Posts Tagged ‘memorizing music’

Memorizing Music

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

By Matt Marvuglio

Republished with permission from Artist House Music

matt-marvuglioOne way to impress people at an audition or in performance is to have your music memorized. This can be a daunting adventure for some of us and can create a good amount of anxiety too.Most musicians I know don’t like to memorize music. What if I forget? Will I have to go all the way back to the beginning and start again? I’d like to explore the process of memorizing music where you will gain more confidence in your playing. Once you get hooked on the process you will want to memorize everything. First of all, your mind works like a computer. Actually it’s the other way around. Computers were designed by examining the way people think and modeling a machine after our thought processes. We have a short term memory and a long term memory which is the same as RAM in the computer and the hard drive. Our short term memory is the window through which we process information to store it in long term memory (or our hard drive.) The more ways or cues you use to process the music, the more chances you have for retrieving it.

The biggest fear of memorizing music is forgetting. Forgetting usually happens when a retrieval strategy breaks down. It happens to everyone if you don’t process the music in a number of different ways. We need to process music in a number of different ways so you will be confident that you will not forget. This way, if one system breaks down, the other one can take over. Maybe a better way of describing playing music without reading it would be “internalizing” the music. Let’s talk about the different ways that you can internalize a piece of music through different memory systems.

Visual is the most common memory system through which we all relate to the world. For some of us, this is the way we learn music. We read it. When you close your eyes, you can visualize the part and see the page in front of you.

Tactile is the memory system through which we can feel the music by fingering the instrument. You can remember how a passage feels and you can reach for it. Through this system you can recognize familiar patterns such as scales and arpeggios. Musicians who don’t read can rely upon this memory system.

Aural is the memory system through which we can hear the music. Solfege is a system of study that clearly identifies the pitches in a systematic way and helps us build our aural perception. Scale degrees are assigned numbers or syllables and you identify chromatic alterations and key changes.

You need to use all of these systems and be aware of what you are seeing, feeling, and hearing when you practice. Also, it is important to isolate each system to fully understand what’s happening. This is a great way that you can put your music theory and solfege to use.Everyone will have a different memory system that is stronger based upon how you practice and learn music. Let’s look at the following passage from the J.S. Bach Minuet in G and put it through the different memory systems. Let’s begin by reading the example.

The Visual Memory System
Before you start reading the example you should look over the passage and answer the following questions:

• What is the tempo?
• What is the time signature?
• What is the key signature?
• Are there any chromatic alterations?
• Sing the rhythm to yourself?
• Are there any tricky rhythms?

Now you are ready to read the example.



After playing the example you should ask yourself, what did I just play?



In this case we have two four-measure phrases and within these phrases, a question and an answer.

We are starting to create a network of knowledge of the piece that will help us remember what we are seeing on the page. Let’s continue with the next memory system to help us create yet a deeper understanding of the composition.

Tactile Memory System

Here I’d like to make a case for practicing scales and arpeggios in different patterns. The more you practice different patterns, the more you can develop your memory system. This is very similar to learning vocabulary. The more you learn, the better you can express yourself. Let’s play the piece by fingering your instrument silently focusing on the patterns and the intervals. We already know that the tune is in G major, so we can focus on the different patterns in the key of G and not worry about any chromatic alterations and reduce the possibilities. I like to think of the patterns as leaps or steps.



Let’s review what we just fingered. The first two phrases are constructed by leap step leap. Where the second phrase is all stepwise patterns with a leap at the end for a cadence. And, the whole passage is constructed with a G major scale. Including our third memory system will complete the picture and really give meaning to the music.

Aural Memory System
One way to organize the melodies that you hear is by using a solfege system. This system was invented a long time ago to help monks remember the tunes they were singing because they weren’t writing them down. There are two basic systems and I prefer to use the moveable Do system where a syllable or number is assigned to each scale degree of a key and it moves with the key. Our example is in G major which means that G would be Do or 1. Let’s use numbers to identify the scale degrees:



Now it’s time to sing the example without your instrument using the scale degrees. If you know the solfege syllables you can use them too. If you need to check yourself with your instrument, by all means do so until you can sing it without a pitch reference.

Wrap Up
This way of thinking will open up a whole new way of practicing efficiently and help you memorize music. Using different modalities to learn or encode music should make it easier to retrieve music or have it at your fingertips. And that’s what we did with this small Bach passage. What you will find is that one memory system is stronger than the others and you will not by able to rely upon each system equally. When you’re trying to memorize a piece, it is important to create a network of knowledge that will give you a deeper understanding of the music. Work on different ways to learn to memorize music so when one system fails, you can rely upon another. Don’t forget now!

Matt Marvuglio is Dean of the Performance Division at Berklee College of Music. As a virtuosic flutist and composer, he has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, premiering his compositions for jazz flute. He has presented clinics for the National Flute Association, the Acoustic Society of America, and the International Flute Convention in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He teaches in Berklee’s online extension school, Berkleemusi Visit Matt’s Web site at