How to Memorise Music

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Andrew Rickards

Article author My name is Andrew Rickards. I am a piano and music theory teacher based in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs. I offer private music tuition to students of all ages, from absolute beginners to advancing students. I have a particular interest in contemporary music and novel approaches to teaching and learning.
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On June 9, 1840, at the Hanover Square Rooms in London, Franz Liszt gave the first ever solo piano recital. At the time, music concerts would be given by a number of different performers. It was unheard of for a single performer to give an entire concert alone. Liszt, however, was extraordinarily popular, a thorough showman, and exceptional musician. Liszt not only performed the concert alone but also from memory, thus setting trend that still continues to today.

Playing from memory, however, may not merely be a question of fashion. The great pianist Louis Kentner points out in his excellent book “Piano” that you actually play better when performing from memory. I suppose a suitable analogy would be acting from memory as opposed to acting while reading from the script. For me, however, playing from memory is simply more enjoyable.

While many music students claim to struggle to memorise music my feeling is that this is simply because they don’t understand how to memorise effectively. Memory is a skill and can be developed by anybody willing to put in the time and energy.

Music memory tips & hints

First, let me address a common myth. When somebody claims to not be able to remember music well it is often blamed on a “bad” memory. The truth is it is inaccurate to say you even have a memory, let alone a bad one. Memory is not a thing and there is no center for memory in your brain. Memories are spread throughout the brain and nobody really knows how memory works. Nonetheless, those who say they have a bad memory, assuming they are not suffering from some neurological disorder, have simply not learned how to use their memory. Those who say they can’t memorise music, more often than not, have never tried to memorise music. Instead they play a piece of music a number of times with the score in front of them in the hope that eventually it will “sink in”. This is an extraordinarily ineffective way to memorise music. In fact the music hasn’t been memorised at all.  One way I test if a student has learnt a piece of music by this method is to point to a random note in the middle of a phrase and ask them to begin from there. Nine times out of ten they wont be able to.

Now it may sound painfully obvious but if you want to memorise something you need to try to memorise it. In almost every other area of study people realise this but, for some reason, when it come to learning music we tend to forget. If you wanted to learn a list of foreign words you would sit down with the text or phrase book in your hand, repeat the words to yourself, testing yourself every so often to make sure you haven’t forgotten words you learnt earlier. You would do the same with a poem or lines in a play. So, why not music. Although this approach seems obvious it is overlooked enough that I felt the need to mention it. Now we can look at some of the ways memorising music can be made easier.

Try to memorise a long series of numbers, for example; 1,3,6,2,4,7,3,5,8,4,6,9,5,7,10,6,8,11. If you try and learn this by rote you will probably find it is quite difficult to do and takes some time before you can recite all the numbers from memory. Most people can store about seven items in their short term memory. This series, however, has eighteen numbers in it so it presents a bit of a challenge. How do you memorise an eighteen number series when by the time you get to the 8th number you will likely have forgotten the 1st. There is a way around this and it is called “chunking”. Chunking involves grouping a string of items into smaller groups. We do this with phone numbers – 0123 456 789, credit card numbers – 1234 5678 9101 1121 (apologies if this is anybody’s actual phone or credit card number), and many similar series of numbers. The following eleven letters, s, u, b, d, o, m, i, n, a, n, t, can easily be remembered by grouping them into the word “subdominant.”

Let us go back, then, to our eighteen number series and “chunk” it into smaller groups. 136, 247, 358, 469, 5710, 6811. We now have six items to remember. Obviously a three or four digit number is more difficult to remember than a single digit, but we have reduced the number of items to remember by more than half so it should still be noticeably easier to remember this way. But we can do even better than this. Music is all about patterns. Patterns of sound are what distinguish music from noise, and just like chunking, seeing patterns in something you are trying to memorise can be very helpful. If I now arrange those six groups of numbers in a slightly different way, see if you can notice a pattern. As soon as you can see the pattern, try writing the number down from memory;

  • 1 – 3 – 6
  • 2 – 4 – 7
  • 3 – 5 – 8
  • 4 – 6 – 9
  • 5 – 7 – 10
  • 6 – 8 – 11

