How to Memorize Music and Why

Do you want to leave your music stand at home? You need to learn how to memorize music.

How to Memorize Music and Why | Hannah B Flute

Then, you can move around as you play and engage with your audience. Read on for tips to memorize your next piece.

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How to Memorize Music

Learning how to memorize music can come in handy. Whether you want to play in the dark or don’t want to carry a music stand, it never hurts to learn the notes super well.

Consider some of my best tips for memorizing a piece of music.

Start With a Short Piece

When possible, memorize a short piece before tackling something like a concerto. Obviously, a shorter piece will have fewer notes that you have to learn and commit to memory.

That means you can memorize the music much faster. I don’t know about you, but if something takes too long, I tend to get bored. So if you feel the same way, make your first piece something short.

As a flutist, I first memorized Syrinx by Debussy. The piece is only a couple of pages, so it wasn’t too difficult to learn and memorize. You can always expand and memorize larger works later.

Play Along to Pop Music

Lately, I’ve been loving playing the melodies to my favorite pop songs. I’ve used Musescore PRO+ to get the sheet music. But more recently, I’ve been using my ear to learn the notes.

Pop songs tend to have simple melodies that repeat from verse to verse. The melodies also don’t have a ton of weird intervals. While it takes practice, it can get easy to figure out a melody.

I’ve found it easier to do this with women’s voices while playing the alto flute. The ranges are almost identical, so I can learn and memorize the melody sometimes within a single practice session.

Learn by Ear

Whether you want to play pop music or not, try learning something by ear. This isn’t easy, especially with classical music. However, it can help you internalize the notes and rhythms a bit more.

I’ve found when playing pop songs, that I don’t think about each note. Instead, I focus on the overall phrase. That makes it easier to memorize the music more efficiently.

If you want to do this with classical or pop music, consider listening to the music a lot. Then, you can break out your instrument and try playing along to help learn and memorize the notes.

Focus on the Music Theory

Another thing you can do to help memorize music is to think about the music theory of the piece. Consider the key(s) and any cadences or other important points in the work.

Then, you can use that information to guess a note if you forget it. If you know you’re approaching a tonic chord, you can choose from one of three notes. Whether you get the right note or not, it should still sound decent.

Knowing the music theory can also help you with the overall structure of the piece. So do some score study before you start playing the piece to learn more about the notes.

Play Relevant Scales

My next tip for how to memorize music is to work on relevant scales. If you want to learn a piece in C major, practice your C scales. You can also play the arpeggios for the given key.

Especially when it comes to classical music, a lot of it is based on scales and arpeggios. Knowing those well can help you learn and memorize your music much more quickly.

Ideally, you’d already have memorized all of your scales and arpeggios. If not, take some time to do that now. Work through all of the keys in case you want to memorize music in those keys in the future.

Practice in Chunks

When you want to memorize larger works, break them up into small pieces. Sure, you may already have movements, but go deeper. Find the different phrases or other sections to help split the piece into chunks.

Then, you can play and memorize one chunk at a time. I did this when I took piano lessons, and my teacher had me go backwards. That way, I wouldn’t neglect the later sections, which is easy to do.

Whether you go backwards or forwards, you should practice the music in chunks. Not only can that help you memorize music, but it can help you learn the piece and make it less overwhelming.

Review What You’ve Memorized

After you memorize a bit of music, go over that section again. That can help reinforce the piece or section in your brain. I know it helps me a lot when I’m learning a new pop song.

If I only play it once, it feels like I have to start from scratch when I come back to it in a few days. Now, you don’t need to go over the section multiple times. But you should go over it enough to “seal” it in your memory.

The next time you practice, work on another section and review it. After a few days, you can go through the sections you’ve memorized. Soon enough, you might be able to play the whole piece from memory.

Play With a Lowered Music Stand

Once you’ve memorized most of the piece, you can play through it. But before I do so without the music, I like to use my music stand. However, I’ll place it lower than usual so that it’s more in my peripheral vision.

That way, I can still review the music if necessary. Having the music lower than normal encourages me to try to play from memory as best as I can. If you need to record or perform, this is a good option.

You might be able to get through the performance just fine. But you’ll have the music there just in case you blank on the notes.

Visualize the Sheet Music

Not many people have a photographic memory. However, you can still try to visualize the sheet music. If you’ve worked on memorization, you’ve probably looked at the piece quite a bit.

When that happens for me, I tend to be able to picture the music more easily. I might not be able to visualize the specific notes. Still, I can usually picture the overall contour of the music.

That helps me know if I need to play higher and higher or lower and lower. It’s not a perfect trick. But if you need to play without your music, it’s worth trying to see if it can help you remember some of the notes.

Why Memorize Music

Learning how to memorize music is one thing. However, you may wonder if it’s even worth your time to do so.

Of course, there may be times when you have to play from memory. Marching band is a common scenario. Also, many concerto competitions don’t allow you to use your sheet music.

If none of that applies, you can still benefit from memorizing music. Here are some reasons to put in the extra practice.

More Flexible

When you can play a piece by memory, you have more flexibility. This was nice when I played Syrinx on my senior recital. The piece is very improvisatory, so not using the music let me convey that mood to the audience.

Some pieces are also fun to play in the dark, including Syrinx. If you want to incorporate that into your performance, you’ll need to memorize your music. You could use a stand light, but that can take away from the darkness.

Another advantage of this is that you can connect with your audience more. If you have a music stand, that can be a barrier to getting to showcase your music and your overall playing.

Rely Less on Sheet Music

Sometimes, you don’t have to know how to memorize music. However, you might want to make it less of a necessity. Knowing the piece by heart allows you to put your stand off to the side and at a lower height.

You won’t have to look at it the entire time you perform. That means you can connect more with your audience or with other musicians on stage. You can tell a story when you and your collaborator look at each other more often.

In an ensemble, you can look at the conductor. Some pieces are hard to internalize, so looking at the conductor is vital. The better you know your part, the easier it will be to focus on the music director.

Avoid Impossible Page Turns

I’ve played some pieces where the music had page turns that were impossible or sometimes unnecessary (like a two-page movement printed back-to-back). If you experience this a lot, you know it can be frustrating.

Whether you use print or digital sheet music on an iPad, you’re bound to encounter an impossible page turn at some point. Memorizing the music can help you get over that problem.

And you don’t even have to memorize the whole piece. You can memorize a section at the bottom of the page. Then, you can turn the page early during a rest or a place where you only need to play with one hand.

How Long Does It Take to Memorize Music?

The time it takes to memorize music depends on many factors. First, you have to consider the length and complexity of the piece.

You also need to keep in mind how much time you have to practice. If you only practice a few minutes a day, memorization may take much longer.

Do You Have to Memorize Music?

Sometimes, you do have to memorize music. I had to do so in college for marching band and when I entered a concerto competition.

However, you don’t have to memorize music if you’re playing for a recital or for fun, unless you want to.

Will You Memorize Music?

Learning how to memorize music is a crucial skill for many musicians. It can seem impossible at first, but it gets easier, so don’t give up.

If you want help memorizing your next piece, download The Busy Musician’s Practice Bundle. It contains a practice planner and a guide with detailed steps for learning new music.

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