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Archive-name: music/piano/memory-playing-faq
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Last-modified: 7 April 1997
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This is the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) article for on playing piano from memory.

This FAQ is intended to present questions frequently asked in regarding playing a piano music from
memory.  It covers some reasons for memorizing, and also some
pointers on how to go about memorizing piano pieces.  This FAQ is
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Playing from Memory FAQ

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    2.2)   BENEFITS
    2.3)   DRAWBACKS

    3.8)   VISUAL MEMORY






                       by Phil Tompkins


From time to time people on have raised the
question of how to memorize.  Discussions of this question
inevitably evoked the prior question of whether to memorize at
all.  This FAQ addresses these two questions.

In preparing this document I am indebted to a number of
contributers to r.m.m.p.  I have also drawn on some of the
literature about playing the piano.  In addition, since memory is
a topic that psychologists investigate, I looked briefly into what
they had to say that would be relevant.

I do not claim to have all the answers, but I hope to have at
least presented the major considerations.  There is no single set
of answers which applies to everyone.  Different people have
different methods of memorizing, not to mention different views on
whether to memorize at all.  I tried to take these differences
into account so as to come up with a document which will be of
general use.  I have also tried to clearly indicate what are my
own opinions.

This FAQ has been re-written based on comments, corrections, and
additional information received in reponse to draft versions
posted on r.m.m.p.  I will gladly incorporate further information
into new versions should I continue to receive responses.




For at least the last 100 years it has been a tradition for
professional pianists to perform solo works from memory.  (There
have been some notable exceptions - the famous turn-of-the Century
French pianist Raoul Pugno, Dame Myra Hess, and Bela Bartok
performed with scores.  Svyatoslav Richter has done the same "in
respect for the composer", as he put it in an interview.)  Today,
playing from memory is one of the abilities a professional is
expected to have.  However, the tradition is often abandoned in
concerts where new compositions or contemporary pieces which are
difficult to memorize are played.

In the past, piano teachers observed the tradition by requiring
memorization for student recitals regardless of whether or not the
students would become professionals.  Nowadays, in deference to
individual variations in abilities and requirements, some teachers
make memorizing optional.


There are a number of benefits to playing from memory:

*  Many pianists, amateurs as well as professionals, can give
   their best attention to making music only after memorizing
   what they play.

*  You can play anywhere there is a piano without having to
   bring printed music along.

*  You do not have to worry about turning pages.

*  You can spend more time looking at where your fingers are
   on the keyboard, if you need to, and thereby be better
   able to land on the right note(s) while executing a leap.

*  You can better work on other aspects of playing which may
   need visual monitoring or other attention, such as
   maintaining proper posture or hand positions.

*  You can play with your eyes closed, or even in the dark.

*  Since memorizing is often a difficult task, you will
   receive a sense of accomplishment from being able to play
   from memory.

Memorization may provide the only means by which certain passages
can be played.  Passages of very rapid notes, because of their
speed, can only be performed automatically, that is, from memory.
This is because the feedback mechanisms of the brain do not work
fast enough to provide control at a detail level over movements of
great speed.  The details of executing very rapid passages must be
worked out in advance, after which, through practice, they must
become "pre-programmed".  Playing such rapid passages does not
require memorizing an entire piece, or even memorizing when or on
what notes these passages begin.  However, once begun, these
passages are completed from memory.  If an entire piece consists
mostly of rapid passages, not memorizing the whole piece may turn
out to be a hinderance.


Playing from memory may not suit everyone, and it has a few

*  It is possible to forget while performing.

*  Anxiety about possibly forgetting may mar a performance.

*  Memorizing takes time.  Weighing the benefits, you might
   decide to spend this time in other ways (e.g., learning,
   playing, and therefore becoming able to perform and
   communicate, more music).

*  Students who are not ready to memorize or who can memorize
   only with great difficulty may become discouraged.

