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JULES OF ALL TRADES | A blog about learning.

How to memorize music

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There are a few questions about music that I’ve been asked many times, and one of them is how to memorize music. The sort of memorizing I’m talking about is the level that you need for high-stakes performance, such as for a Shakespearean actor, a competitive dancer, or yes, a concert pianist. This is long-term, secure, unshakeable memory. And it’s learnable.

I see some people sharpening their music critic knives (or recalling this article by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times), ready to fight me on whether we even care about being memorized in performances. They have a point: memorizing does not necessarily add anything. I’ve seen performances off-score that are boring and some with score that are mesmerizing. However, like it or not, it is a skill that is still expected these days, especially of pianists, and it is worth knowing how to do it.

If you are a musician who must or would like to memorize well, it can be hard to know where to begin. Like many areas of human ability, society has a fixed concept of memory: Jimmy has a good memory. Janie does not. The truth, of course, is that there are many types of memory and that it can all be developed.

For better or worse, as a kid, I was deemed blessed with this monolithic “good memory.” In piano lessons, I would cover up my lack of practicing by playing back pieces I’d heard on the radio, or transcribing pieces from my kiddie orchestra to the piano, or trailing off from my Haydn sonata into a silly tune before meandering back to where I’d left off. Memorizing seemed effortless. When I got to piano grad school, I had all kinds of deficiencies (maybe all of them), but I could still count on my memory. My professor, a gentle yet exacting Russian master in his 80s, seemed partly amused, partly annoyed by this. Often, we’d pick a new piece, and by the next lesson, I’d stumble through it with my eyes glued already to the keyboard. He declared that I must memorize pieces by simply looking at the cover.

That confidence fell apart as the protective shell of youthful arrogance wore away. A massive FAIL also helped. At the age of 28, I had my first mortifying memory slip. I had brought Bach’s Partita in E minor to a jury of some sort at the Manhattan School of Music, and I launched into it, confident of my Baroque prowess. It happened in a split second: at one of those cruel Bach-ian forks in the road, I took the first one instead of the second, and realizing my mistake, stopped dead in my tracks, hands in the air, mouth open - shocked. I think I also said out loud, “WHAT THE F…….” We musicians all have auditions and performances that we’d rather not remember, and that is definitely on my list. That traumatic experience, and conversations since with colleagues, teachers and students, set me on a journey to really understand how we remember music.

I won’t talk about memory generally. There are a billion books you can read on that. For now, I’ll talk about the four kinds of musical memory and how you can use them. They are: aural, visual, physical, and structural. I’ve ordered them that way because I’ll make the case that most people rely too much on the first few and find themselves in a pickle because of the last one.

AURAL MEMORY

This is the memory that tells you how a piece “goes.” You don’t have to play the piano to have this memory; in fact, all of us have it because we can recognize tunes and even sing or whistle them back -- no piano skills needed! Some of my most endearingly frustrating students have been beginners with a wonderful ear who insist on picking out tunes on the piano, plinking each key in a game of melodic whack-a-mole until they find the right one. They know what they’re looking for because their ear tells them when it’s right. This might be the form of memory all of us, including serious musicians, rely on the most. In practice, we often fix wrong notes only after we hear them, rather than knowing when they’ll crop up in advance. Aural memory is very accessible, but the problem is that it’s reactive, not preventative.

VISUAL MEMORY

Unlike aural memory, which is strong in all musically-minded people, musicians differ in their strength of visual memory. I am very much a visual learner (which is why lectures put me to sleep), so I can remember the layout of the score fairly quickly. Most people have a bit of this ability, which is why when you put the score in front of them briefly, they can often pick back up with just that tiny visual stimulus. However, few of us have what approaches photographic memory, so even if we can see large sections in our visual memory, it usually doesn’t help with the details … such as the note you’re looking for at the moment ... on stage.

PHYSICAL MEMORY

This is an interesting one because, for the most part and somewhat sadly, in the world of competitive music, we greatly value musical athletes. It’s no one’s fault, exactly. We can’t help but feel awe at a little kid with a lightning fast bow-stroke, even if all she plays is show pieces. We can’t help but reward a pianist with accolades when he plays lots of notes accurately and rapidly, even if there is no sense of shape to the music. As humans, we are impressed by what others can do with their bodies because we can’t imagine ourselves doing the same. The physical dimension has been, and always will be, an arena for measuring human capacity and achievement. We wouldn’t have competitive sports otherwise.

However, the immediacy of the acclaim for physical achievement can be damaging because it overshadows other kinds of development. The infatuation with musical athletes explains the legions of young people relying on feel to know what to do. This is why you have conservatory students the world over pounding away at their pieces for hours, repeating them over and over and over in the practice room. This is why a lot of advice on memorizing focuses on repetition, often offering no more than variations on repetitive exercises. These exercises are based on the belief that, to strengthen muscle memory, you must do reps, just like you do for physical muscles. It also suggests that, with enough reps, you’ll be strong enough to withstand anything. There’s tons of this kind of advice on the internet, and it drives me crazy. Because it’s not true.

Here’s the problem with muscle memory. The minute something about your physical setup changes - whether a different piano, a different performance space, a different lighting or audience setup, a totally different temperature - your physical memory is affected. You are never, unless you perform in your practice room, performing in the exact same physical conditions in which you practice. That alone is enough to throw someone off track. Furthermore, we haven’t yet mentioned the mental dimension. Are you just a pair of arms? No. Those arms are controlled by your brain, and that pesky organ can be distracted by a cough, by a sticky key, by anything outside of your control. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography right now, and she’s got an endearing story about her first piano recital and being completely boondoggled by the fact that the recital piano had nice, smooth, unblemished keys, unlike her teacher’s snaggle-toothed keys. It’s okay, Michelle. We’ve all been there.

