Tips For Memorizing Music
Part I
by John Sloan

My aim in this series is to help musicians, especially classical guitarists, improve their ability to memorize music.  Since memory is a combination of many different elements, this series covers a variety of memory techniques.  Examine them all, then use what works best for you.

For best results, read the parts of this series in order, as many sections refer to principles and techniques explained in previous parts.


How would you go about memorizing the following letters; and, how long could you keep them memorized (minutes? hours? days? weeks? months? years?):

f s a s y a o f b f a n n c i l a d t t p t a m a c e

One very common technique is to repeat the letters over and over until you can recall them without looking.  This is the same method many people use to remember most things: phone numbers, birthdays, appointments, poetry, etc.  But, this rote memory approach has its limitations.  You might be able to repeat the letters from memory tomorrow, but could you still remember them a month from now?  Probably not, and it becomes even harder as the number of letters increases (what if there were 100 letters instead of 27, or 100 different GROUPS of 27 letters)?

Another drawback to the memory-by-repetition approach is it's not very useful if you want to remember the letters in and OUT of order.  For example, without going back and counting, what is the 12th letter in the series, just off the top of your head?  The 9th?  How about the 23rd?

See what I mean?  Memory-by-repetition has some serious drawbacks.

Yet, one of the most common bits of advice I hear when it comes to memorizing music is to "repeat the piece over and over again."  Considering that most compositions contain hundreds of notes, it's no wonder guitarists have memory problems!

To be fair, there is some validity to the value of repetition.  It does train muscle memory.  But, muscle memory comes more from correct practice than from dogged repetition.  Later in this series, I'll talk more about correct practice.

Okay, so what is better than repetition and rote for memorizing these letters?  Without knowing anything else about them, they appear to be random.  But, are they?  If you could find a pattern, something that would lead you from one letter to the next, wouldn't they be easier to remember?  Well, there IS a pattern: each letter is the first letter of a word in the opening sentence of a very famous speech: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

f s a s y a o f b f a n n c i l a d t t p t a m a c e

"Fourscore And Seven Years Ago Our Fathers Brought Forth A New Nation, Conceived In Liberty, And Dedicated To The Proposition That All Men Are Created Equal."

Knowing that makes it much easier to memorize the letters.  Just remember the sentence.

Okay, that was an easy example.  How about another one?

t p s o t u b f a c m f o t h

I'll tell you right up front: these letters are not taken from a famous quote or a particular sentence.  There is no pattern to them.  None of them follows what went before in any logical way.  They are random.

.... but, they don't have to stay that way!

MEMORY TIP #1: If you can't find or see a recognizable pattern to what you're trying to memorize, you can IMPOSE A MEANINGFUL PATTERN OF YOUR OWN.

So, for this example, MAKE UP a sentence from the letters.  For example:

"The Plane Swooped Over The Ugly Baseball Field And Conked Mayor Franklin On The Head."

Okay, so what's my point?  What has this got to do with memorizing music?

Many musicians, especially students, have problems memorizing music, because they see only individual chords and notes, as if they were lines of random letters, and try to memorize them by repetition and rote, without fitting them into meaningful patterns.  Yet, virtually all music is based on patterns of some kind: forms, chord progressions, key signatures, melodies, rhythms, etc.  These patterns can and should be used in memorizing music.

To be continued .....

(copyright, John Sloan)

 Go to Part II