improving as a teacher, Memorization, Performances, Practicing

12 Tips for Memorizing Piano Music

I’ll be the first one to admit: memorizing music does not come easily to me.  I really have to work at it, and it takes a lot of time.  Over the past couple of years, I have been reading and trying out everything I could find about memorizing music, and I’ve come up with a number of tips that have been helpful for me.

Some people memorize effortlessly, without even trying.  These are practical tips for the rest of us.  🙂

12 Tips for Memorizing Piano Music:

  1. From Day 1, practice your music with the intent of internalizing and memorizing it. Don’t wait until you’d got the piece learned to begin memorizing it.
  2. Use good fingering and use it consistently. It will take a lot longer to learn the piece if you are using different fingerings every time.  Writing your fingerings in the score will help (especially if you decide to use fingering other than what is indicate in the score).
  3. Always memorize the dynamics, articulations, and other markings on the page along with the notes. Don’t wait until you have the notes mastered!  It’s difficult to go back and fix things later.  It’s better — although perhaps more tedious initially — to learn it right the first time.
  4. Try to play without the music in front of you – see how far you get. Rather than leaving the music on the music stand, put the sheet music on the floor so you’re not easily tempted to look.  Sometimes I even put my music book on the floor on the other side of the room!  Only peek if you have to.
  5. Watch your hands as you play. Closing your eyes all of the time isn’t a good idea: when performing, you might look at your hands and suddenly everything looks foreign.  Get used to watching your hands.  Look for patterns on the keyboard as you play.
  6. Practice slowly. If you play with a fast tempo as you are trying to memorize, you are strengthening mostly your muscle memory (which is not enough, on its own).  Practicing slowly is harder, and forces you to strengthen other memories, like your visual, tactile, and intellectual memories.
  7. Memorize in small sections, usually just four measures at a time — but sometimes two measures at a time may be necessary (as is often the case with Bach).  Once you’ve gone through the entire piece in this manner, try doubling the number of measures and going through the whole process again.
  8. Memorize hands separately, especially the left hand.  The left hand is often negelected and left to chance that it will follow the right hand.  But then if a memory slip occurs, it’s often difficult to get the LH back on track.  I also believe that understanding the LH bass line is crucial to internalizing the music in a secure way, both aurally and analytically.
  9. Analyze the music.  This should be done in a number of ways.  First, analyze the form (e.g., AB, ABA, rondo, or sonata form).  Label the sections in your score and try to form a mental road map of the piece in your head.  Also analyze the piece harmonically: using Roman Numeral analysis (e.g., I, V7) or lead sheet symbols (e.g., CM, G7, Em).  Both systems have their advantages, so I usually do both.
  10. Designate a number of starting places throughout the piece where you can start the piece at any time, should a memory slip occur. These starting places should be marked in your score.  You can mark them using A, B, C, etc., or 1, 2, 3, etc.  Try numbering the piece backwards, from the end to the beginning, so you are counting down the end rather than up.  Another system I learned from an excellent pianist is to mark the starting places using circled S’s (to stand for “starting place”).  In his method, you are creating a hierarchy of starting places.  Use “sss” (super, super starting place) to designate a very strong starting place; for example, the beginning of the piece, or the beginning of the Recapitulation.  Use “ss” (super starting place) to designate a fairly strong starting place; for example, at the beginning of a set of four phrases.  Use “s” (starting place) to designate other starting places; for example, the beginnings of most phrases throughout the piece where you can easily start from.
  11. Practice mentally, away from the piano. Sit on the couch with a chocolate bar or some popcorn and see if you can mentally play through the entire piece.  Try to visualize the score and/or the keyboard.  Being able to successfully play through the entire piece mentally is a strong indication that you have the piece solidly memorized!
  12. Repetition, repetition, repetition! Don’t be discouraged if you return to the piece the next day and find that everything you worked on memorizing yesterday seems to be gone from your memory.  It’s part of the process.  Re-memorize those sections.  Each time you return to a section, it will become more solid in your memory.

Do you have your own memorization tips to share?  Please comment below!

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54 thoughts on “12 Tips for Memorizing Piano Music”

  1. Great post! So interesting to hear some piano-specific ideas, after years of thinking about this as a single-line (flute) player.

    I would add one more tip: “Practice, don’t test.” If you get into the habit of testing your memory, you get into the habit of allowing for the possibility of failure (since a test can be passed OR failed)…practice just makes you better every time.

    So glad to find your blog!

    1. I like the tip “practice, don’t test”. I have failed many memory tests because I felt that once learned and able to play mistake-free, I should always be able to play that same piece mistake-free again and again. I always disappoint myself when I return to the piece only to find that I am relearning it. I have found that many pieces remain in memory even without regular visits but other pieces simply “leak out” after a while. How do I get them ALL to remain in memory with few re-visits? Any idea? By the way I am very poor at sight reading. My memory is my strength.