STRUCTURAL MEMORY

Here’s what I believe: nearly all memory issues stem from a lack of structural memory. The best way for me to explain this is to ask you to tell me your life story. Tell me where you were born, what your parents were like when you were growing up, what you thought of your school, what you loved about your summers, who your friends were, etc. You could probably talk for as long as I wanted you to with ease, but if you think about it, it’s an immense amount of information! Anyone else would have to work hard at telling your story back to you.

What, then, makes remembering your life story easy for you? Two things. STORYLINE AND CONNECTION. Storyline means that there is a logical and inevitable order to the events. You talk about liking dinosaurs before liking girls before liking the idea of becoming a bankruptcy attorney (maybe). The progress of time makes it easy to line up the memories you have. Connection means that those events mean something to you. Well, in this exercise, of course they do! They happened to you. You can’t get more connected. Some of you can probably tell the life story of a close friend or beloved family member even if it’s not yours, because it means that much to you. Connection is the key to remembering things long-term, years after the events have happened.

What does this have to do with music? Everything. Most memory slips happen because of a blind spot in the storyline of a piece. What is a storyline in a musical piece? It is any aspect of the composition that makes what follows more inevitable and logical. I’m not even talking about a real storyline. I’m talking about the principles the composer used to put together the piece. Most often, these principles can be discovered using music theory analysis. For instance, if you’re playing a Classical sonata by Mozart, you might know that there is quite a specific order to things:

  • You know there is a first theme (often the first thing you play, and hopefully you remember that!), followed by a (usually) contrasting theme in a predictable key, and then maybe some closing material in that same key.

  • Then there is a development section where the themes you just played are chopped up, shaken and stirred, and the more you can say about which theme it is and how it’s being tweaked, the better!

  • Then all the tunes come back in the last section, except they stay in the same key in order to give a sense of finality to the movement.

This is just the general sonata form, of course, and Mozart will toy with it like the imp he is. But knowing exactly where he does and where he doesn’t is part of that storyline! Once you know the story of your sonata, you will never be lost because each part of the story relates and leads to the next.

Important caveat: this storyline analysis is only possible with music written by people who know what they’re doing. You might ask why piano students play so much of the old fogies like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. The reason is that those guys wrote music that both captures the spirit AND shows mastery of compositional skill. If they bent the rules, there was a compelling reason why. The good composers, living or dead, young or old, are the ones that have put in that same kind of work: they study, master and try to expand the conventions of our musical tradition. Of course, there is always music written by people who haven’t put in that work. If you come across one of those, it may not have a storyline you can follow, and, well … keep doing those repetitions, I guess. But I’d rather play music by people who know what they’re doing.

Anyway. After this work on the storyline, the connection piece comes in. Every part of the story has to mean something to you. In a sonata, the character of the first theme might be bright and cheery, and the second might be lyrical and more contemplative. Characterizing the themes helps you connect to them. If they remain in the intellectual realm, they won’t be much of a long-term memory. That’s why you can’t really remember the name of your sixth grade teacher or even what subjects you had that year but you do remember the exact moment a boy passed you a note in class. If this all sounds a little woo-woo, consider this: so much of Western music is predicated on the contrast between tension and release, conflict and resolution. EVERY STORY has these forces in it, and so does music. At the least, you must know where that is in the music.

What I’m trying to convince you of is that memory is at its highest level a question of analysis more than anything; the deeper the better. The discipline of music theory is critical for this work because it enables us to dig deeper into aspects of musical form, melody, harmony, or pulse/phrase rhythm. Music history sure helps too. The more you know about the style, period, and composer, the more inevitable the events are. Is this a lot of work? You betcha. Is it less work than that done by Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and others way more gifted than us? Yes. They knew the works in their canon by heart because they copied them out by hand. On crumbly parchment. With spotty ink. By dim candlelight. While their teachers stood by with a whip. Okay, maybe I romanticize a bit, but by golly, if you can reproduce a piece note by note on staff paper, you definitely know it. Most of us today are so far from that point with the pieces we present that there is plenty of room for improvement.

Even if you don’t end up memorizing a piece on stage, this work will benefit you - and your audience. In fact, I believe it makes all the difference in the world. Ever hear a great performance and struggle to put your finger on exactly why? Maybe the piano was dinky; maybe the performer obviously missed some notes; maybe the venue was pretty shabby; yet, it moved you. Consider whether that performer knew the story of that piece, cared about that story, and spun it to you like a yarn.

Recently, I put all of this to the test. I am no longer blithely confident in my God-given ability to memorize music, but I do know more how the sausage is made. Despite this knowledge, I recently debated whether to perform a piece from memory. I was apprehensive -- there are a lot of notes; it was my first performance of the piece; I’ve never seen anyone else memorize it. Nevertheless, I stuck to my commitment to play from memory whenever possible, and I’m glad I did. It’s a commitment that I believe in, because even if I’ve put in the time to get my aural, physical and visual memory in place, I don’t feel as if I truly know the piece until it speaks its story to me and that story is meaningful to my life. Only from that place of meaning do I have a chance at bringing a meaningful performance to life.

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