An argument against memorization

//An argument against memorization

An argument against memorization

To watch a soloist, or an ensemble, perform without the score, without any physical partitions, and with a steadfast memory of the work, is incredibly compelling.

No doubt about it.

However, the goal of memorization is one that too many of us rush into without consideration of the harm it might be doing.

Memorization is a frequent topic of interest and curiosity that I get questioned about and, as with sight reading, it is simply a matter of time, dedication, and perseverance that will get us to our destination. There are no real short cuts.

This article is not intended to arm you with tools to improve or speed up the memorization process. I have already addressed this quite comprehensively in the membership and in the podcast. Rather, I want to present to you the idea that memorization should not be a goal, or something that is pursued, but rather a natural process that comes about through a deep understanding and familiarity with a piece of music. I would put to you that rushing into memorization not only produces a superficial and shaky result but also blocks us from musical development and creativity.

Hello, lover…

A holiday romance makes us feel like we have found the perfect partner. We have spent every waking moment with our new found love (over the past week) and our kindred spirit is matched only by our incredible synchronicity in favorite movies.

When the holiday is over, however, and we begin to explore the relationship over time and through a variety of experiences, only then do we realize how much there is yet to learn about this relative stranger.

So goes it with a forced memorization.

After hundreds, thousands of repeats, our hands are faithfully moving in the detailed choreography that we have hammered in. These movements are based on kinesthetic memory (muscle memory), only work when starting from a certain point (like the beginning), and are highly prone to interruption by distraction or a change in environment.

The immediate problem is that in our rush to “memorize” the piece we have developed a superficial understanding that will unravel with the slightest presence of stress or nerves. This leads to the ubiquitous phrase: “It sounded great in my bedroom!” or some variation that indicates that our forced memory functions in only the most familiar and comfortable setting.

In terms of performance, be it for a teacher or friends, this can lead to a devastating result.

Remember that compelling idea of a steadfast memorized performance at the beginning of the article? In contrast, a spotty memory can lead to a painfully awkward performance for both performer and audience. Even though, in the grand context of our lives, a performance riddled with memory “slips” is no big deal, it feels like one and can damage our enthusiasm for music, which is a real concern.

The second problem with rushing to memorize is a little more insidious and less often considered.

The Straight Jacket

Let’s dive back to the tenuous, yet entertaining analogy of a holiday romance…

After an intense period of infatuation followed by a sharp jolt of reality, chances are we will never see our holiday beau again, except in those late hours of reminiscence pondering alternate realities. There is a temptation to think that this was “the one” that we let slip away, but only because our one dimensional image is augmented by our own imagination.

(stay with me here…)

The point is, we have an image of this person, frozen in time, that is stuck and doesn’t evolve.

So too does our forced memorization keep us stuck.

Our experience with repertoire is very much like a relationship. It changes over time and grows as we have new and varied experiences. A piece is changed after we have performed it for the first time, and again after the fifth time. It is colored by understanding structure and harmony. Moulded by research into performance practice of the period and influenced by hearing a variety of renditions by other musicians.

If we have hammered in our kinesthetic memory via thousands of mechanical repetitions (which does work eventually) we are making it very, very, VERY, difficult to change and evolve over time.

So, no matter how far we evolve as a musician, our stubborn muscle memory will maintain a fingering, articulation, and execution that is inferior and less than our current capabilities.

What a shame, and what a loss!

In contrast, if we let the piece evolve over time we remain open to a long term relationship that changes and morphs along with our musical development. Many pieces we work on are masterpieces, do we not owe them the humility to allow time and understanding?

Fixed fingers

The most concrete aspect of our forced memorization will be fingering. Our fingering will be a mix of a few things:

  1. The first (and not necessarily the best) edition of the music we found
  2. The easiest solutions we could find
  3. Mistakes that crept in and will continue to haunt the piece

I am sure you have had the experience of finding a new fingering for a passage that either made more musical sense or ease. When you have already forced the memorization you either reject this new fingering because it is too much effort to change, or spend three times as long to overwrite and re-set the new fingering (that could change again next week…)

Fingering is not something to have set in stone. It reflects musical choices and only through experimentation over time will we settle on something that works for us. One fingering that works in the practice room may not be secure enough for performance. One fingering that works for your current instrument might sound different on another. Most of all, one fingering does not let you be creative. It is a straight jacket that restricts your musical imagination.


Don’t lose the treasure map

A score is incredibly complex. When a student comes to me and says “I have it memorized now” what does this actually mean?

Following this statement I will often ask what the harmonic progression is in the second phrase? Or, what the dynamic markings are in the coda? The answer is always a blank look.

This is because the score contains more information than just where to put the fingers. It is a veritable treasure trove of information that reveals itself over time.

You need time to explore the score, and if you respect the music you will give it that due time.

Like our holiday romance, would we be satisfied with just a printout of their bio and CV?