*  Reverberations of bad experiences playing from memory at
   an early age in student recitals may be felt for years

Some people feel more secure with a score in front of them even
when the piece has been memorized.  Although they may seldom look
at the score, it is always available as a prompt or for use in the
event of a memory slip.

For amateur pianists, memorizing is an option, and each person
will have to determine what is best for her/himself.  The ability
to memorize is not the same as the ability to make good music,
although the former may facilitate the latter.




Playing a piece of music is a rather complex task.  Thus it is
understandable that learning to play from memory may pose
difficulties.  In fact, some pieces are just too complex for most
people to memorize.

For someone who has played little or not at all from memory and
who wants to develop this ability, selecting what to memorize is
an important choice.  For an initial effort it is probably best to
choose a piece which is appealing and easy to play.


If a recording or live performance is available, I think it may be
useful to start out by just listening to the piece.  A mental idea
of what the piece ought to sound like will be needed to shape the
sounds produced by physical activity into a musical
interpretation.  This musical idea will of course evolve, even on
the fly.

(Some people caution against listening too much to a piece before
learning to play it, believing that to do so may influence you to
adopt the interpretation you hear, thereby hindering the
development of one your own.  This question has come up on
r.m.m.p.  According to most who addressed it, no such harm will
come from listening.)


Some teachers advocate beginning to memorize a piece when you
begin to study it.  I tend to think this works best under the
guidance of a teacher.  On your own you may face too complex a
task.  And you may end up memorizing such things as mistakes or
sub-optimum fingering.

Not only will it be simpler to memorize a piece which you have
already learned using the score, but also by the time you have
learned to play the piece fairly well this way, you have already
come much of the way toward memorizing it.  You now can play
without focusing on as many of the details in the score as you did
when you began learning the notes, and you have formed some sense
of the piece's structure.  And if you began to study the piece
without listening to it, you now have a memory of what the piece
sounds like.


As with all skills, repetition is required to establish long-term
memory of a piece.  For some people, just playing a piece over and
over again is sufficient for memorizing it.  However, the quantity
of material that the mind can take in and master at once is
limited, and for most of us an entire piece is too much to deal
with in this manner.  The normal procedure is to first break the
whole piece down into manageable parts, or memorizable units.

In doing this you can proceed hierarchically top-downward.  This
gives you a structural overview of the piece.  The major divisions
may already be indicated in the score as movements, and sections
at the next lower level by repeat marks.  Pencil in the boundaries
of further sections and sub-sections based on the beginnings,
transitions and endings of thematic material.  Proceed further
downward using phrases and "breathing" points, until you have
marked off note groups which you can memorize without much

These bottom-level groups may be the size of a measure or even
smaller.  They may not correspond to measures at all, but rather
may begin in one measure and end in the next. Their boundaries
should not be arbitrary, but rather should correspond to the
contours of the music.

In addition to mastering note groups in the horizontal dimension,
it may help to memorize each hand or even each voice separately.
Doing so will force you to be more conscious of what each hand is
playing.  Working on one hand at a time is usually necessary for
memorizing such pieces as fugues, in which each hand has a lot to
do independently of the other.


Once the memorizable units have been identified, you can proceed
one by one to master them and then integrate them into the whole
of what you have memorized so far.

The number of repetitions required to commit each musical unit to
long-term memory will vary for each individual and among the units
themselves.  Do not try to proceed too fast, for newly forming
memories may be crowded out by subsequent ones if the former have
not yet solidified.  If today you cannot remember what you worked
on yesterday, go back and work on those parts some more.

It is more effective to memorize in frequent brief practice
sessions than in fewer longer ones.  Last minute prolonged cram
sessions work fine for remembering over the short term, but long-
term retention is poor.  However, if you have four months to learn
a four movement sonata, it is better to acquire a shaky memory of
the whole thing the first month and improve your memory in the
remaining time than it is to learn a movement a month.


