Yes, there are simple techniques that can help you memorize music. And I’ll tell you about them in this series of posts.
But first, let me lay the foundation by telling you about four common types of musical memory. You’ll see why these are important later. The four types are: visual, aural, kinesthetic, and intellectual.
Visual memory is, basically, the type of memory we think of when we hear someone refer to “photographic memory”. True, full-blown photographic memory is extremely rare, but we ALL possess photographic memory in varying degrees. Think of a book you read that took you a long time to get through. Was there perhaps a bargain bin sale tag stuck on the cover? Was the cover damaged in any way? Did you spill anything on it? Did your bird shred the corner? We all store images in our heads of things we look at extensively, and we can recall those images with practice. You cannot rely on this type of memory by itself, unless you truly have 100% photographic memory, in which case I hate you. (not really)
Aural memory, related to hearing, is basically remembering how the piece of music sounds, and that memory of how it sounds guides us to play it from memory. You also cannot realy on this type of memory by itself to help you get through a performance from memory, but it does play an important supporting role.
Kinesthetic memory is what is referred to as “muscle memory”. This is where your fingers have done it so many times, that you can just push the start button and let your fingers do the walking. Or not! This type of memory is very unreliable in performance, because everything feels different when we are nervous, and we are hyper-aware of everything, which means our nerves and self-consciousness will interfere with the auto-pilot muscle memory. But, again, this type of memory can play a supporting role, and sometimes can get you out of a pickle!
Intellectual Memory is the real star of the show. This is where you have consciously memorized certain aspects of a piece, like the structure, passages that repeat, passages that are different from one another, what string a passage is on, what position you play a passage in, what bowings you use, and so forth. This type of memory is the most reliable, and can be developed with some simple ideas and practice. The main trick is to maintain your focus during the performance so that you remember to USE all the useful memory “caches” you put in place.
Now let’s discuss some specific exercises and tips you can use to start improving your memorization. Later, I will ask you what type of memory each technique utilizes…and sometimes it is more than one type of memory with one technique.
Memorization Technique #1: Start Small
You must believe me when I say: The more you work on ear training, learning things by ear, playing snippets, and memorization, the easier it gets. Ear training is a “muscle,” and just like any muscle, if we exercise it regularly it gets bigger and stronger.
I used to have SUCH trouble memorizing, until the Suzuki teacher certifications forced me to memorize these simple tunes. Exercising my memory on simple tunes has given me improved memorization on extremely difficult concertos and other repertoire. You couldn’t have convinced me that memorizing “Song of the Wind” could also help me memorize the Sibelius Concerto, but it did.
I was trying to memorize all this big stuff, without really preparing my brain, so I always struggled to perform from memory. That is the same as going to the gym and saying, “I am going to work on my biceps.” Then without any previous exercises, trying to do arm curls with a 150 lb. dumbbell, and upon failing, thinking “Well, I just have to continue to strain on this dumbbell until I can finally lift it”.
NO ONE WOULD DO THAT!!! We all know instinctively that we must start with a lower weight to strengthen weaker muscles!
It’s the same with memorizing music. Start with small, simple passages. Listen to them over and over, then play them again and again. By doing so you’ll train your ears and your fingers, but more important, you’ll train your brain to intellectually understand each memorized phrase. And that’s the key to unlock the next technique, which I’ll tell you about in the next post.