You can see now that instead of trying to memorise a series of eighteen numbers, you really only need to remember the first three and know how to count. (Using previously remembered material like counting numbers to aid memory can be remarkably effective, which is one of the reasons I am such an advocate of music theory – which is all about recognising pattens and order within music.) Music is filled with this kind of pattern as the following passage demonstrates

music memory example

If you wanted to learn a passage like this you could try a memorise the complete sequence of twenty-one notes, or you could group them into seven groups of three, as in the diagram below. Now you will only have to remember seven chords plus the arpeggio pattern instead of twenty-one individual notes;

music memory example 2

The passage below is a slightly more complex version of the first example but can still be reduced to the same seven chords. Learning to recognise these patterns, even when they take on a more complex form such as the one below, can be of tremendous benefit to any musician wanting to memorise a piece of music.

music memory example 3

We can actually go even further, however. Instead of remembering seven groups of three notes, you could just remember a single chord shape by playing the first chord, then simply move up the scale, one note at a time, until you get to the last chord;

music memory 4

I hope you see how effective thinking about music this way can be. In a strange way, however, this kind of memorising can actually be more difficult than rote memorisation, but that is kind of the point. Olympic athletes don’t look for the easiest way to train, the look for the most effective. What is useful about this approach to memory is that is forces you to concentrate on memorising. How else could it be done?

Chunking and pattern recognition are two strategies that can aid not just your memory of music but many other things also. However, those memories are still only short term memories. The next step is to look at way to get your short term memories into your long term memory.

Memory Systems

Think of your memory like a filing cabinet. You place your files in the cabinet where they are stored until you need them, at which point the files are retrieved. Just like a filing cabinet, your memory needs to serve three functions; 1. You need to be able place your memories there, 2. Your memories need to be safely stored, 3. You need to be able to retrieve those memories. If any one of those steps is missing you have not remembered. Now imagine you have two filing cabinets. One in which you place your files in an orderly manner, alphabetical order for instance, and another in which you place your files randomly and without organisation. It is obvious which cabinet is going to be more useful. Well, your memory should work the same way. Too often we treat our memories like the second filing cabinet, throwing our memories in randomly in the hope that we will stumble upon them when we need them.

One thing that makes memorising music particularly difficult is that it is entirely abstract. No phrase or passage of music actually contains any meaning. No chord or melody represents a concrete object. Research has shown that it is considerably more difficult to remember abstract terms than concrete ones. So one trick to memorising music is to impose some meaning onto it. How? Well, there are several things that can help us but first of all let me point out that to try to impose meaning onto the music as you hear it is probably not going to be of much use – unless, of course, you are a synesthete and have perfect pitch. So we need instead to impose meaning onto the score (sheet music) rather than the music itself.

(A short note about music theory;

Understanding music theory, at least at a basic level, allows you to see things in a score that you would never see otherwise. A sense of order is revealed through music theory (which should not come as a surprise since this is precisely the purpose of music theory) and the kind of patterns which make memorising music easier stand out all the more once you understand a bit of theory. Even more importantly, perhaps, is that these patterns and the order they reveal in music will not just apply to one piece of music which you happen to be studying. What makes music theory significant in relation to memory is that it can be applied consistently to almost all music, and it is this consistency which is most important in relation the kinds of memory techniques I am about to illustrate.)

So how do we get short term memories into our long term memory? First keep in mind that memories are not either short term or long term. There is no sharp divide between short and long term memory and information can be stored in the memory anywhere from 30 seconds, to 80 years. For the purpose of memorising music, you want your memories to stick around at least long enough so that you don’t need to re-learn them in your next practice session. This is why regular practice is so important (see How to Practise A Musical Instrument Effectively).

Now let’s look at some of the techniques people have used in the past to memorise things. In my description of the memory systems below I will explain how each one has been traditionally used, then afterwards talk about how they might be applied to music. If you haven’t heard of any of these systems before then prepare to be amazed!. Keep in mind that these systems can be used to memorise just about anything with far greater efficiency and longer lasting results than the normal method of rote leaning.

Quick test

Before reading any further give yourself 3-4 minutes only to memorise this list of 20 words in order; bucket, cake, boat, pig, book, basket, car, sandwich, glass, clarinet, nail, bed, paint, cinema, money, surfboard, phone, spices, computer, goblin.