      1. I am 47 years old and only started memorizing two years ago, I used to have the same problem of forgetting the music I learn’t the day before and can understand how frustrating it can be. However I have recently discovered a brilliant system of memorizing in a book called How to Memorize Music by James Francis Cooke, on page 72. (a method not by Cooke, but found while going through some files while teaching, and written especially for an adult piano student who simply couldn’t memorize) The great advantage of this system is that you learn one bar at a time so thoroughly that it is very unlikely you would forget it the next day. The only difference I have made to this system is that I memorize backwards bar by bar for greater security – I usually do one bar a day and although this may seem slow I have memorized the piece a lot more successfully and accurately than if I had tried to memorize phrase by phrase. I hope this helps.

        1. Thanks for the tip! I am 42 and started playing regularly again 3-4 years ago. It is so much more difficult to memorize a piece now than when I was a child. I will try your tip and I hope it works. Trying to memorize 2 pieces for a performance seems almost impossible now.

  2. Great advice! I have been looking for something like this! I plan to be a concert pianist and so I have a lot of repetoire that I will need to learn and memorize. One thing that I might add is sing and listen. Be able to sing the melody of whatever piece you might be tackling, and listen to that piece. Listen to it repeatedly on youtube (it’s FREE) and listen to many renditions of it! 😀 When you can sing the tune without music than you will have it engraved in your mind! Also, when you play the piece by memory try sining a second or so before what you are playing. 😀

    Hope this helps!

  3. I don’t think “there are some people memorize effortlessly, without even trying.” Even Mozart did it with effort!

    1. I don’t know about Mozart, but I know quite a few pianists who are able to memorize their pieces without even trying as they are learning them! I was not blessed with this….I have to spend countless of hours of practice deliberately memorizing my pieces bit by bit as I’m learning them. =)

  4. Interesting. Just to add to the discussion, I am one of those people who could memorize instantly. As soon as the last bar was playable the whole thing would be memorized, boom. But it is not solid – I would get scrambled in performance and have to make something up while I found my place. So I ended up doing all the 12 things you list above – I recognize them all – just like everybody else, because i wanted to KNOW that I knew what I was doing up there. Good Luck.

  5. Thanks for such a great blog and such a wonderful write-up on memorization. I’ve been trying to memorize some pieces so that I can play them on demand without having to cart around music sheets. Unfortunately, my memorization is not solid and often times I get thrown off by the ‘sound’ when playing on a different piano, and then my muscle memory goes. So thanks very much for the tips – I shall try and follow all the steps and hopefully have memorization down more solidly.

  6. What a great web site. Thank you . Could this be used as a game in Group Piano Clases to have students play 4 bars each ? Would you recommend this. Many Thanks. Oh I am the cart your music along pianist. My brother plays by memory.

  7. Sing the finger numbers as well. This helps more than you might think. It develops a direct connection between the brain and the hand. Just like singing the melody line in solfege helps a great deal , so does counting the rhythms out loud. Anything verbal will help a tremendous amount.

    I’m surprised I didn’t see anything about analyzing the theoretical structures and absorbing patterns. That is the first thing I have my students do. If they understand a passage ascending is just a variation on an arpeggio for instance , they can directly connect that to what they already know physically and visually.

    I need to make a definitive list of methods of memorization some day. Every list I see is always different and doesn’t include some of the lesser known ones such as writing the more difficult passages out by hand multiple times or recording yourself playing from the score and then try to play the parts you forget in connection to the audio you can continue playing back … rather than looking at the score. This helps in ear training and also gives the ear a better anchor to follow. That’s just a few others I thought of that are known to actually help.

  8. Oh damn I can’t edit my above post 😛

    I noticed that you included in number 9 as ‘analyze the music’

    So ignore that part of my comment above.

  9. This is a great post, thanks so much for sharing. I took piano for 14 years until I was 19, and one of the reasons I decided against music school is because I couldn’t memorize to save my life. My piano teacher never gave me any of these great tips. He was definitely a person who memorized easily so I guess he couldn’t relate to my struggling. I am now 42 and just starting to dig out my old repertoire, and I’m amazed and saddened by how much I have forgotten. Some pieces come back easily, others seem utterly foreign to me. But one thing I will do differently this time is learn to memorize. Your blog is fantastic.

  10. Thanks for the valuable tips. I learned piano in my mid 20s for 3 years and I’m trying to start all over again after 15 years. Hopeless lack of memory capability and inability of first sight playing discourages me again. I’m trying different things and struggling to find better ways.
    I thought all experienced players can do memorizing and sight-playing without any trouble. Now I’m a little bit encouraged.

