How to memorise music (10 quick tips)

23.12.2021 Ben Maloney Sheet music

Here are two questions that you might have asked yourself. First, is memorising music an important skill? Second, is it a skill that can be learned?

Memorising music is very useful. Freeing up the player to focus on execution and expression, committing music to memory frequently makes for a better and more engaging performance.

And although you might not think that you have a good memory, memorising music is an ability that can definitely be deliberately practised and learned. That’s where this guide comes in. 

Below you’ll find ten tips that will help to facilitate memorisation - easy steps to take that will support you in your journey to becoming a better musician.

It might be worth visiting a previous article that tackles how to read sheet music faster.  It’s not a bad idea to establish fluency in reading sheet music before turning to focus on memorisation skills, particularly if you’re a classical musician.  
 

How to memorise music
 

  1. Small steps
  2. Break it down
  3. Repetition
  4. Practise to know, not to memorise 
  5. Visualisation
  6. On and off
  7. Start from any point
  8. Play without your instrument
  9. Try working backwards
  10. Three times in a row

1. Small steps


Learning to memorise music well is a process that needs to be worked through with appropriate care. In other words, It’s going to be hard to memorise a Bach fugue straight away. Think of the amount of music - it’s best to start out by working on a smaller scale.

Whatever your tastes as a player, there’ll likely be shorter and easier works out there to play. Choose one that’s workable and see how you get on. In time, as your ability to memorise music grows, you’ll be able to take on greater challenges that’ll develop your skills further. One step at a time.

2. Break it down


Settle on a piece that suits your ability to memorise - and to play. Having done that, a good way to approach committing it to memory is by breaking the piece down into more manageable sections, and learning those one at a time. 

Compartmentalising the music in this way is beneficial for several reasons. It allows you to apply equal focus to each part, and it establishes checkpoints that help you to navigate the piece. Try a slow tempo for each section, practise it with care, and speed up gradually - a metronome is really useful for that last step.

3. Repetition


This is an obvious one, but it’s crucial. Playing well without the need for sheet music is all about muscle memory. Repetition is what establishes it, and there absolutely will come a point when you will make your way through a piece intuitively. Have faith in that. Patience is key.

When you’re a little way along, learn to trust the muscle memory that you’ve formed. Overthinking can be dangerous - your hands know what to do and letting your thoughts interfere with them is often exactly what disrupts their flow. So let go. 

4. Practise to know, not to memorise


Mentality is as important as anything else, and a simple shift in objective can make a world of difference. Trying too hard to commit material to memory can sometimes hinder the process. Instead, focus on becoming more familiar with a piece - get to know it.

There’s a subtle difference, but practising in order to know the music and what it’s demanding of you builds deeper understanding and, through that, better performance. Most importantly, you’re likely to find that a deeper understanding is exactly what allows you to memorise music more successfully - even if you avoid doing it deliberately.

5. Visualisation


Visual memory techniques are often used in memorisation. Try taking a kind of mental snapshot of the notation and picture it as you play. You’d do well to reproduce the score perfectly, but even loosely remembering the odd phrase, dynamic or articulation instruction can boost your recall as well as your playing.

Even if you’re not working with sheet music, visualisation still helps. Everybody processes music uniquely, and here you can seize on your own understanding. Try imagining ideas, shapes, or hand positions. You could even come up with a kind of shorthand to visualise, using words, labels, annotations, or anything else that helps your memorisation process.

6. On and off


An effective way of gradually easing yourself away from the need to read sheet music is the ‘on-and-off’ method. This involves playing a piece alternately with and without sheet music in front of you.

This works well at a particular point in the process, when you’re getting into the habit of playing a piece and you’re beginning to remember the material. Utilising the simple on-and-off trick can help to push you towards memorising the music comprehensively.

7. Start from any point


This is another useful one that will help you to memorise music thoroughly. Rather than beginning every rendition in practice from the start of the piece or of a section you’ve outlined - drop yourself in at any point and just play.

It prevents you from just going through motions when you play, and develops intimate knowledge of a piece of music. If you find that you’re able to do this, you’ll have not only memorised a great deal, but also set up a solid foundation for a considered and quality performance. 

8. Play without your instrument 


Think of every waking moment as a chance to practice. That’s not to say that you should fill your schedule and practise all the time, but that even when you’re away from your instrument, you can still make strides towards memorising music.

Run through the music in your head, as if you were giving a performance. Sing it, hum it - even if you're not a vocalist. Think about melodies, harmony, arpeggios, and so on. While you won’t be exercising your muscle memory or practising your instrument, this will help to cement the form of the music in your mind. 

9. Try working backwards


This is another useful approach to memorising music, well worth trying if you’re struggling to make headway. Similar to the second tip above, it involves learning parts of the music individually - but working through them in reverse.

The disadvantage of working forwards is that you’re not at your freshest when you arrive at the newest material - you can end up playing the opening parts best of all. By working backwards through the work, you can focus instead on the new, earliest section, before going on to further hone the later parts you’ve already been practising.

10. Three times in a row


Practise, practise, and practise some more until you’re able to play a piece in its entirety more or less on autopilot. Reaching this point with any piece of music is itself a great achievement that merits pride and satisfaction.

But there’s a simple test to take to determine whether the memorisation process is really complete. Simply put, that test involves playing the piece through three times in a row, without the sheet music and without error. If you can do that, then it’s performance-ready, and there’s a good chance it’ll stick in your long-term memory too.

How to memorise a song fast


These are just tips, and it’s best to think of them as precisely that. If you’re struggling to get into a groove when it comes to memorising music, these tactics can help you to achieve your goals.

Everyone learns and thinks about music and performance differently, though. Some of these different approaches will work better for you than others. That isn’t a problem, nor is it an issue if they don’t serve your playing forever.

All that matters is that you find a way to make progress when it comes to memorising music. If you want to know how to quickly memorise a piece of music or a song, here's the closest thing to an answer: try a range of things, focus on your problem areas, find out what seems to make you a better musician, and stick with it.

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