It’s one of the great romantic images, isn’t it? The lone performer, faced with the huge black beast of a full-size concert grand piano on a bare stage, armed with nothing but his or her memory. And it’s one of the most absurd things musicians put themselves through. We have Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt to thank (or blame!) for the tradition of the concert pianist playing from memory, and both were significant in turning the piano recital into the spectacle it is today. Before the mid-nineteenth century, pianists were not expected to play from memory. Few pianists today would dispute this legacy, and now it is almost de rigeur, so much so that if you go to a concert where the pianist plays from the score, you may hear mutterings amongst the audience, suggesting the performer isn’t up to the job. Which is of course rubbish: sometimes, especially in contemporary or very complicated repertoire, it is simply not possible to memorise all of it. No other musician is expected to play from memory, though some virtuosi, and of course opera singers do.

When I had piano lessons as a child and teenager, I was not taught how to memorize music. Thus, there are very few pieces in my repertoire which I can play from memory now. However, in the course of my study for my Diploma, I realised the benefits of memorization, and I’ve made the practice and exercise of memory part of my daily diet in my practising. Piano students in music colleges and conservatoires are expected to memorise all their music and to perform from memory, and are taught the skills to facilitate successful memorization.

Playing from memory is not a virtuoso affectation. It allows the performer greater freedom of expression and communication with listeners, and if one is not glued to a score, one can be far more gestural. Memorization demonstrates a high degree of skill and application (high-level musicians often display mental agility akin to that of chess masters), and people often exclaim of concert pianists “how on earth does he/she remember all those notes?” (as pianists, we have to learn more than double the number of notes of any other musician). While each individual musician will have his or her own particular method of memorization, there are a number of proven strategies to assist in memorising music, and the storage and recall of information.

For the pianist, there are four kinds of memory, all of which must be employed when learning music:

Visual Memory: human beings use this part of their memory function to record large amounts of information, such as faces and colours and everyday objects. Music is made up of patterns and shapes, and the pianist uses visual memory to “picture” the score, as well as to recall the physical gestures involved in playing.

Aural/Auditory Memory: this is what enables us to sing in the shower! Music is an assortment of sounds, arranged in a certain order. The pianist uses aural memory to know he/she is playing the correct notes and to anticipate what he/she will play in the next few seconds.

Muscular/Kinaesthesic Memory: the ability to recall all the movements, gestures and physical sensations required to play music. Muscular memory is trained by repetitive practice: just as the tennis player practices his over-arm serve in exactly the same way each time to ensure a perfect delivery, so the pianist must employ repetitive practice to ensure the fingers land on the right notes every time.

Analytical/Conceptual Memory: the pianist’s ability to fully comprehend, absorb and retain the score through his/her intimate study and knowledge of it. This involves understanding structure, harmony, dynamics and nuances, phrasing, reference points, modulations, repetitions etc, as well as the context in which the music was composed, whether it is Baroque, Classical or Romantic, for example. This “total immersion” in the score should result in a rich, multi-layered awareness of it.

Many young students rely, often unconsciously, on auditory and visual memory, or on auditory and muscular memory, and many can play competently from memory. However, to play expertly from memory, and to ensure that one’s ability to download and deliver music accurately is completely secure, all four aspects of memory must be trained and maintained.

Students should be encouraged from the very first lesson to memorise their music, but discouraged from relying purely on muscular memory. They need to understand both the building blocks of the music, and its unique language.

Secure memorisation can lead to an assured performance and less performance anxiety. However, even the very best people can suffer from memory lapses, perhaps due to anxiety, lack of proper preparation, tiredness, stress, or any number of other factors. I’ve witnessed memory lapses in concert a few times: on each occasion, the performer managed to maintain the harmonic framework of the music, thus making the errors less obvious, but no less unsettling, and I’ve often wondered how many times post-performance the performer went over that section of the score to exorcise the mistake.

More on strategies for memorisation from The Musician’s Way blog.


  1. I find playing from memory an added stress so I’m going to try and perform from the score and see how that goes. I think the older you get, the harder it is to play from memory, although all the oldies like Pollini and Argerich manage it, so I guess that’s not really an excuse!

    • Well, people like Pollini & Co have been memorising since year dot and know how to do it well! I’m just too old to learn new tricks, but I did make sure I’d memorised all the tricky sections/cadenzas/page turns in my dip programme. It definitely helped and I will continue to do this with new repertoire

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