How to Memorize Music

Whether you are a serious musician or a complete beginner, memorization is an important skill. When you know a piece by memory, you have the freedom to play that piece wherever and whenever you want, without having the sheet music in front of you.

Unfortunately, however, most musicians struggle to memorize their music and have frequent memory slips when they play. On this page, I will teach you how to memorize music well so that you know it for the rest of your life.

Memory 101: The Secret to Good Memory

Have you ever thought... what is the difference between a strong, long-term memory and a weak, short-term memory? Why do we forget some things after only five seconds, while we remember other things for a lifetime?

The answer is actually quite simple. When you look at images of the brain, a short-term memory shows weak patterns of neural connection (mostly in the frontal lobe and the parietal lobe of the brain), while a long-term memory show more permanent and stable changes of neural connections throughout the entire brain.

In other words, a long-term memory is deeply rooted in every part of your brain. It combines visual memory, acoustic memory, tactile memory, semantic memory, emotional memory, and every other type of memory into a seamless whole. All the memories work together to create one complete memory.

This is very important. Once you understand this concept, you will have the power to create strong, long-lasting memories that endure the rest of your life.

So how can you turn your music into this type of deeply rooted memory? The simple answer is to use music memorization exercises to strengthen the musical memory in each specific part of your brain. If you practice these exercises over and over again until you can do them easily and without mistakes, you will create an enduring, long-term memory of the music.

Below, you will find a list of the best music memorization exercises. When you practice with these exercises, you will quickly find that certain exercises are more difficult for you than others. This is good... this means you are finding the parts of your brain where the memory is not as strong. Focus on practicing these difficult exercises to strengthen your long-term memory.

Exercise 1: Visualize yourself Playing

Visual/spatial memory is arguably the strongest type of memory that humans have. Many famous memorization methods, such as the Method of Loci, rely heavily on visual and spatial memory techniques. This exercise will help you isolate and strengthen the visual/spatial part of your brain for learning music.

To do this exercise, visually imagine yourself playing the music. Imagine everything in great detail. Think of exactly where each hand and each finger goes at all times. Which fret? Which string? If there is a section that you cannot remember, think through this section many times until you know it perfectly.

Imagine yourself playing the piece very slowly so that you have time to think of all the details. The more you focus on each little detail, the more you will strengthen your visual memory.

Visualization is very difficult to do at first, but it is very rewarding. Often times, after just a few visualizations, you will be able to play a piece with almost perfect memory.

Also, one of the great things about visualization is that you can practice it anywhere - in a grocery store line, in an airport, etc. - even if you don't have your instrument with you.

Exercise 2: Sing the Melody

When learning a language, the most intuitive way to learn new words is by saying them out loud. Likewise, the most intuitive way for musicians to learn new melodies is by singing them. This establishes the melody deep within the language-learning part of the brain.

How do you do this exercise? It's very simple, just sing! Sing the melody. Sing the other lines below the melody. Sing everything until it feels intuitive and natural... like you just "know it" without thinking about it.

Don't worry if you can't sing very well. The important part is that you are using your voice to trigger the language learning part of the brain.

You can do this either with or without your instrument. If your aren't very confident in your singing voice, you might want to start with your instrument to make yourself feel more secure.

Exercise 3: Listen in a Dark Room

All musicians need to have good listening skills. Unfortunately, however, many musicians do not fully develop their acoustic (listening) memory because their visual memory is naturally more dominant. This exercise will help you isolate, and strengthen your acoustic memory when you practice music.

To do this exercise, turn off the lights (or close your eyes) so that you cannot see anything . This may seem strange at first, but eventually you will become much more sensitive to the music. You will start to notice sounds that you have never heard before.

If you want to go a step further, try recording yourself, then listening back to the recording in a dark room. This will help you focus completely on listening without worrying about playing.

Exercise 4: Analyze for Structure and Patterns

The frontal lobe of your brain controls intellect, judgement, problem solving, abstract thought, creative thought and much more. You can create a deep memory in this "thinking" part of your brain by analyzing your music for structure and patterns.

To do this exercise, put away your instrument and sit down at a table with your sheet music and a pencil. Start analyzing the music and find all the patterns you can possibly find. Where are do phrases begin and end? Where do you see repetition? What about variation? What is expected? What is unexpected and surprising? Don't be afraid to mark your music with a pencil.

For me, this is always the first thing that I do when I start learning a new piece. It helps me to get an overall, general understanding for the music.

Exercise 5: Add an Emotional Story to the Music

Have you ever noticed how extremely emotional experiences are always more memorable? Love, anger, sadness, excitement, jealousy, are all very powerful feelings that create deep, emotional memories. The same applies to music... the more the music affects you emotionally, the more easily you will remember it. The best way to practice this is to create a story to go with the music.

To do this exercise, imagine an emotional story to go with each section of the music. It can be a real story, or a completely made-up story. It does not matter. Just remember... the more unique and emotional the story is, the more it will help you "feel" and remember the music. Then, when you play the music, think of this story as you play.

Personally, I find that the best, and most memorable stories are past experiences from my life that are very significant to me. Experiences that have really defined me as a person.

You can even set your story as lyrics to go with melody of the music. This way, the story is strongly connected to the music of that particular piece.

Have fun, and be creative. When you add this "human" element to the music, you will probably notice that the music becomes much more enjoyable and meaningful.

Your Brain on Music...

There is a book that came out not too long ago called This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin.

The book is very well researched, and gives you a unique perspective of how the brain understands music. As a musician, I reference this book frequently, and highly recommend it to all of my musician friends.

If you are interested in learning how the brain memorizes music, you will find this whole book fascinating. I remember when I first read it, it completely changed my approach to learning music. You should check it out if you get a chance.

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My name is Daniel Nelson, and I am a classical guitar teacher and performer from Los Angeles, California. Click here to learn more.