmonic consciousness." The process begins with identifying harmonic progressions, both those fl eshed out vertically and those implied linearly. Modulations, cadences, pedal points, and chromatic inflections are identified and labeled. After this initial activity, one might undertake synthesizing these details into a harmonic blueprint of the work, one that can be laid out on the keyboard, much as you would a very simple musical exercise. 

To elaborate, if you were asked to play a five-finger exercise in C major, then C minor, you could do so because you know the harmonic basis of the notes you were playing, how they "fit" on the keyboard, as well as fingering that you associate with that particular pattern. If you were asked to do the same thing in E-flat major, you would use the same mental process, except that the fingering might not be as obvious: you might start with the thumb, but someone else might start with the second finger. It is likely that you would not visualize these patterns on the printed page in order to play them. Rather, you simply "know" them as patterns generated by a harmonic underpinning and laid out on the keyboard in a given confi guration you remember. 

The thinking that allowed you to play these patterns is the same thinking that one aspires to in studying the harmonic components of a score. Granted, the music we play is more complex, presenting a myriad of details, but even partial success in reaching such a level of understanding enhances memorized performance. As you begin to be able to think about the music in this way, you are building the aforementioned "harmonic consciousness." 

Two activities supplement your development of harmonic consciousness. The first is an exercise one might call "sketching." It consists of crafting a simplistic version of the music you plan to perform by reducing it to a harmonic progression with important melodic points fi lled in here and there. The second is somewhat apart from the music at hand, but one of immense value: improvisation based on standard harmonic progressions.

"Strong inner hearing of the music remains the most powerful agent through which the music starts, flows, and is remembered."


Improvisation is an art that has existed for as long as keyboard playing itself. Many of the great composers whose music we play were celebrated improvisers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, to mention just a few. Approaches to improvisation may vary, but historically improvisation in Western music has been based on an awareness of the underlying harmonic progression. 

For those who have not practiced improvisation, beginning exercises may seem mundane: simple cadences, progressions used in keyboard harmony classes, or moving triads or seventh chords up or down the keyboard. As one tries to incorporate melodic fragments and motive repetition in an ever-expanding menu, one may start to make choices, develop preferences, and build an individual style. 

Great improvisers practice incessantly. But even if you undertake this activity regularly for small amounts of time, you will develop a stronger relationship between the ear and the music you are playing on the keyboard. This connection in turn strengthens memorization. One aspires to reach the goal of being able to play whatever one can hear inwardly—an ideal that secures memorization—even if it is only partly realized. Strong inner hearing of the music remains the most powerful agent through which the music starts, flows, and is remembered.

Transfer from score to keyboard

Closely associated with this kind of study is the process through which music is transferred from the written page to the keyboard itself. Pianists play material on the keyboard not only by recognizing harmonic implications, but also by understanding topographical patterns on the keyboard. C major uses all white keys. D-fl at major uses all black keys with F and C tucked in. 

The awareness of underlying harmony and its attending keyboard topography is one of the strongest foundations upon which to build secure memorization. Details of how the music fi ts on the keyboard must supplement harmonic awareness: melodic contours, contrapuntal elements, rhythmic patterns, how the music encompasses the keyboard. As one gets the music "off the page," one builds secure memorization. 

Many believe this transfer should take place relatively soon in the learning process, so that one quickly practices the music at the keyboard rather than from the page. Doing so is not without drawbacks. First, if the written page is minimized early in the learning process, many details may be overlooked or inadvertently altered. This is especially true of expressive directions such as dynamics, phrasing, and articulations. Secondly, if early transfer becomes the norm, reading skills and hand-eye coordination may be neglected so much that fluent reading skills are never developed. 

By the same token, those who leave this transfer to the final stages of performance preparation may find that recreating the music by recalling keyboard imagery has not been practiced enough to realize its potential as a memory tool. A balanced approach is best, that of continuing to study both the score and the images it generates on the keyboard.

Stewart Gordon

Additional strategies

Other perceptions supplement the above processes in varying strengths, depending upon individual gifts and propensities. 

Visualization. One of these is visualization of the score in the mind's eye. Some are gifted with nearly total recall, the ability to visualize the score in enough accurate detail to use it as a guide in performance. This talent is relatively rare, however, and those who do not have it often express envy at the security such activity seemingly generates. Those who do have it have reported that following the score mentally while playing is not foolproof, but carries the same dangers as reading the score in reality, such as losing one's place and having to take the time to relocate. 

Motor memory. Another supplement is commonly called "motor memory." This term usually refers to the act of having drilled patterns of physical response to a point where they become automatic. It is often regarded as the prodigal son of memorizing: easily undertaken but unreliable. Even so, the role of motor response is extremely important, for there is no choice but to rely on it at least partially when one is playing music that is complex and/or fast. 

The challenge is to bring motor memory to a state of clarity and efficiency that inspires a high degree of mental trust. Toward this end, a myriad of practice exercises are well-known: practicing at various tempos, often slowly; learning to play hands separately from memory; breaking the music into sections and developing the ability to start at any one of them; moving forward in the music a certain number of measures, then dropping back (play three, drop back one; play four, drop back three; or any similar combination). 

Such techniques usually result in a sense of security, but most performers must repeat them often to maintain enough confidence to ward off anxiety and ensure solidarity in performance. Indeed, most performers consider this type of drill a necessary part of the job and resign themselves to doing it. Even so, such drill tends to generate boredom, and maintaining mental focus becomes difficult. Varying the drills helps maintain concentration, and often performers devise a menu of activities from which to draw.

An active process

Memorizing should be regarded as an active process. Practicing a piece until random recognition skills allow one to play it without the score is not enough to support confidence under the pressure of performance. If one chooses to memorize, a portion of practice time should be set aside regularly to focus on this skill. These periods should be devoted to one or more techniques that address memorization directly: structural and harmonic analysis, improvisation, ear training, or drills of various kinds. 

Working in segments with some sense of order is a good idea. Attend to all segments of the music to ensure that both easy and more challenging passages get the needed attention. An oft-repeated adage among performers is that "one always has memory slips in the easy parts." As small segments become memorized, take time to unite them into sections, practicing these from memory. Eventually these sections will link up to comprise the entire piece. Even when this goal is reached, small section work should not be abandoned. As noted, securing memorized performance is an ongoing activity. 

Why do some performers undertake such an arduous responsibility? Possibly because of the belief that after many performances a memorized piece takes root within one's being. These musicians feel the music becomes an integral part of consciousness, resulting in a personal bonding, a sense of ownership. This closeness intertwines with the love for the music itself, and the rewards of this relationship more than offset the work involved to attain it.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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