The famous 19th Century teacher Leschetizky taught memorization by
having his students learn pieces a part at a time starting at the
end.  They would first memorize, e.g., the last measure, then the
next to last, then play them together (in order), etc.

Learning in reverse probably increases your ability to begin
somewhere in the middle of a piece if you need to do so.  The time
you need to do this is when you have had a memory lapse while
performing and you must recover and carry on.

Another advantage of learning in reverse is that, since many
pieces are more difficult toward the end, you spend more time
practicing the more difficult parts.  Always starting over from
the beginning while integrating all the parts you have learned up
to now results in devoting the most time to practicing the easiest

An alternate approach is taken by Charles Cooke in his book
"Playing the Piano for Pleasure."  Cooke advocates learning the
most difficult passages first, even spending so much time on them
that they become the easiest parts to play.


Leschetizky placed great emphasis on theoretical analysis of a
piece as part of memorizing, as do many teachers today.  I presume
to question whether this is absolutely necessary to memorizing,
but it does contribute much.  What you learn from a study of music
theory is a set of technical concepts with which to talk about and
analyze music.  These have two important uses in memorizing:

First, identifying the components of a piece draws attention to
all the details of the piece; the increased attention to detail
helps the memorizing process.  This means that the analysis should
be done in parallel with or slightly in advance of memorizing.

Second, learning is facilitated by what psychologists call "verbal
mediation", that is, actively using the description of what you
are to do as a learning tool.  Learning to operate the manual gear
shift of a car is facilitated by using the words "left foot",
"clutch pedal", "neutral", etc.  (Imagine how you would learn
without using these words.)  As part of the learning process you
may even repeat to yourself the verbal instructions for shifting
gears as you perform the corresponding operations.  You can do
something similar while memorizing music.  For example, you may
say to yourself, "The piece begins on G, followed by an arpeggio
starting on C", perhaps in a greatly abbreviated manner.  Later,
once the skill has become automatic, the words recede into the

A technical analysis of a piece would include breaking it down
into formal parts as described above in 3.4 plus identifying
elements and structures of the following types:

*  harmonic (keys and key changes, chords and chord

*  melodic (themes and voices; turning points; beginning and
   goal notes)

*  rhythmic (meter, tempo)

Also, note repeating patterns and variations of or deviations from
the patterns.


Visual memories of scores are retained in varying degrees by
different people.  I do not know how prevalent the so-called
"photographic" memory is, nor how people who allegedly have this
ability use it while playing from memory.  (Do they play from the
score in the "mind's eye" while playing without it physically?)
For most of us visual memory tends to be an ability to recollect
where things are in the score when we refer to it after the piece
has been partially or fully memorized.  For people who recall more
vivid images of the score, conceivably these images could serve as
cues while playing from memory.  Markings made on the score which
relate to playing from memory may be recalled in this manner also.


Time away from the piano can be used to become more familiar with
the score and analyze it from a theoretical aspect.  It can also
be used for a form of practice, such as imagining or singing the
music or/while playing the "air" piano.  Some people even learn to
reconstruct the score itself from memory.


A number of psychological studies of learning indicate that
learning in the presence of difficulties, rather than in a smooth
step-by-step approach, results in better long-term retention,
although to do so prolongs the learning process (Metcalfe and
Shimamura).  In the learning of tasks such difficulties include

*  Learning several tasks or task portions at once.

*  Varying the sequence of practice from one task or task
   portion to another unpredictably.

*  Having to do the same thing in a variety of different

*  Varying the conditions under which the learning takes

Applying the notion of doing the same thing in a variety of ways
to memorizing a piano piece might mean playing with different
rhythms or phrasing, or possibly transposing the piece.

The method of learning through introducing difficulties is used in
some piano memorization classes.  After memorizing each hand
separately, students may be given the task of reversing the hands,
that is, playing each hand's part with the other hand, first
separately, and later with the hands together.

As another exercise, a piece may be divided into blocks of about
10-15 measures in length.  Each block is numbered.  After
memorizing the blocks, students are asked to play the blocks by
the numbers in random order.