The Link System

In the link system each item of information in a list is “linked” to the one before and after in overlapping pairs. For example, if you wish to remember a “to do” list; post letters, buy milk, do laundry, practise piano, and walk the dog, then you would, via a vivid and memorable mental image, link letters to milk, milk to laundry, laundry to piano, and piano to dog. (If you are wondering why I linked letters, milk, laundry, piano, and dog, rather than posting, buying, doing, practicing, and walking, it is because they are concrete and easily visualised as an image. As I mentioned earlier, concrete things are much easier to remember than abstract things. The second example, all verbs, could apply to many things; post what?, buy what?, do what?, etc… This may not help you remember anything in the end – except perhaps that you need to do something!) So, to remember your “to do” list you may, for example, conjure up an image in your mind of pouring milk over a bowl of letters or posting letters in a giant milk carton, using milk as a laundry detergent or washing clothes made from empty milk cartons, hanging a piano on the line to dry or pegging your laundry to the strings of an upside down grand piano, and your dog playing your piano. How this system works is that each image you conjure up will be a trigger for the next one, each item will remind you of the others either side of it in the list.

Guidelines for effective images

All of these memory systems will involve, in one way or another, the use of mental images. When choosing an image to help you remember something, you may want to keep a few things in mind;

  • Naturally, the image should be memorable. Usually what is out of the ordinary is more memorable, but it needn’t be bizarre or unrealistic. Of course, if the bizarre or unrealistic are what you remember best, then by all means use that method.
  • If the image can illicit an physical or emotional response, such as pain, disgust, or joy, so much the better. This will help to make the image even more memorable.
  • The image should be vivid also. Make it a large image with bright colours. Ideally you want to feel as though you are in the image yourself.
  • The image should be detailed. Don’t just think of any milk or any dog, but a specific brand of milk, a specific dog.
  • Usually the image that comes to mind first will be the easiest to remember latter, so trust you instincts.
  • If you find it difficult to think of images at first remember that, just like with everything else, you will get better with practice.

The Story System

The story system is similar to the link system only instead of linking pairs of items in a list you use those items to construct a story. For our “to do” list the story might go something like;

“I went to post some letters today and when I opened the post box gallons of milk started pouring out of it. My clothes were drenched in milk so naturally I had to wash them. As I approached the laundrette I heard a strange noise and when I got there I noticed that all the machines were gone. Instead there were rows of upright pianos. I walked over to the one making the strange noise, opened it up, and astonishingly my dog jumped out from inside and asked to go ‘walkies’.”

Of course a story that works for one person may not work as well for another. If you can make it personal it will be more memorable. Also make sure that each event in the story leads to the next one.

The Loci System

The Loci system (pronounced LÓ si) is the oldest mnemonic system we know about, dating back to 500BC. In this system you take a series of well known locations – well known to you that is – and attach the items to be remembered to those locations. Places like your home, work, or school are suitable locations for the loci system as they will be known well enough to easily navigate in your mind. To use the loci system, you will choose specific locations (loci) within your home, work, or school (whatever location you have chosen) and mentally place the items to be remembered in those locations. If you choose your home, for example, the loci might be; the path leading up to you house, just outside the front door, the table where you place your keys or wallet when you get home, the fridge in your kitchen, and wherever you keep the TV. There is no limit to the number of loci you can have but they should be distinct, so don’t choose two book shelves as separate loci, for example. The loci should also proceed from one to another in a logical order, you don’t want to back-track, and this order must be the same every time you use the system.

Now you have your loci you can place the items in the to do list there. The path leading up to your house may be lined with letters or the trees may have letters instead of leaves. Several crates of milk might be blocking you front door. The table where you normally put your keys or wallet may be buried under a pile of dirty laundry. In the fridge you might find all of your piano books. And you might find your dog by television with it’s lead attached to it. To remember your “to do” list you need simply to take a mental stroll through your home (loci). Each location along the way will serve as a trigger for what you are trying to remember.

One advantage of the loci system over the link and story systems is that in the link and story systems, each item leads to the next. So, if you forget one item in the list it will make it very difficult to remember all the ones that follow. This is particularly disastrous if you happen to forget the first item. In the loci system, however, because the order of loci is predetermined, if you forget one thing you can just proceed to the next loci and continue from there.

If you have more things to remember than you have loci you can combine the link and loci systems. In this case each loci is associated with the first item in a linked list i.e., you might place the first item in your morning “to do” list in the first loci, and the first item in your afternoon “to do” list in the second loci. At each loci you would proceed through the lists as you would using the link system alone.

