Memorizing Music

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Memorizing Music

These days it is more common than not to see a classical guitarist perform from memory. It has become almost par for the course to have an entire recital memorized and performed without mistakes (if our job wasn’t already hard enough!). Before going on to talk about methods of memorization I would like you to first give some thought to why we perform from memory?

Why memorize?

Memorizing music definitely has its advantages. Often musicians feel more ‘free’ and able to express themselves when the music has been memorized and the score is absent from the stage. It also may come across to some people as an impressive feat of virtuosity having memorized the thousands of notes that are played in a concert. The 19th century idea of the music virtuoso first brought around this idea and it has endured to our time. These advantages do have their worth but personally I think the advantages of having a score during performance outweigh those of memorization. Having the score during performance does not mean you have to have your eyes glued to the page for the entire time, in fact you may not even use it for large portions of a piece. Psychologically, however, having the score provides a great sense of safety and therefore reduces the stress of performance which can adversely affect music making.

If you go to recitals of instruments other than the guitar (which I can not recommend highly enough!) you will notice that it is more common amongst other instrumentalists to use the score rather than meomorize. Part of the difference in this trend is to do with the lack of ability of guitarists to sight read (this is a whole other area which will be discussed later). After all, it is not worth having the score if it will be more of a hindrance than help. Whatever the reason, the tendency for guitarists to memorize their pieces is very common and the following techniques may aid the memorization process making it more time efficient and reliable.
The Four Memories

Normally we only use one or two types of memory in a piece and in doing so we are not preparing as thoroughly as we could for the memory slip that’s around the corner and trust me, it is around the corner. Let me be clear, a memory slip is not what you think it is. It is not that you have forgotten something or you don’t know it rather it is an interruption in the stream of consciousness, a distraction, a break of concentration. These things happen to everyone all the time. So the process of memorizing a piece of music is not so much stopping the breaks of concentration it is building a support network of memories to catch you when you fall.

The more types of memory that you employ, the better. It is equivalent to looking at a 3D object from different perspectives. From different angles you will have a fuller understanding of what the object is and also a more comprehensive memory of it.

Kinesthetic memory is more commonly referred to as ‘muscle memory’. It is by far the most common kind of memory that we employ whilst playing an instrument. The best way of describing it is the feeling of being on auto pilot. We use this for many actions we do every day: opening doors, turning on a tap, walking, riding a bike etc. This type of memory is built up through repetition and is probably the most common type of memory simply because its the easiest. If you learn a piece by repeating passages over and over you are walking a very fine line. The big problem with this memory is that if your steam of consciousness is broken during a performance and you actually have to think about what your hands are doing you get completely lost. This is the all too common ‘memory slip’ and it happens to the best of us. Your concentration can be broken by a myriad of distractions in a concert. Coughing, traffic noise, even your own thoughts and fears running around in your head can cause the most ardent memorizer to have a ‘slip’. The best way to protect yourself from these inevitable moments is to incorporate the following types of memory.

Aural memory (‘aural’ from auditory not ‘oral’ from mouth) is your memory of how a piece sounds. The usability of this memory depends on how well you have trained your aural skills. If you can hear and recognize complex harmonic relationships and intervallic relationships then this type of memory can greatly aid your overall memory. Aural memory can be developed through solfege, critical listening to works (i.e. listening to a work with the score several times) and transcribing music by ear. Aural skill is not an innate skill that everyone has but it can be obtained by anyone who puts in the effort. It requires many dedicated hours but its rewards are great.

The visual memory of the score and where the notation is placed can obviously be a huge aid in performance and if you are fortunate enough to have a photographic memory, then, I’m jealous. For the rest of us the process of visualization can be of great value. Visualization is thinking of an action in your minds eye. For many of us it is easy to visualize walking down a street or answering a phone, however, to visualize the performance of an entire work is quite a skill and it can a wonderful tool for working on pieces away from the instrument. This technique can be developed by anyone and combined with a strong kinesthetic memory it will give your memory a strong foundation. Visualization can be used for many other benefits such as developing stage confidence and working on technique, these issues will be discussed in a later article.
Harmonic (analysis)

Harmonic memory is a title that is bit misleading, it refers to the overall knowledge of the score so perhaps memory of analysis would be more appropriate. Knowledge of the score includes knowing the harmony, form, stylistic features, phenomena markings (articulation, dynamics etc.) and any other important characteristics. It is quite obvious that a thorough knowledge of what is going on in the music will aid your memory. For instance knowing that a cadence in C minor is approaching will tell you what notes will be involved. At best this will trigger your memory for what’s written and at worst you can fake the notes by playing the right harmony. I have done this more times than I care to remember and nobody every notices!

2016-10-24T00:20:25+00:00 2 Comments

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  1. Phil January 11, 2015 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    That is useful! I seem to be able to memorise some pieces no problem. For instance I can visualise the Score for Choros No.1 (Vila Lobos) and play it from memory but have great difficulty with some of the Bach lute suites.. so it does not matter how difficult the piece is.. Not having the score and being able to watch your left hand almost continously helps greatly. Recently I have also seen more performing guitarists reading from music , and now using a tablet with a foot switch for ‘turning’ the page.

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      Simon January 28, 2015 at 9:28 pm - Reply

      Hi Phil,

      I also find the same difficulty with Bach, sometimes it just seems like a never ending maze! At least with Villa Lobos there are some sections to grab onto. I have recently been using the iPad/foot pedal approach and I have been loving it. It makes for less stress and less preparation time.

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