Memorization tools for natural sight-readers

Which feels easier: sight-reading or memorizing?  Nearly every pianist I know excels at one and has to work at the other.  I’m a natural sight-reader.  When I was a student—and when I performed traditional repertoire—I had to work very hard to memorize my music and performing without the score (even when I knew the piece cold) always felt like a terrifying high-wire act.  Early in my career I embraced my passion for new music and collaborative piano and not having to memorize my music was a welcome side-benefit.  Now that one of my “pandemic projects” is to memorize some of my favorite repertoire I’m returning once again to the techniques that taught me to memorize (even when it terrified me).  They work for me and they might work for you.

Start with a piece you know well  

Can you sing the melody all the way through?  Is it music that you’ve learned cleanly and thoroughly?  Do you know the left hand part or are you “fluffing” your way through it?  Make sure you can answer yes to all of these questions before you start trying to memorize the piece.  

Analyze the chord structure of the piece

If you didn’t do this while learning the music, now’s the time to map out the structure of the piece before you start trying to retain it.  If necessary, make a separate copy of your score and write in all the chord changes. Knowing the “bones” of the piece guarantees that you won’t be relying on “muscle memory”—a least secure form of memorization.  This step assures you that when (note that I didn’t say “if”) you have a memory slip, you can recover because you know what comes next.

Look for repetition

Repeated phrases or sections are a composer’s gift to pianists.  Note where they are and also note where the composer has changed things just a bit.  

Look for recognizable patterns

Unless you are attempting to memorize atonal music, most building blocks of a piano piece consist of chords, scales, and arpeggios.  Composers rarely use these things without “dressing them up”, but knowing that a wash of notes is a D Major scale with a few alterations is easier than trying to remember each individual note by itself.  

Memorize phrases, not measures

Phrases are musical sentences and memorizing these “sentences” helps the brain retain “chunks” of the piece rather than disjointed bits.  

Don’t try to do too much at one time

Limit yourself to memorizing one or two phrases per day.  You’re more likely to retain it and you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing these memorized parts multiply every day rather than the frustration of not being able to play any of the piece without a memory slip.  

Be able to start from multiple places in the piece

My undergraduate piano professor described these multiple starting points as “islands” in the score. This simple technique has saved multiple performances.  Just remember to always jump forward in the music rather than backward if a memory slip occurs.  

Record yourself playing or play it for others

Every pianist knows that performances change when someone is listening.  To test your memory work, perform the piece for someone else or record yourself playing it.  If there are any weak links in your memorization, having the distraction of another listener will expose these spots, allowing you to finish learning them.

Playing the piano from memory will never be as easy or natural for me as playing with the score, but I love knowing that music I’ve performed from the heart can now be played by heart anyywhere, anytime—no notation needed.  


Great tips for memorisation. Another piece of advice is for passages that you find hard to memorise, try to learn each hand on its own from memory.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Excellent suggestion. Thank you!
Beth said…
I finally did it! I just performed Mozart's Fantasia in Dm from memory for a group. My husband walked in & distracted me, so I repeated some of it, but I was able to continue playing because I had my islands, & finished it off. It's only been 40 years!
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Can you hear the applause I'm sending you from my living room? Well done, you!