Are you sure?

Finally, let us acknowledge that our memory is not as good as we think it is. If you dig around, there are some fascinating accounts of how people’s memories morph over time to create sometimes dramatic results. (I am thinking of all those harrowing stories where people get falsely identified in police line-ups!)

The proud mark of memorization is to play without the score. And, unfortunately this also translates to practicing without the score. To do so is to neglect yourself of ongoing discoveries, inspiration and also maintaining a solid connection with what the composer wrote.

People pay good money, and travel great distances to have masterclasses with other musicians (that then point out what is on the score). Well, consider the fact that the composer is providing you with a masterclass right in front of you, on a small sheet of paper that is full of wisdom. Keep it there, all the time.


A beautiful relief of urgency

Normally the conclusion of my articles would provide you with a set of exercises, ideas to carry out, or techniques to adopt. This time is a little different, and beautifully simple:

Let memorization happen on its own, let it be a reflection of a deep and continuing relationship between you, the instrument, and the music. Let yourself off the hook and use the music for practice and performance until it is such a familiar friend that you just simply don’t need it anymore.

Or… keep the music there, as it might reveal one more treasure.


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2017-06-05T16:41:32+00:0018 Comments


  1. Brad June 8, 2016 at 8:21 pm - Reply

    Very eye opening article – greatly appreciated wisdom!

  2. Steve June 8, 2016 at 8:23 pm - Reply

    This is very timely for me and affirms my discoveries over the past few months. I’ve spent the last four months working almost exclusively on the level 1 repertoire pieces, always with the sheet music. And I have seen a lot of change over that time as I adopt new fingerings, change tempo, work out parts in better ways and become more fluid. I see the benefits of drilling a few bars instead of just trying to “get through” a piece. It may seem simple, but I feel I’m building a solid foundation.

  3. Linda Tsardakas June 8, 2016 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    This topic which has recently been addressed in the forum as well. All our members should read this excellent article.

  4. Mark Featherstone June 10, 2016 at 6:32 am - Reply

    This blog post is so well timed, Simon. I’ve been working on the Giuliani study from Level 1, and at one point I was encouraged that I was playing with increasing expression. But not long afterward I memorized it and then started playing it routinely from memory. Lo and behold, I became perplexed that I seemed to be going backward in terms of my ability to play with expression. I was scratching my head and wondering how this could be. Now, having read your blog post, it all makes sense. I’ve now gone back to the piece and played it from the sheet music, and I swear I played it with much better expression. So thank you so much! It’s actually a weight off my shoulders not to feel obliged to memorize.

  5. Aaron Willmon June 10, 2016 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    I have a few pieces that I have been playing for years and I haven’t looked at the score in years. Recently I went through the score of the 1st Prelude by Villa-Lobos, and I have been playing a couple of measures incorrectly. What I am playing sounds good, but it is still incorrect. I know I used to play it correctly, so at some point this mistake has crept in.

  6. David June 11, 2016 at 4:40 am - Reply

    Not to mention when you get older, memorization is fleeting. Here today. Gone tomorrow. The score is your friend for life. But it is fun and satisfying to play from memory.. It’s easy to forget the when we hear Williams playing from memory he has probably been playing the piece for a half a century.

  7. Steve Bondy June 11, 2016 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    So very true! There is also a correlation to how well one reads music and how easily one memorized music. As an undergrad, my reading skills were, to put it mildly, very poor. I memorized everything after bashing through the score a few times. I memorized half of Lauro’s Registro just by watching friends play it! As my reading ability improved, my immediate memorization skill diminished. That seems to be a core issue here, that students are often unaware of “the masterclass in front of them on the little sheet of paper” (well said, btw! ) because of the focus on “where do I put my fingers?” To me, this is a call to work on all the “soft skills” like fretboard knowledge, harmony, rhythmic flexibility- all the skills that really make a musician.this helps keep the score a living breathing document. I don’t have to memorize much music for my current gigs, but when I do, it is a deep, slow, difficult, and really rewarding process. Thank you for the excellent article. I look forward to meeting you in Denver at the GFA!

  8. Micha Sloman June 20, 2016 at 5:01 am - Reply

    This is a really top article. I discovered myself that it is better to let the memorization come naturally and not to try and force it. It is such a relief to hear that this is a better approach learning and playing music.

  9. Ritu Paban Kotoky June 21, 2016 at 12:39 pm - Reply


  10. Victor Frost July 12, 2016 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    A friend linked here from his Facebook page, on which I commented: “My biggest problem is that too many details there in the score get washed away when the piece gets memorized. Particularly true of pianists, both onstage and in recordings. If an orchestral musician ever ignored that many markings in his score, he’d be fired.”

    Straitjacket is the spelling (single word).