I would say that exercises of this type probably work best when
used by an experienced teacher.  In particular, an efficient
balance must be achieved between learning through variations and
learning a piece as it will finally be performed.  Playing one
hand's part with the other hand may help to fix the long term
memory of the notes, but does not result in a firm memory of the
optimum fingering.  This approach may have implications for the
discussion in 3.3 about whether to begin memorizing a piece when
you first learn to play the right notes.


The use of difficulties as described above in 3.10 can be a basis
for testing how well you have memorized.  Here are a few more
possible tests.  (You may think of others.)  Note that none of
these is an absolute indicator, but they may be useful gauges
depending on your particular abilities.

*  Can you sing or hum all the right notes?

*  Can you play the piece v-e-r-y slowly?

*  Can you make all the right finger motions while pretending
   to play the piece on a table top?

The ultimate test is how you play the piece in a performance
situation.  The presence of an audience may cause you to play a
piece which you have worked on for four months as if you have
worked on it for only two.




Stress is an enemy of memory.  It tends to make the limbic part of
the brain, which controls the fight or flight responses,
predominate over the other functions.  The stress of a new
situation, such as a different piano or venue, an unanticipated
distraction, worry about possibly forgetting, and, most of all,
the presence of an audience or of examiners all make remembering
difficult and even cause memory lapses.  Going directly from
isolated practice at home to the recital stage introduces most of
these causes of stress all at once.  How can such stresses and/or
their effects be minimized?


Here are some measures one can take against stress:

*  Continue practicing pieces you have already memorized and
   believe you know well, so as to produce what psychologists
   call "overlearning".

*  Prepare for the possibility of forgetting, by learning
   numerous re-start points within a piece and having someone
   interrupt you at random so you can practice recovery.

*  Play often before different groups of people.

*  Practice in the presence of distractions or people who
   make you nervous.

*  Before a performance, practice in the place where the
   performance will occur, using the same piano.

If forgetting turns out to be due not to inadequate memorizing but
rather to performance anxiety, then it is the latter that needs to
be addressed.  That is a different topic.


After a piece has become automatic, you can lose your theoretical
memory of it just like you can forget how to explain how you tie
your shoelaces.  When you are playing up to speed, there is not
enough time to think in words about all of what you are playing.
Slow practice is one way to allow you to bring back and
consciously apply your theoretical knowledge.  Maintaining your
ability to think of the piece in terms of the identity of its
notes and structures will in turn assist you in recovering from a
memory lapse.

Likewise, if you use your visual memory of the score to provide
cues, then, as your automatic memory becomes solid and your
playing has become independent of the score, you may need to
maintain your visual memory.



Bernstein, Seymour, "With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery
Through Music".  New York, G. Schirmer, 1981.
Contains a long chapter on memorizing, including a very thorough
discussion and detailed example of the use of analysis.

Cooke, Charles, "Playing the Piano for Pleasure."  New York, Simon
and Schuster, 1941.
Another proponent of analysis.  Recommends giving the greatest
attention to "fracture" points, so as to make them the strongest

Gardner, Howard, "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple
Intelligences".  New York, Basic Books, 1985.
Musical and body-kinesthetic abilities, which are both involved in
memorizing, are presented as distinct types of intelligence.
Implications for education are considered.  Also, the Suzuki
method is discussed.

Howard, Pierce J., "The Owner's Manual for the Brain".  Austin,
Leornica Press, 1994.
Contains some practical applications of brain research.

Matthay, Tobias, "On Memorizing and Playing From Memory, and On
the Laws of Practice Generally".  London, Oxford University Press,
A classic on this subject by a prominent pianist of the time.

Metcalfe, Janet, and Shimamura, Arthur P., "Metacognition".
Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1994.
Contains references to research on the learning of motor skills.

Miller, George A., "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two:
Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information."
Psychological Review 63 (1956): 81-97.

