Memorizing Music?


in Methods, Music Theory

I’ve struggled with memorization of music, it’s not something I do easily. I’m a very visual person and I see things as pictures and stories. There is however, an interesting observation I become aware of when I was trying to explain this to a friend. I don’t actually sight read although I use the sheet music to play.

What happens is the music becomes a series of landmarks for me to remind me what thread I’m on. I’m not reading note for note I’m keeping on a trail of a story line. Let me see if I can shed a little enlightenment on the subject of music memorization.

Compare Two Styles Of Using Memory:

First might be learning a series of notes. Try this.

C E G A over C, G over D, add an F and then to CEG together.

Compare that to:

C broken chord played to a 6th interval using C as the root, then to a G 2nd inversion, which is made a seventh chord and resolves to a C Chord Root position.

Now ask yourself which would seem easier to memorize. One is a jumble of the alphabet the other more of a story. Now this is a basic example to illustrate the power of using music knowledge to understand your music rather than patriot it.

Consider That The Music Is A Language And Not Just An Alphabet Of Notes.

Memorization occurs when you can tell a story. It has been proven over and over again that trying to learn a simple sting of numbers or letters is more difficult than learning a story. Stories have a purpose, a beginning, middle, and end. They go somewhere.

My Example Of The Moonlight Sonata Introduction

When I memorized the first four measure of the Moonlight Sonata I didn’t do it by repeating note sequences I did it by patterns and a story of sorts.

First we need to recognize that the song has a system of chords. It is written in C# minor and uses chords based on the words or chords associated with that minor harmonic system. Since this article isn’t about systems I’m not going into that at this time, but looking at using the chords presented to us in this piece of music.

Consider that the introduction starts on a C# minor 2nd inversion chord. Rather than learning G# C# E played four times in a row. I looked at it as four beats sub-divided into triplets of a broken C# minor 2nd inversion chord played over an Octave C# for the first measure. In the second measure the base moves to a natural octave B. So in my mind I repeated the four beats of the C# second inversion over a natural octave B.

But that was just a start on the examination of the measures. I stepped back and looked at chord progressions. The bass notes played and interesting pattern. C# to down to B natural, on down to A natural down again to F# then up to G# before returning to the start of C#. All of these notes played as octaves.

At first you would have thought that this was note memorization that I just ridiculed previously. And you would be right, expect that I what I actually did was put it in terms of relationship with the C# minor chord system.

Bass Pattern

I told myself the story of starting at Home with the C# moving to the seventh of the scale, then to the sixth for 2 beats, dropping into the fourth for remaining two beats (something happens in the bigger picture here, which I’ll come back to explain), coming back up to the fifth played twice for 2 beats each and which leads nicely back to the home position at the fifth measure. That looked like this in my mind for a pattern, I – I/7 – VI (2 beats) – IV (2 beats) – V (twice for 2 beats) – I.

Chord Pattern

Now that was only the start, because I needed to go back and look at the chord sequence. It turned out to be a little different. There were two measures of our home or root chord C# in a second inversion. Next it went to A major Chord in the root position, which fit nicely with the sixth or A in the bass. However, once we when to the next measure where the bass was the fourth the chord was a D major in second inversion or an alternate of the D# that was expected. It was a flat II over the 3rd of the chord. So now I had a different idea of the chord in the last half of the measure.

Going on to the fourth measure the broken chord changed on every measure. The four chords over the two G# octaves were: G#7 played as (R/5/7), C#m 2nd inversion, C#m add 2 drop 3, finally going to the G#7 (7/3/5) where the Root of the chord was played in the bass. It finished in the fifth measure with a 1st inversion of C#m.


Ok that’s a lot of explanation as to what happened in my story. There’s a little bit more to it, because I also looked at the melody line. In the intro it wasn’t much going on until the fourth measure. There we see the top note go down the scale starting at the F#, E, D# D#, and to C# in the fifth measure.

Now I’ve analyzed the four measures and I’ve come up with this pattern.

I – I/7 – VI – IIb/3 – V7 – I/5 – Iadd2/5 – V7 – I

The interesting thing is you see a pattern with slight variations of

I – VI – II – V7 – I

This is a common pattern. So now I’ve created a base for the story line. Then the next steps will involve the variations I observed on top of that and then making sure rhythm and expression or added and so on.

Moving On

So this long winded example is only to help you understand that using music as a language and not just an alphabet is where you will learn to memorize music. It will also play the one of the most significant elements in your ability to create or improvise music.

So reading music is more than just knowing what the notes are. Make sure you do all you can to learn the music principles and theory. It’s going to help you become a better musician faster.

Brian October 8, 2010 at 1:38 pm

I enjoyed reading this, but I need this sort of story for the more difficult parts.    The first four measures are pretty simple.   I have about 2/3rd of this memorized, but the last page is rough because it SORT of repeats but not quite.
Even the ‘solo’ part (are they arpegios?) on the second page I have a hard time memorizing.   The first one is a diminished scale, I know that.   But the second one is not.   I really wish I understood the theory behind this.   I can somewhat figure out chords, and I can sight read it fairly well, but this one I want to memorize and keep memorized!   I think your technique would be good for that.   So far, I am just learning to sight read a piece like this, and then work on memorizing it.   Some materials I have read recently indicate that I should probably START with memorizing, but I never learned how to do that, I had a bit of classical training instead where you basically just learn to sightread.
I have found that even when I memorize a piece, I still have to practice it regularly to remember it.    This is probably common knowledge, but it was a surprise to me when I got back into piano a couple of years ago.   I had not played since childhood, then finally got a piano.   Sold my first one to pay tuition (not music school, I am not that good) many years ago.   Wish I had practiced more then, as I enjoy it so much now.

Brad_C October 9, 2010 at 1:20 pm

I know what you mean, the repeats with subtle differences can be difficult to deal with. Sometimes it takes looking at it a different way. Start big and identify the differences then go deep or very small and see what’s different. Memorization for me is more about landmarks, I don’t personally spend a lot of time trying to memorize larger pieces of music. The simpler ones are very structured, so working the larger picture to specific works for me. Also thing of those differences as a twist on the story you’ve come up with. That might be all it takes to get a break through.

The idea of memorization is connections in the mind. By visiting what you’ve learned at frequent intervals you will retain more. However, when you don’t work with something, it gets stored and dusty. You have to bring it back out and tune it up. But you should notice that it takes less time to get it back.

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