The Peg System

All the systems listed above have a disadvantage in that to remember anything you must start at the beginning and and move through the list in order. The peg system allows you to remember items in a list not only in order, but in any order – backward, odd then even numbered items etc. It also allows you to go straight to a particular item without having to go through the list. There are many different versions of the peg system, all of which involve taking abstract material like letters and numbers and turning them into concrete images. For numbers it might work like this; 1 = bun, 2 = shoe, 3 = tree, 4 = door, 5 = hive, 6 = sticks and so on…

Letters can work the same way. You might choose a word that rhymes or that starts with the same sound; A = hay, B = bee, C = sea, D = deer, E = eel, F = effigy etc…

Or, instead of using rhymes or words that start with the same sound (some of which can be a bit contrived), you may choose words that start with the letter; A = apple, B = bee, C = cat, D = dog, E = egg, F = fork etc…

These words are called “peg words” and the way you use them is by linking them to the things you have to remember. If we use the number pegs to remember the “to do” list we would link bun to letters, shoe to milk, tree to laundry, door to piano, and hive to dog. I’ll let you imagine on your own how that might be done. Now if you want to remember the third thing in your list you would think of your peg word for the number three, in this case tree, the your image linking tree and laundry should immediately come to mind. If you want to remember the list in backwards order you would count down from five to one, conjuring up each mental image as you go.

One disadvantage of the peg system is that it can be difficult to think of number peg words beyond 10 and impossible to go beyond 26 with the English alphabet. Either way, you are likely to be limited in the number of peg words at your disposal. One way around this is to combine systems. If you use both number and letter peg words you can have up to 260 combined peg words; A1, A2, A3, A4… B1, B2, B3, B4… and so on. You could also combine the peg system with the link system. If you have a list of 50 things to remember you could break the list up into ten lots of five. Then the first item in first list is linked to the number 1 and from there you proceed with the normal link system. When you get to the end of that list you move on to number 2, and repeat the process, just as we did when combining the link and loci systems.

Phonetic System

The phonetic system is probably the most versatile and powerful of all the mnemonic systems described here. It is also probably the most difficult to learn. It is similar to the peg system except without it’s limitations and the added advantage that it can be used to remember long numbers. Here is how it works;

The numbers from 0 – 9 are given sounds. I have seen a few different versions of this but this list is typical;

  • 0 = z, s, soft c. Think of “z” for zero.
  • 1 = l. Think 1 looks like a lower case L.
  • 2 = n. Think “n” has two downstrokes.
  • 3 = m. Think “m” has three downstrokes.
  • 4 = r. Think “r” is the last sound in the word “four”.
  • 5 = f, v. Think the two consonants in 5 are “f” and “v”.
  • 6 = b, p. Think 6 resembles a lower case “b”, and “b” sounds like “p”.
  • 7 = k, q, hard c, hard g. Think K can be made using two 7s, and “q”, hard “c” and hard “g” sound similar to “k”.
  • 8 = t, th, d. Think the last sound in “eight” is “t”, and “th” and “d”, like “t” are dental consonants (you make the sound by touching your teeth to your tongue).
  • 9 = j, sh, ch, soft g. Think 9 resembles a “g”. “g” sounds like “j”. A “j” sound is similar to “sh”, and “ch”.

These sounds can then be used to make up words, e.g.; 1 = eel, ale, 2 = hen, inn, 3 = ma, ham, 4 = roe, oar, ray, 5 = hive, half, 6 = bee, pea, 7 = cow, key, egg, 8 = toe, tea, dye, 9 = edge, shoe, ash, witch.

What is important with this system is not the letters used to spell the words, but the sounds used to pronounce them. To go beyond 9 you just need to think of words that combine those sounds; 87 = tick, duck, dog, 14 = lyre, lore, lure, 52 = fan, vine, heaven, 21 = nail, Nile, Nellie, 845 = tariff, 629 = punish, 28264724 = Anton Bruckner.

When forming these words you must keep the sounds in their correct order and you must make sure that there are no other sounds in the word that represent other numbers – vowels plus “h” & “w” are okay. So 78 = “cat” and not “cats” which is 780, 84 = “tire” and not “tired” which is 848.

As with the other systems, the phonetic system can be combined with the others to make an even more powerful and versatile tool for memory. Earlier I mentioned that we needed a way to get our short term memories to become long term memories. If it hasn’t occurred to you already, the way the peg, loci, and phonetic systems work – besides giving you certain triggers to remind you of what you want to remember – is to attach new memories to pre-memorised material, that is, material that is already in your long term memory. The peg words, loci, and phonetic words can be used again and again for many different things and I encourage you to explore the possibilities.

