To Memorize or Not To Memorize

Some people memorize everything they play.
Some people memorize only a few things they like very much and want to show off.
Some people absolutely hate memorization and want no part of it.
How should you decide how much memorization is right for you?
Here are a few guidelines. 

  1. Reading speed is one of the biggest, if not the biggest factor in deciding whether to memorize. If you read very well and are able to play things in a manner that satisfies you without memorizing, then for you memory is is often optional. If you are a very slow reader, you have no choice but to memorize anything you play well, because you won’t be able to play anything full speed using only the score for cues. If you are a reasonably good reader but it is not one of your biggest strengths, memory will almost definitely play a bigger part in your practice and performance. And of course, if you decide to perform classical literature on stage, you will almost certainly be expected to play from memory. Generally, if what other people think is important to you, if you do like to show off and wish to impress the greatest number of people, you will want to memorize at least some of your work. If you don’t care much about playing for other people, or what other people think of your playing, memorization may be a non-issue.
  2. Beware: playing from memory can also be very embarrassing if you have not been taught how to do it well. Losing your place for a moment with a score in front of you is just a momentary glitch. Forgetting what comes next while playing from memory in front of an audience can be terribly painful. Some people have a terrible experience playing from memory and never again want to play in front of anyone, even with music.
  3. If you do want to perform from memory but also read well and already play with confidence with music, think about performing with music at least a few times to gain the feeling of success. Then, if you later play from memory and it does not go well, your will have prior successful experiences to focus on. You can continue to perform with music while learning more about *how* to memorize.
  4. There are a few lucky people who play anything from memory with zero problems. Frequently they have photographic memory, so in a way they are not playing from memory. They are looking at the music “on the back of the eyelids”, so to speak. They rest of us who do not have such gifts need strategies to ensure that we are rock solid when we play from memory. It’s very important to be carefully prepared to play without music.  Playing many different short sections of a piece from memory is just one important strategy to avoid a deadly memory lapse and being unable to continue.
  5. Speed and style play a huge role. It’s far easier to play slow compositions using music than fast ones. You have much more time to look up and down, from the score to the hands. In addition, when the hands do not move much and you can feel most of the movements your hands need to make without moving, memory doesn’t really help much. If you have to jump a great deal, especially with both hands at the same time, then memorization is much more helpful.
  6. No matter how well you read and play from a score, make sure you have a page-turner if you play in public if what you are playing is more than two pages long.

3 thoughts on “To Memorize or Not To Memorize

  1. This is a great example of what happens when children are taught to mimic. Reading is killed, and it is often difficult or impossible to fix that problem.

    There is a huge difference between rote, copying with the eyes, and playing by ear. Playing by ear is wonderful.

    You might think of reading very well, which is following music that you might never hear and have never seen before, as one huge part of becoming a great musician.

    The other side is learning how to play what you have never seen, something that does not exist in written form. Those two skills, learning to play what you hear and learning to play what you see, eventually work together for a complete musician.

    But playing in the manner of the young boy you describe is usually destructive, because reading is destroyed before it has time to develop.

    Memorization is all about adding an extra step at the right time. The whole idea is for memorization to be icing on the cake, not the cake.

  2. We recently watched a TV Show highlighing a 7 year old boy who plays by ear. He basically watches his father’s fingers and immulates what he sees. He plays brilliantly, but does not read music. I asked Joshua how he felt about it and he said he would rather learn to read music instead of memorizing.

  3. I read well and do not play for anyone. Although I do not want to memorize whole pieces, it would be helpful to memorize certain measures.
    The problem is that I have never been taught how to do this. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


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