Newman, William S., "The Pianist's Problems".  New York, Da Capo
Press, 1984.

Rolla, Gregory M.  "Your inner music: creative analysis and music
memory".   Wilmette, Illiois, Chiron Publications, 1993.

Seroff, Victor, "Common Sense in Piano Study".  New York, Funk &
Wagnalls, 1970.

Wilson, Frank R., "Tone Deaf & All Thumbs?".  New York, Vintage
Books, 1986.
The author, a professor of neurology who began piano lessons as an
adult, explains the workings of the brain as we make and listen to



Since memory is an object of study by psychologists and
neurologists, I spent a little time trying to find out what they
discovered that would help us to play the piano from memory.  I
did find a few practical suggestions (see "Posing Difficulties"
above).  In general, much of what they say tends to confirm the
methods that have evolved through the practical experience of
pianists and piano teachers.  However they provide a different way
of understanding some of the phenomena.  Here are a few
psychological points.

Nearly all our voluntary movements involve motor skills.  These
motor skills are not reflexes, at least not in the sense that
swollowing is, nor are they exercised without using the mind.  The
muscles are all connected to the brain by nerves, and as such are
extensions of the brain.  It is not accurate to say that rapid
passage work is in the muscles or in the fingers.  It is executed,
unconsciously for the most part, under control of the brain's
motor cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum, and is monitored and
modified in flight based on conscious or unconscious feedback
provided by the senses to the brain.  (Some musical passages are
executed too fast to be modified at the note level by feedback.
In those cases, feedback is used to modify the on-going contour of
the passage at the note group level.)

Complex skills are built upon previously learned component skills:

   "The child first combined reaching and looking into
   grasping; the grasping of single objects evolves into the
   passing of objects from one hand to the other; the use of
   sets of objects for daily tasks is transformed into the
   building of simple structures..." (Gardner, p. 221).

There are analogies in playing an instrument, which is quite a
complex task indeed.  All one's previously acquired musical
experience and skills are involved in learning a piece as well as
in playing a piece from memory.  This experience includes such
things as facility in playing scales and memories of such things
as where notes are on the keyboard and what notes make up a
particular chord.  What you learn becomes a tool for further

The "site" of the interaction of conscious behavior and learned
unconscious behavior is referred to as "working memory".  This is
where music is processed as we are memorizing it and as we attend
to playing it.  There is a limit to not only the speed of the
conscious mind, but also to the quantity of things with which it
can deal.  Psychologist George Miller in his landmark paper "The
Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two" placed this limit at
about seven discretely different things.  This explains why we
need to learn in small units, and also why we need to make lots of
our actions automatic.  It also supports one of the benefits of
memorizing.  The more we make playing the notes automatic, the
more we can focus on interpretation and making good music.



I am grateful to the following people, who have provided
information for this FAQ or who through their posts to r.m.m.p.
caused me to think about memorizing: James Douthit, Achim Gratz,
Alexander Hanysz, Anne Marie Himmelheber, Guy Klose, Martha Beth
Lewis, Leslie Liu, Toshiro K. Ohsumi, Janice Rathmann, Bert
Rowson, Dee Stark, Carl Tait, John Yeung, and Peter Zakel.
Although for various reasons I chose to acknowledge contributions
en masse in this section rather than indicate specifically who
contributed what, I must say that I could not have completed this
FAQ without you folks, nor would it even have occurred to me to
begin it.

end Playing from Memory FAQ

Copyright 1995-1997 by Phil Tompkins, submitted by Isako Hoshino with
permission from the author.  All rights reserved.  This document
may be reproduced provided that this copyright notice is not
removed.  It may not be modified without the author's permission.
It may not, either in whole or in part, be sold or included in
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This article is provided "as is" without express or implied
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or the FAQ maintainer assumes no responsibility for errors or
omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the
information contained herein.

Author: Phil Tompkins

FAQ Maintainer: Isako Hoshino

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