At this point I will ask you to go back to the list of 20 words I asked you to memorise earlier. I will assume that unless you have an exceptional memory, or where using a similar technique to the ones just described, you weren’t able to memorise the entire list in the allowed time. Give yourself another 2-3 minutes only this time try using the Link or Story system. The Link and Story system are the simplest to understand so they are a good place to start. You won’t have had time to learn the other systems properly by I hope once you see how effective even the simplest memory system can be, you will be encouraged to explore the other.

Remember that your visualisations must be vivid and memorable. Don’t move on in the list until you have an image firmly in mind.

How this helps the musician or music student?

Now, without wanted to spoil the party, I have to point out that music is far more complicated than the memory tasks that these techniques are designed for. Lists, long numbers, and speeches are one thing, but music is a whole other ball game. Even a simple melody is more than a mere sequence of notes. Those notes will also have a particular rhythm and a particular pitch (there maybe several A’s, for instance, each in a different octave). Nonetheless, these memory systems, while not designed for memorising music, can teach us a lot about how the memory works and we can actually adapt these techniques to at lease aim our memory of music.

Solfége or Solfeggio, is a system used in aural training and sight singing, gives each of the twelve (actually twenty-one) notes of the chromatic scale a single syllable name, which allows you to sing the note ant its name at the same time. To sing a C, for example, you would sing the word “C” (sea) on the pitch of C. Below is a diagram of the twenty one notes of the chromatic scale and their solfége syllables;

Memorising Music - Solfege Peg Words

With this, we now have at least the beginnings of a memory system for music. You may like to use these solfége syllables to make your own music “peg” words (or you could use the ones given in the example above). Obviously you wouldn’t try to memorise music by converting each note into solfége syllables, then into peg words, then linking each one, or forming a story out of them, or putting them in different loci. That would be a needlessly protracted method for memorising music.

When the ancient Greeks used the Loci system to memorise speeches, they didn’t memorise the speech word for word. Rather, they would memorise the speech in topics. We need to do the same when memorising music. Instead of memorising note for note we may use pattern recognition and chunking to remember individual phrases or sections or music, then those sections can be put together with the help of our solfége peg words and the other memory techniques we have learnt. You might, for example, use one of the memory systems to remember the first note or chord of each bar in a phrase. This note or chord will then serve as a reminder for what is in the rest of the bar. Remember, these techniques don’t get you out of putting in the work, you will still need to remember the contents of the bar, they simply help you make the most of your time. If you spend enough time learning a phrase in this way it will soon become an identifiable unit. Proceed to the follow phrases and memorise them in the same way and you can then treat those phrases in the same way you did each bar previously.

Of course, music is very complex and different situations will call for different approaches. Once, I had a student, about 10 years old, learn a simple piece, without a score, using a combination of the peg and story systems. Together we came up with a story as I taught her the notes. At the beginning of each phrase we would find words that began with the same letters as the notes we were playing. Those words would then be incorporated into the story. Certain patterns within a phrase would also be incorporated into the story. For example, a descending scale beginning on C would be represented in the story as a cat walking down some stairs. Before the end of the thirty minute lesson she could play it from memory. A week latter, despite not having a score, and evidently having not practiced at all (nothing unusual there), she was still able to play the piece from memory. I personally don’t use the story system much but in this instance, and for this particular student, it seemed to work.

It is important to remember that these memory systems take practice. And the more the practice them, the more effective they become. You may find some of the techniques work better for you than others, and you may discover your own methods or systems of memorising music. If you want to know more about memory and memory systems I highly recommend Kenneth L. Higbee’s excellent book “Memory – How It Works & How To Improve It”.

One last note. None of this is meant to make you a better musician. The point of memorising music is so that you can give your full attention to the music when it comes time to perform it. These techniques then, must be discarded at some point between having memorised a piece of music and when it comes time to perform it. You don’t want to be telling yourself odd stories or mentally walking through your home while trying to perform. What these techniques are meant to do is shorten the time between first picking up a new piece of music, and being able to practice it without the score in front of you – which, in many ways, is when the real practice begins. If you want to take full advantage of these techniques then you should practice away from your instrument, but that’s the topic for another article.

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December 1, 2012 |

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