  11. Thank you for a very interesting post. I would also add “Play you piece as much as possible in various unfamiliar surroundings”. When we memorise the piece we memorise not only the piece but also the environment where we practice: the walls, the furniture, pictures, plants, etc. So when we go to another unfamiliar place our memory cannot recognize it and gets confused.

  12. Before going to bed, go through the score (e.g. 2 pages) 4 times and put it away. A good sleep is needed.During the night the brain stores this info and is able to retrieve it to your fingers and keys. If failing do it again next night, then proceed to next measures. Go over the difficult passages repeatedly until under control. Thank of a sonata as segments.

    1. Wow, John Noordberg! This is GREAT advice! I’ve always heard that sleep helps solidify memory but never thought of intentionally employing sleep to aid in the memory process. This is really cool and I can’t wait to arrange my practicing this way. (Always keen on advice that requires me to sleep btw!)

  13. I took piano from 12 until I was in College. I have started back and I am in the process of memorizing old pieces. Your post pulls together bits and pieces I have had teachers use on me over the years. I am now 55 years and really focusing on memorization. I will let you know how it goes. Nice site.

  14. This is a very helpful blog. I struggle with memorization myself and thought myself alone and inferior because of which. I am 47 and learning to play piano. Years back, I was a traveling rock musician and had many, many, many songs memorized (bass and guitar). Now I will learn a song on piano and forget the entire piece overnight. Trying not to let this get me down, I go back to the song and keep working. Alas, improving all the time. I have learned to work on very small pieces at one time. Sometimes looping just a single note (or half note) to improve ability to learn, play relaxed, and remember. A comedian once said “anywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” Remember there is no fire and Rome wasn’t built in one day. Try to have fun working on things very slowly, learning to recall this way also. Keep The Faith (Metal Heads used to say)!!! Perfect practice makes perfect.

  15. An idea that has helped me – not really mine but my teacher’s – is to change the time value of notes, varying between long and short. If a measure is made up of 4 quarter notes make two of them long and two short (i.e. two of them dotted and two of them eighths). Practice the entire piece this way. I am 79 years old and returning to my first love, the piano, after an absence of 50 plus years. Tough going, but I love practicing.

    One other tip: don’t practice unless you think it will be fun to practice. This tip came to me from a very famous pianist who has just recorded the last three Beethoven sonatas.

    1. thank you for the tip to only pratice when it is fun. I am 71 and having been playing after a 50 year break, also. I love practicing but my teacher wants me to memorize which has become a frustrating battle for me. It was so much easier when I was younger! I guess I need to change my attitude about memorizing (or have a glass of wine before I start

      1. Hello,

        I would question your teachers need for you to memorize. I would suggest you bring your sight reading and playing up to speed, before you worry about memorizing anything. It should be joyful and not a drudgery. Especially at 71, play for the love of music. Memorize when you are ready. Pick a simple piece to start.

  16. I can memorize simply by repetition, but this way it takes a lot of time and i end up getting bored of the piece before i even finish it. i started applying a different technique and its doing wonders, however, its draining and feels like you are doing homework. the technique is simple; 1- you MUST learn separate hands extremely slow, doing this your eyes and brain will become familiarized with the action of the hand very fast, this is to be done by sections and it shouldnt take more than 1 hour for you to let go of the music sheet and do it on your own by memory (still slow however). 2- maintain a slow pace while repeating by memory and as you start to feel comfortable slowly increase the speed, do this until you no longer have to think of what you are doing, dont worry about the speed, sadly speed has nothing to do with memory, it has to do with muscle familiarization so this will take a while. 3- once you have achived memory with both separate hands, join the two hands and do it extrememly slow, this will feel awkward because it will feel like you dont have it memorize, but dont look at the sheet no matter what, this is the part that takes hard work because you have to push thru until the hands cordinate. doing this process i am able to learn a page or two in one day. dont wait till its perfectly memorized to move one to the next section. once its learned, speed will come as you work with technique. i am currently learning liszt transcedental etude 2 which in my opinion is hell to memorize cause the melody lines are hard to distinguish, but this method is giving me a page per day when im able to study, i should have it memorized in a week, 6 pages. !! remeber!!!! memorized not perfected. that part comes after.

  17. Thanks for the blog!
    One thing I try fairly early on in the process is laying the sheet music down flat on top of the piano, so you can see the general shape of the music, but it’s difficult to identify the actual notes. A nice halfway house before ditching the score altogether.

  18. Thank you Joy for sharing your knowledge. Its encouraging to know that even professionals like you may struggle with music memorization. I thought I was alone in this struggle. God bless.

