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Memorizing Music


In order to be good at memorizing music you must be fluent in the language of the music you are trying to memorize. If the piece is in the key of A-flat major but you don’t know your A-flat major scale, you are going to have a hard time memorizing it. Furthermore, you will have greater success if you also understand the harmonic language of the key you are working in. For example, knowing that E-flat is the dominant in the key of A-flat will allow you to recognize the harmonic direction of the music and give you a road map to follow as you remember how the music is constructed. Here is a list of preliminary activities and questions to answer as you begin to memorize a new piece:

  • What is the musical context? Are you memorizing your part for marching band? If so, have you played your part with the entire band yet? Do you also have to memorize marching patterns? Are you memorizing a solo that has piano accompaniment? If so, have you played the piece with piano? Have you listened to recordings of others playing your piece? If not, go on Youtube and do this so you know how the finished product is supposed to sound.
  • Practice scales and patterns in the home key and closely related keys (dominant, sub dominant, secondary dominant, relative minor or major, parallel minor or major, etc.). Patterns can include triads, seventh chords of all kinds, modes, thirds, etc.
  • What is the historical context? Is your solo an original work for trombone, a transcription, or an arrangement?
  • Look up all the musical terms so you know what they mean. Make musical decisions based on the guidance provided in the music so you are not trying to make decisions when you are memorizing. These decisions can include, but are not limited to, phrasing, rubato, dynamics, tempos, etc.
  • Decide where you are going to breathe and make the breaths part of the music. They will be valuable cues for your memory later on – mark in the breaths so you breathe in the same places every time to avoid confusion.

Now that you have some preliminaries out of the way, you can start memorizing using the following strategies. They are divided by global suggestions followed by specific suggestions:

Global Memorization Strategies

  • Devote practice sessions specifically to memorizing and don’t try to multi-task during these sessions. Don’t allow distractions such as having the TV on as you work on memorizing. Limit these sessions to 15 minutes of intense, focused practice and then take a break to rest your brain.
  • The first memorized performance should be something easy in front of a familiar, friendly audience (such as a supportive family member). Minimize the chance that you will have a bad experience the first time you perform from memory because if that happens it is difficult to rebuild confidence.
  • Don’t indulge in “self talk” as you work on memorizing. Immerse yourself in the music as much as possible and don’t allow yourself to assess your effort by talking to yourself internally along the way.
  • Set a target for yourself that you will have the piece memorized at least 3 weeks before the performance. That gives you 3 weeks to reinforce and build confidence.
  • Challenge yourself to perform from memory for increasingly stressful audiences. If your first try is for a family member, perhaps your second should be in church (presumably a forgiving audience!); then progress to your teacher and finally your peers. Don’t underestimate the degree of stress posed by playing from memory for your peers.

Specific Memorization Strategies

You have four types of memory you can use – these are your tools for memorizing: Analytical, Visual, Aural, and Motor (or kinisthetic) memory. Musicians who fail to memorize effectively typically count on only one tool; for example, motor memory (playing by feel) can be an effective tool, but it is subject to interference. If this is the only tool you use and you are distracted by something during a performance, things can go off the rails quickly. Using all four tools gives you a more stable foundation for your memory. Work with them one at a time and then put them all together for a stable memorization network.

Step 1: Analyze.

In this step you are creating a road map to help you remember and it can be as detailed as you think is necessary. Here is the first page of the Lebedev Concerto in One Movement with a rough analysis provided. Of course, you would follow the same process of each of the four pages of this solo – page one is used here as an example. Notice the analysis contains relevant details about the harmony, technique, and form of the piece. It’s up to you which details to include – but every detail must have meaning to you…don’t write something in if you don’t know what it means.

Step 2: Create a visual map.

Next, write out your analysis without the music using blank manuscript paper. Use paper that has the same number of staves as the original so your cues will be in the same spot on the page (that’s visual memory!). Here is a link where you can print some blank manuscript paper.

Now try singing the melody while only looking at the analysis. At this point, don’t worry too much about the details – just get the basic idea of how the melody sounds and where important things occur in the music.

Step 3: Break the music into chunks and practice each chunk individually.

Let the phrasing and your comfort level determine where the chunks are. Here are the first 2 lines of music broken into fairly small chunks as an example:

Chunk 1:

Chunk 2:

Chunk 3:

Step 4: Memorize your chunks individually and then put them together.

This step it where the “work” of memorizing happens. Here is a list of ways you can memorize your chunks of music:

  • Repetition – play the chunk 10 times, then try it from memory.
  • Sing and finger from memory – put your instrument up to your chops so it feels as much like playing as possible BUT – instead of playing, sing the melody as you move the slide to the right position for each note. If you can’t hit the pitches in the correct register, displace them an octave up or down, but always use the slide positions for the written notes.
  • Identify landmarks – this is a more detailed version of the visual map you created before. These landmarks can be slide positions or breaths or whatever occurs to you. In chunk #1, a landmark might be the G-sharp that becomes a G-natural. To a trombone player, placing the slide in third position for the G-sharp followed by a phrase ending in fourth position G-natural has a certain feel that should be easy to remember.
  • Write out on manuscript paper from memory
  • Record yourself playing from memory and play back while watching the music to check your accuracy.

Step 5: Continue chunking and memorizing until you have the entire page memorized.

Don’t continue to the next page until you complete your work on page one. Using all the strategies outlined in step 4 utilizes all your tools: analytical, visual, aural, and motor memory. Forming a bridge between aural and motor memory is very important, which is why I recommend singing and fingering a lot.

Step 6: Record the entire page from memory. When you listen back, watch the music and create a cue sheet of trouble spots.

To create your cue sheet, you will need another blank sheet of manuscript paper. As you listen back to your memorized performance, write in the music for the spots where you slipped up. Write the cues in the exact spot where they appear in the original (that’s visual memory again!). Here is an example of what such a cue sheet might look like.

Of course, your cue sheet will look different than this one.

Step 7: Play the entire page from memory while looking at your cue sheet.

At this point, you will have memorized the entire page and identified a few weak spots. The cue sheet is designed to help you smooth out the weak spots. Eventually, wean yourself off the cue sheet by revisiting the strategies above to fix the issues your notated on your cue sheet. The other way you can practice is to play from memory while looking at your visual map.

Step 8: Sing and finger the entire page from memory.

This final step is here to remind you of the importance of singing and fingering. In my experience, this is the most effective strategy for reinforcing your memory. It can also be very helpful for concert day because you can reinforce your memory without actually playing and save your chops for the performance.