  11. Kevin August 10, 2016 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    I was very convinced by this article and I was quite determined to follow the details. And I thought that I will never put myself into “memorisation first” again. However, so quickly, I am in a situation. At the very early of level two lessons, there was this Shifting-Guide Fingers exercise with an Excerpt from Estudio in E minor (by Tarrega). I enjoy the melody so much and I couldn’t resist to try out the full Estudio in E minor.

    When I start playing it (even with just the excerpt), the melody and the flow of the left hand finger positions was very simple and straightforward, but it was the technique that was very challenging for me to pick-up. So, very quickly, my brain had the fingering memorised (thought I am still struggling with the techniques) and I now have myself repeating the piece over and over for learning the techniques (the holding on low G at 6th string 3rd position while stretching to play the high B at 1st string 7th is really killing me).

    In this situation, I am playing a piece over and over, with my eyes on my left hand mostly struggling with the technique and without looking at the music. Is this acceptable process?? So that once I have mastered the techniques in shifting, stretching and guide fingers, and when I can play it without looking at my left hand and the fret board so badly, then I switch back to look at the music while playing?

    • Dave Belcher August 10, 2016 at 11:56 pm - Reply

      Hi Kevin,

      Great question. It is a good habit to learn to read the music without having to look at your hands, but it is also a skill, a technique like any other, that must be developed. There are ways of practicing this, but I’d say that the one thing that it will take more than anything else is time (specifically time sight reading). For now, I do think it is okay to focus your attention on the technical issue you’re encountering with the shifts (and in fact I’d recommend working that out rather than simply trying to read through the technical difficulty). Find out what’s going wrong there, why the shift is so difficult, and break it down into smaller movements and take everything very slowly. I think analyzing and working out the technical issues first will allow you then to turn your eyes back to the music. In other words, make an exercise out of the technical problem first and get that situated and then come back to reading through the music. There are advantages to sight reading, that is, of reading through a piece without stopping, but until you get to a certain level of sight reading a big drawback can be that you are practicing mistakes and potentially bad habits while reading.

      I hope this helps a bit.


      Dave B (CGC team)

  12. Michael Kozaczek December 13, 2016 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    I have returned to classical guitar after a hiatus of more than 20 years. In the mean time I had been learning jazz guitar. That perspective has been invaluable. It is because of the emphasis on theory and ear training. The ability to accurately sing a melody line, and the ability to call up the harmonies from aural memory make memorization easier and much more durable, in any style. These factors are usually neglected by most classical guitar teachers. The usual rote approach to learning music falls apart very quickly, as the pieces become more complex. This is the point where many people just give up. They blame themselves for a lack of talent. Not so. A piece of music can be ingrained permanently, if there is a deeper understanding of what is happening in the composition. Muscle memory may well fade after not playing a piece for a while. It, however, can be revived more quickly if the piece was first learned with a solid foundation of aural perception of melody and harmony. More intelligent interpretation is evident if there is a solid basis of understanding of the composition, in and of itself. Memorization is a byproduct of understanding what you are trying to do, and its relation to fretboard harmony. Here is a useful link: McFadden_Jeffrey_J_201003_DMA_thesis.pdf

    • Dave Belcher December 14, 2016 at 12:14 am - Reply

      Another very helpful response, Michael. Simon has also talked about the many different forms of memorizing and how we do best to draw upon as many of them as possible for full and more robust retention of the material:

      But I agree with you that aural training and harmonic analysis (especially aural recognition of harmony) is a potential blind spot for some classical guitar teachers.


      Dave B (CGC team)

  13. Lyle Morse June 6, 2017 at 1:53 am - Reply

    Think your comments are applicable to almost any style of music. I am a blues/jazz guitarist/vocalist and although I have memorized some pieces just from sheer repetition, I maintain sheet music & lead sheets for every song I perform because it helps when I desire to alter the arrangement or take a different approach to a piece of music (or even lyrics)

  14. Streuer17 June 7, 2017 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    Great reading, I was just thinking of this topic last night. I had memorized 6 pieces of music to see if I could still retain them, then played them against the notation and realized that you do miss or change some of the originals writing.
    I am glad I found this post.
    Thanks everyone

  15. Ray white June 13, 2017 at 6:15 pm - Reply

    This may seem off point but when I was a young reporter every day I had to type the same simple paragraph announcing the opening and closing times of a local museum. It was brevity itself, not an extra comma, all the words in the right order. I learned a lot from that simple exercise. I knew it by heart in a couple of days but I was required to copy it, so I always had the original in front of me as I typed on a mechanical typewriter. But to appreciate it . . . Very different.

  16. Keith Morris October 16, 2017 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    Over the years the major problem as I saw it was the inability to memorise a piece, no matter how small it was. I compensated for this by learning to site read. This article has made me realise the importance of site reading skills. This has become one of my major goals which will be invaluable as I am much older.
    I am so thankful that the struggle with memorisation has been put into proper perspective. I am relishing the ability to read music and hope to continue to improve.

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