  19. For me it’s easier to play from memory than to read notes. I am very poor at sight reading. I am off tempo and make more mistakes playing from the score but when I play from memory a piece that I have memorized, all is well. I find that I can play without the score early in learning a new piece without me even trying to memorize it. It just happens after a while. But if I choose to follow the notes, I start making mistakes. Is this normal or am I doing something wrong?

  20. i have liked this part abot memorizing thugh i had not yet started it but it has been my next plan but there is a problem for me ho is not ever with a piano what advise can you give me please bu thanks for your information i have liked it because its wat i really needed God bles you abandntly please

  21. Thank you so much! I always have a lot of trouble memorizing pieces for recitals, and I often forget the entire song a few days after, these tips have helped me immensely in memorizing (and keeping) my songs.

  22. Is there a way to memorize the notes I’m near sighted and I really have to look if it is an e or a space.

  23. Informative, real. Thank you. I like what gregory said, too, about individual hands, slowly, then combining, and forcing your mind to work with your hands. I’m going to put these tips to use. I want to sing and play, and won’t always have the music with me. Plus, memory work keeps my brain in shape as I age.

  24. Great post, Joy! Everything said here is really valuable, I would just like to add two favorites (and also of my pupils): make a story to go along with the several sections of the piece and visualize your movements when you practice mentally. Good luck and have fun!

  25. Joy
    Many, many tks for memorizing advice. I’ve been playing piano for a million years and finally I can memorize my pieces. You have changed my life!!

  26. Thanks for the post! Back when I was studying music as a Major back in college (late 1990s), I was enrolled into a program seemingly founded by Jazz Ingenues with no degree in music education that left me to my own devices in many way; indeed, from Day #1 we were thrown into the shark tank (as a Vocal Major, without my first piano lesson to be able to read music we were handed sheet music and expected to lear our part to audition for a mandatory Jazz Ensemble)! In my private piano lessons, however, there were no sight reading exercises–which left me entirely unprepared for auditioning for a 4 year BA program, not that this school even offered an AA in Music I later discovered!)–but there was no attempt made by my teacher to underscore my recital pieces with Music Theory as an aid in memorizing them. Instead, I was left to learn all of my pieces note-by-note and by my hand positions in relation to the keyboard; so, if I suddenly lost my train of thought, which happened now and then, I’d loose my place! I was also never told that I was playing at a solid intermediate-to-late intermediate level after three years of living music. This would have greatly enhanced my confidence in this program because, when compared to the other students, I thought that I was still very much a rank beginner. It was when I was recently able to track down many of the sheet music that my lessons were coming from that I discovered that they were all, for the most part, at a solidly intermediate level, according to their titles or their description. The program I was enrolled in was really a nightmare, and I discuss my challenges and hind-sight of enduring it, here, in my tumblr blog: It was well known by the students that a solid “C” GPA at this comm. college would automatically equate to an “A”+ at any other college in the state!

  27. Thanks for the post. It’s good to know I’m not alone in struggling with memorization. When I was 13 I memorized Franz Liszt’s entire Hungarian Rhapsody…today I struggle to memorize Bach Inventions which I’ve played 1000s of times!

    (Nice blog, by the way. I’m thinking of starting one as an adjunct to my piano studio in Boston)

  28. Great suggestions. WTG! I’m just an amateur, a little Bach, a little Chopin, some beautiful ballads from the 40’s-50’s. I’m trying to bring back some pieces I once knew. I’d like to have five (5) only that I can sit down and play anywhere for anybody sans score. Then only five (5) more. Then five (5), really only five (5) more. Somebody said start practicing the harder parts first, then the easier parts are, you know, much easier. I really like your two bars at a time suggestion. Nobody should go to more than two bars at a time.

  29. Thank you, thank you, thank you! These are wonderful ideas. I especially like number 11 (perhaps because it involves popcorn or chocolate). But seriously, I am bookmarking this to use every idea in it as I work through my next piece.

  30. Thank you for your ideas! I have a question:
    A particular difficulty in memorizing is that in many pieces some passages repeat frequently, but each time they with some changes – which in some cases may “lead into different directions”. This happens e.g. in many of Chopin’s works. Do you have specific hints on how to avoid messing up similar passages of a piece?

  31. Love your blog. I’m 73 and a very average sight reader. But I love Chopin and JS Bach and also refuse to carry round a suitcase full of music.(It might give the impression that you desperately want to play for them!) But at the moment I am only using muscle memory and need to get cleverer. So thanks for all your gratuitous and sensible tips.

  32. do find it difficult flowing in my play while the choir sing ( classical music) ……once I miss out, its really difficult to come in again…

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