Want to memorize a piece for a piano recital or exam coming up? Although this can be challenging and intimidating, there are a lot of great tips and strategies to help you memorize piano music as easily and quickly as possible.
Trying to learn a new piece quickly? Get my tips for learning a new song fast and how to practice effectively.
Some tips to help you memorize piano music faster include repetition, playing hands separately, counting aloud, analyzing the structure and harmonies of the song, listening to recordings of the piece, and playing without looking at the music (i.e. with your eyes closed or looking at your hands). Although these strategies are helpful, remember that it does take consistent work over time to memorize the piece.
This depends upon the length and complexity of the piece and the age and skill of the pianist. Once an average piece is learned thoroughly, it takes about a month to memorize it. However, this can vary widely, so there really isn't a hard and fast time frame.
The four kinds of memory are visual, auditory, analytical, and muscle memory. Visual memory means you remember what the notes look like on the page, and what position your hands are in on the keyboard, while auditory memory means you know what the piece should sound like.
Analytical memory means you remember how the song is constructed; for example, the key and time signatures, chord progression, tempo changes, unique chords or accidentals, song structure (for example, AABBCCA), etc. Muscle memory means you have memorized the hand shape, placement, and force required to play the piece.
Most pianists will tend to rely upon muscle memory for performances, but this isn't the best option, as you can easily blank out because of nerves. It's the safest to rely on analytical memory, as that means you have memorized the music in chunks with checkpoints throughout where you can start playing from any point in the piece.
There are several good reasons for this, including the fact that it helps the pianist focus on expression rather than on reading the score, creating a more polished performance. It also eliminates the need for page turns, and requires the pianist to be well acquainted with the sound and feel of the piece.
Before You Start
Understand the score. Learning the history of the composer and of the piece itself will bring more meaning and help you be more interested in learning it.
Dissect the piece. Analyze the key and time signatures and any key changes, notate accidentals, mark chord progressions, and familiarize yourself with the song structure (such as AABBCCA, like in ragtime). Watch tutorials or read tips for playing that particular song. The more you understand the construction of the piece, the easier it will be to learn it.
Remove distractions. Memorization will be difficult unless you are focusing intently on the music. Turn off your cell phone and keep your practice area quiet and peaceful.
Good Practice Habits
Memorizing a piano piece starts with good practice habits. Here are some ones specific to memorization, so be sure to incorporate them into your routine.
Play slowly. Going at a slow tempo is crucial to mastering the correct notes, fingering, and dynamics of the piece, and gives your brain time to process the new information. Ideally, you should be able to play a memorized piece at any tempo: slow, medium, or fast.
Practice hands separately and count aloud. Knowing the right and left hand parts independently will greatly help you when playing hands together, and counting aloud will force you to play at a more consistent speed and will help you realize where errors lie. Graham Fitch's helpful techniques in Part 1 and Part 2 of his masterclass are great for memorization as well.
Improve technique. If you are struggling to play the technical difficulties presented in a piece, you will not be able to memorize it effectively. Take the time to learn finger exercises, such as Hanon, and etudes that target the technical challenges in the piece.
Improve sight reading. The faster you can identify chords and intervals by sight, the faster it will be to learn and memorize a piece. One of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to learn new music all the time, especially in a variety of key signatures, time signatures, and styles.
Learn small chunks at a time. Rehearse 2-4 measures at a time at a slow tempo. Avoid tackling too much information at once, as your brain remembers best when it is presented in small pieces.
Repetition. Don't consider a chunk of music memorized until you can play it five times through at a slow tempo without making a mistake. Wrong notes, fingering, timing, stumbles, and pauses count as mistakes. Remember the old adage, "Don't practice until you get it right; practice until you can't get it wrong."
Create reference points. This is one of the most crucial parts of memorizing a piece. A reference point is a specific point in the piece that you can start playing from. Make sure to have several of these scattered throughout the piece. Examples of good checkpoints include a time signature change, a key change, a particularly tricky chord, or the beginning of a new section, such as in a sonata or ragtime piece.
Know what's coming next. This ties in with dissecting the piece. Having a firm familiarity with the construction of the song and knowing exactly what challenges lie ahead are important. That way, you don't lose your place or start daydreaming.
Learn the piece out of order. Start with the most challenging section first. If there are repeated sections in the song, learn those next. You can even go backwards by learning the ending first and working your way to the beginning. Changing things up will force you not to play from the beginning every time you practice.
Don't look at your sheet music. Once you're familiar with the piece, start looking away from the music and watch your hands. Better yet, see if you can play the piece while you look away from your music or even with your eyes closed. If you have been forcing yourself to read every note as you play, you'll have a hard time playing without the crutch of your sheet music.
Away from the Piano
Listen to recordings. Familiarizing yourself with the sound of the song away from the piano will greatly help you learn the dynamics and timing, as well as exposing you to different styles of playing the song you are trying to memorize.
Sing or hum the tune. This tests your auditory memory of the piece. Find the lyrics to the song or write your own to help you remember the tune. You can also hum the tune as well.
Practice the piece without the piano. If you have memorized the hand shapes, positions, and timing of the piece, you should be able to "play" the piece on the edge of a table without looking at the sheet music. (You can even "play" along with an audio recording of the piece.) This is a great way to test your muscle memory!
What About Nerves?
Although many pianists depend upon muscle memory to carry them through a performance, nerves can get the best of them, causing unexpected errors and even total blankouts. Surprisingly enough, muscle memory is the least reliable form of memory when you're nervous!
How can we develop other forms of memory? Fortunately, we can utilize creative practice techniques to incorporate other forms of memory so we aren't solely relying upon muscle memory.
Analyzing and memorizing the chord progression, fingering, or phrasing of a piece is especially important. Memorization means you're familiar with the layout, construction, and technical aspects of the piece, not simply what notes to play.
Don't forget to test your memory. Practice performances and practice exams are a crucial way to see if your memorization strategies have been effective. Playing for a small audience of 1-5 people in your house is a great way to test your nerves! You can "practice" being nervous so you'll feel more comfortable (or at least know what to expect) when the real recital comes.
Although memorizing piano music can be a real pain point for students and amateur musicians, especially for those studying for piano exams or preparing for recitals, there are many ways to help you memorize confidently. I hope these tips are helpful for you!
What are your tips and tricks for memorizing piano music? Let me know in the comments!
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If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please leave a comment below. You'll make my day!
What I find works for me is to acknowledge that I will start nervous, but by staying with it, I’ll settle down and get through the piece ok. Knowing this I usually play a bit more conservatively at the beginning until things settle down
I agree, Perry! Expecting to feel nervous actually does help one feel better during a performance. Often, after playing for a couple of minutes, the worst of the nervousness has subsided, and one is much more confident.
I tend to do worse on Baroque songs when I play in exams or recitals. I totally blanked out on the invention I was playing for my level 8 exam... :/
It's a few weeks until my level 9 exam...and I'm seriously hoping I don't mess up on the sinfonia...(If I mess up one I'll most likely mess up another)
These tips really helped! Thanks a lot 🙂
I'm so glad that you found these tips helpful, Meg! Memorization is definitely a skill that takes time to learn--but the best part is that it can be learned and mastered. Best wishes on your level 9 exam!