I have had several requests for an article on memorisation. Since I already wrote one last year for Pianist Magazine, entitled Mind Over Memory, I thought I would include it here. This is Part One, dealing with the most neglected aspect of memory, using one’s brain. Next week, I will give specific tools for memorisation.

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What NOT to do:

Learn the piece with the score until eventually you find you can play it without!

While this method may work if you are playing in cosy situations (such as for yourself, a trusted teacher or a few friends), it will often let you down in a recital or exam when you are nervous because the stakes are higher. Why? Firstly, muscular memory tends to be easy come, easy go. Under the stress of performance, muscles tighten and the mind plays tricks that can cause memory cues to break down, sometimes irretrievably and always to the detriment of self confidence. Secondly, we must take steps to memorise actively, and not merely hope we remember. Given that the way we encode the information (practising) is vastly different from the way we decode it (performing), there is a considerable margin for error, and terror! I liken this to the tightrope artist who risks nothing when the rope is close to the ground, but everything when it is several meters up in the air. We have all found that as soon as we remove ourselves from our comfortable and familiar surroundings things can feel so totally different, as though we did not know the piece at all. To the student who complains that they can play it perfectly well at home, I suggest that they go home and play it.

Aircraft have multiple back-up systems, which is what makes them so safe – when one system fails, another kicks in. For us pianists, MUSCULAR memory needs to be backed up by other forms of memory. These are AURAL and ANALYTIC. It is best if all these forms of memory are built in to the initial learning processes for ultimate security in performance, and not left until after the notes are learned by drilling the fingers from the score for several weeks.


The thought of analysis shouldn’t scare us off: all pianists need to be somewhat intelligent and any form of analysis will work, from the most basic understanding of the patterns and directions in the music to more academic models of analysis (formal and harmonic).  For example, the scale C-D-E-F sharp-G sharp-A sharp may be described as an ascending whole-tone scale, or simply a scale of three white notes followed by three black ones that goes up.

In a letter, Glenn Gould wrote:

In my opinion, the only really successful way of learning a work, regardless of its period, is to do so quite away from the instrument – in other words, to study it in purely analytical terms first. Obviously these analytical terms will vary to some extent depending on the repertoire, and certainly one could not analyse a work by Schoenberg in quite the same way one would analyse a Beethoven sonata. But by and large, and certainly in all of the music from the sixteenth century to the present, it ought to be possible to find common grounds of contact in the structural relations in the work… I think you will find, however difficult it may seem to be at first, a work learned in analytical terms and only secondly at the instrument will leave you permanently a stronger sense of its structure and its internal workings. [J. Roberts, G Guertin, eds., Glenn Gould Selected Letters (Toronto: OUP, 1992), 52.]

The great pianist Gina Bachauer agrees with this:

I have never actually started to work on a new piece of music at the piano. Perhaps this is very peculiar, but I never begin that way. I try to read it for fifteen or twenty days in bed in the evening before I ever touch a note. I like to study everything about the piece and then approach the technical problems. When I study a piece of music quietly, in bed, only my head works. I try to analyze the whole piece to see where the different themes are, and to find out what the composer’s message is. After having studied this way for almost twenty days, I then go to the piano and feel that I am prepared to practise at the instrument. I understand every phrase, every tempo, where every phrase ends and the next one begins. Then, technical details, fingerings, et cetera, come later. It’s very strange, but this approach helps me enormously to learn a work by heart. Therefore, when I go to the piano, it is almost memorized. [A. Marcus, Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus (Neptune: Paganiniana, 1979), 11-12.]

I am not suggesting this as a realistic workaday approach, given our busy lives. Concert pianists of the stature of Gould and Bachauer would have been able to devote all their time to their playing; most of us do not live in such an ideal world. What I do suggest is that we incorporate some of these analytical procedures into our practising from the start. I do feel it is essential that we have a grasp of the form or structure of the piece, where the various sections come and as much harmonic understanding as possible (given the grade of the piece).

Young players can be encouraged to use their brains too. Teacher and pupil can play a game of detectives (I call this game “Sherlock Holmes”), where the pupil gives three or four facts about the shape of a melody, or a chord, or a piece as a whole as they see it. There are no absolute answers, and every room for personal observations. Whatever they notice is fine.

For the intermediate level, I recommend using the index of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions where only the subject of each Invention is given. In my memorisation workshops, we go round the room and each person describes what they see. I have found more often than not, the pupil will be able to play the subject from memory immediately, just from this mental work.

Let’s look at the first eight bars of the LH melody from Chopin’s B minor Prelude in this analytical way:

The structure is 2+2+4 bars, each phrase beginning with a different ascending arpeggio which takes only one beat to rise from its lowest note to its highest, and the rest of the phrase for the music to fall back downwards. The first phrase rises up from bass B to tenor D by means of an arpeggio in semiquavers (B minor, closed position), and then takes a bar and two-thirds to fall back to its starting note. The second phrase is rhythmically identical to the first and has the same basic design. However, instead of the ascending B minor arpeggio being in closed position, it is in open position and takes the line from the low B up to the dominant (F sharp). The next bar starts with an open position arpeggio of G major (which is chord VI in the key), which spans two octaves (we notice that the interval formed by the highest and lowest notes of the three arpeggios increases each time from a tenth to a twelfth to a fifteenth).