May 29, 2024

how to memorize music

Playing from memory is a skill that I believe is not only possible for every player, but is indeed essential for every player. I never feel that I know a piece, or have "internalized" a piece, until I have been playing it for quite some time from memory.

I always found it quite easy to memorize pieces, and thought everyone could do this, until experience in teaching taught me otherwise. As I began to study the subject, I gradually uncovered the reasons why I found it easy, and others found it difficult. I could summarize those reasons as follows:

1. I practiced more;
2. I paid more attention when I practiced;
3. I isolated sections and worked on them separately;
4. I often played "fragments" from memory during practice while watching my hands, one or the other.

After awhile of working on a piece this way, I would just discover that I could play it from memory, because in many ways I was already doing that when I practiced it.

Why Do Guitar Students Have Trouble Memorizing Music?

You Don't Need To Look At The Notes All The Time!

I have noticed that many students have an absolutely fearful dependency upon the written notes! They seem to "grasp" at the notes with their eyes, while their fingers are having a desperate time trying to get the notes out. This whole approach, and the inner attitude that initiates it, is wrong. 

You must overcome the feeling that you NEED to look at the notes all the time. Notice I said all the time. Of course you must look some of the time. But you must also not look at the notes some of the time. This is the only way the ear, brain and fingers will begin to form the kind of connections they must form in order to play from memory.

After you determine if you are being held back by this fear of playing without notes in front of you, you must examine something else: the quality of your Attention while practicing.

What Are You Really Paying Attention To?

 Attention is what it is all about when it comes to memorizing. People just do not know when they are paying attention, and when they are not, because they are not paying enough attention to notice if they are paying attention in the first place!

I spend a good amount of teaching time simply pointing out to people that they are not really paying attention to what they are doing, or to what they should be doing. Very often, the key to "getting something" is simply REALLY paying ATTENTION.

Examine yourself while you are practicing. If you pay great attention, you will notice that there are a few "channels" of attention playing in your mind when you are practicing.

Channels Of Attention

Usually, one of the channels is the "Critic", the one that points out and magnifies every difficulty you are having! Then the Critic delivers the latest news to that other part of yourself, the "Punisher", who turns up the volume on his channel, so you will hear him as he reminds you that you probably just don't have the talent to ever play what you are trying to play.

And if those two voices don't get you, the "Worrier" probably will, especially when it comes time for your big solo, in front of an audience, or just playing for friends. Instead of focusing on what you need to do, you will be focusing on how afraid you are that you won't be able to do it. I think it's called "self fulfilling prophecy". I know, I've done it many times!

If you are to develop to the higher levels of playing the guitar, these extra channels will have to go! You will have to allow yourself the luxury of turning off those channels, and using the power they have taken up for better purposes, like paying attention to what you need to do while practicing (Intention), and what you are actually doing (Attention).

 Examine yourself when practicing to see if you are broadcasting and listening to those "extra" channels, the Worrier, Critic and Punisher channels.

 If so, pull the plug!

Make A Start At Playing From Memory At Your Next Practice Session

After you turn off those unnecessary channels, take that extra mental energy you now have at your disposal, and focus on what is happening at the moment. Physically, be aware of fingers, hands, arms and body. Mentally, be noticing everything, and THINKING.

If you make a mistake, ask yourself "Why is this happening? What can I do about it? What can I do differently?" Emotionally, be aware of your feelings about the music. (If you don't have any, ask yourself what you are doing with a guitar in your lap!)

Now, try playing some of that music from memory. Two notes, three notes, whatever. So many people say "I can't play from memory". They don't know what they are talking about. Try it, just a few notes, then add some more.

 When you get stuck, THEN look at the music, and pay great attention to what comes next. Say the notes out loud, do whatever you have to do to "burn it into your brain", and then try it again. Play it once while looking, then without looking. Keep repeating that process, you will get it.

 The Three Kinds of Memory

There are three kinds of memory that musicians use:

  • Finger Memory
  • Ear Memory
  • Eye Memory.

 Finger Memory

Finger Memory is the strongest, most automatic, and most primitive form of memory. Like a computer, your fingers faithfully record whatever information is input to them, and just as faithfully, use that information to "compute", which for us musicians, means play or perform.

If the fingers, through Correct Practice, are only fed the right information, the exact information that will lead to the result we want (the right notes at the right time in the right way), they will play accurately.

Of course, if they are given wrong information, or "mixed messages", sometimes right sometimes wrong, sometimes different degrees of both, then they will just as faithfully give that back to us. Through lack of Attention, players often input this faulty information, and wonder why they don't get the result they want.

The power of finger memory is awesome, but it is not enough. I discovered this for myself early on, when I began giving concerts. I must say this only happened once to me, but it was quite a lesson.

I have always played all my concerts from memory, sometimes up to an hour and a half of solid music from memory, (and when you play classical guitar, that's a lot of notes!) Well, once it happened that I got lost, could not remember, and had to go back to the beginning!

Of course, it was quite a lesson in how to handle major embarrassment, but it was more than that. I came to realize that the reason I could not get out of the jam was because I did not have the other two kinds of memory going for me: Ear Memory and Eye Memory.

The thing to realize is that Finger Memory is very powerful, but also very stupid! It is not intelligent. It can't think. I usually think of Finger Memory with an image. It is like a mole, burrowing underground. It keeps moving by instinct, and has an instinct for where it is going, but it is blind, in the dark. It has no awareness of the whole picture (the music in it's totality as movement, sound, emotion).

That is why, when finger memory is all you have going for you, and you get lost, you have to rewind back to the beginning, that is, start the music over, and hope for something better next time around, (which often doesn't happen). Even though the fingers may know the moves to make, they, shall we say, ain't talkin'.

The more intelligent forms of memory are Ear Memory and Eye Memory.

Ear Memory

Ear Memory is very interesting. Some people use it from the beginning of their involvement with playing an instrument. In fact, it is part of the natural approach of someone who has what we call "natural talent". Using it produces strong results as we develop our abilities through daily practice, and anyone can learn to use it, but it is amazing how many would-be guitarists don't!

Ear memory is your inner awareness of the music as sound. Ear memory is the result of your awareness of each note as a sound, heard externally AND internally. Again, it is developed simply through focusing attention on the music as sound sensation during the practice process. Very quickly for some, and sooner or later for everyone else, it develops into the ability to distinguish the important characteristics of sound, such as tone and pitch. It results in the ability (with practice) to reproduce the sound with our own "primary instrument", our body, by singing the notes.

And let me make this abundantly clear. YOU MUST LEARN TO SING THE NOTES IF YOU WANT TO BE A MUSICIAN! I always have my students sing, whether I have to force them to, or they do so willingly! When you sing the notes, you enter into a different relationship with the music, it becomes more real for you.

One of the truest things ever said to me by a teacher was "if you can't sing the notes, you are not hearing them". I have found this to be absolutely correct. By learning to do so, I discovered that many times I thought I was hearing them, but I was not, not in the deep way a musician must be able to hear them.

When we play, the inner hearing of the note that is to come next, the phrase that is to come next, guides and prepares the fingers in their actions. Many students, especially in the beginning, do not have the inner experience of hearing the notes. For them, playing and practicing is just "moving the fingers around". The teacher must test them to see if they are having the inner experience of truly hearing the notes. This is done by asking them to sing.

 The way I look at it, no self respecting guitarist would go through life only strumming chords, and having to find somebody to provide a vocal melody line every time they wanted to "make music". I believe all guitarists, even beginners, want to sing. They are just too "chicken" in the beginning. So, whether you sound like an angel, or croak like a frog, START SINGING!

Eye Memory

Eye Memory is your awareness and memory of the written music. Just as a conductor, standing in front of the orchestra, must know every note that everyone is supposed to play, so you must know, in a conscious way, every note you need to play (or every chord, if you are singing and strumming). This means you must know, and know that you know. 

You must be able to say each note or chord, and be able to visualize, in your mind's eye, the written music, be it tab, notes, or chord diagrams.

When defined as Mind Memory, this form of memory is your awareness of the music as a mental concept, as an idea. It involves your awareness and understanding of ALL aspects of the music, harmonically, structurally, and so forth.

The Actor Analogy

A useful analogy for grasping the essence of the three kinds of memory I have been explaining, is to think of an actor in a play:

1. Memorizing the lines he needs to speak in a mechanical way, solely by repetition is like Finger Memory;

2. Being able to hear inwardly the line that is to be spoken next is like Ear Memory;

3. Understanding the meaning of the words, why they are being spoken by the character, and how they relate to all the other characters and the story as a whole, that is Mind Memory. It is the result of thought, and intuitive involvement with the music.

If Mind Memory is strong, you can never really lose it on stage. Even if you forget your lines (the notes), you can "fake it", because, being aware of the whole picture at any given time, you are able to "think on your feet".


How to Start Using the Three Kinds of Memory

This is done by testing yourself.

Finger Memory: just sit without the music and try to play it. Can you do it? If not, you need more attentive repetitions of the music.

Ear Memory: play the music in your head. Sing the melody out loud. Can you do it? If not, keep trying! Play the notes, hear the notes, outside AND inside.

Eye Memory: close your eyes and SEE the music. Say the first note to be played out loud. Say the next note. Keep going. If you get stuck, look at the music, and burn it into your brain. Say them out loud.

Does it take a lot of effort to have all these kinds of memory working for you when you practice and play? Yes. Is it worth it? Only if you want to be the best you can be!

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