Evidence That Performing From Memory May Be More Challenging for Pianists Than Others (What?!)

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Back when we were in college, my wife and I would sometimes “argue” about whether her instrument (piano) or my instrument (violin) was the more difficult of the two.

I would always complain about how truly difficult it is to play in tune1And if you’d like to learn more about why exactly intonation is so tricky, and how to get better at playing more in tune, check out cellist Minna Chung’s podcast episode which looks at the science (and math) of intonation.2, while she would point at how thin my stack of music was relative to hers, and argue that the sheer number of notes pianists have to play (and memorize) clearly beats my intonation card.

Indeed, when it comes to discussions about memorization, and whether musicians ought to perform from memory or not, it does seem like pianists are often at the center of the debate. Case in point, Stephen Hough’s eloquent take on the subject (or this podcast episode where he expands on this further), or this WQXR radio spot, this NY Times piece, or even this entire blog devoted to memorizing music.

So…is performing from memory really more challenging for pianists than it is for other instrumentalists? And if so, why might that be (spoiler alert: it’s not related to the number of notes)?

Turns out there is actually some research and some data in this area! Which may be just as relevant to a number of non-piano instruments as well!

Context-dependent memory

Most research on memorization in music has focused more on exploring various encoding strategies (like structural analysis, practicing hands together or separate, etc.) than on the retrieval process.

But there are many factors that can affect recall too. One, is a phenomenon known as context-dependent memory. This is the curious observation that we have better recall of information if we are tested on that material in the same environment where we learned it.

For instance, way back in 1975, two psychologists tested members of a scuba diving club on their ability to recall a list of words while sitting on the dock (dry), or submerged underwater in their scuba gear (wet).

As it turned out, participants were able to recall the words just fine whether they were on land or underwater – as long as they did their learning and recalling in the same context.

In other words, those who learned in one environment and then were asked to recall in a different environment (wet-dry or dry-wet) recalled fewer words than those who did their learning and recall in the same environment (wet-wet or dry-dry).

Unpredictable, yet reliable

Other studies have replicated this effect in the years since, and even expanded on the idea of context to include internal mental states like mood.

It’s important to note that context-dependent memory effects are notoriously unpredictable and tricky to study, since it’s difficult to predict in advance what specific elements of an environment will matter.

Nevertheless, enough studies have found a memory advantage for recall in the learning environment, that we can be reasonably confident this is probably a legit phenomenon.

So what does this have to do with pianists?

A piano study!

Well, one of the unenviable realities of being a pianist is that they must spend most of their time practicing and learning and getting comfortable on one piano, yet perform on some strange foreign unfamiliar piano when it matters most. And sure, all pianos have the same number of keys, and are they’re located in all the same places, but the weight and “touch” of the keys can be vastly different, not to mention the sound.

A University of Houston study (Mishra & Backlin, 2007) thus sought to see if practicing on one piano, and performing on a different piano could increase the likelihood of memory slips.

A tale of two pianos

32 first and second-year college piano students were asked to memorize a short 16-bar piece composed specifically for the study. The students learned the piece on either a 7-ft Steinway grand, or a Kawai upright (both of which were located in the same teaching studio).

Then, they were asked to perform the piece from memory on either the same piano that they used when learning the piece, or the other piano.

And how’d they do?


Those who did their practicing and performing on the same piano did well on their performance test, scoring an average of 26.46 (Steinway) and 27.96 (Kawai) out of 32.

But it was a different story for the students who were asked to switch to a different piano for their performance. They had way more memory issues, evidenced by incorrect rhythms and notes, and ended up with average scores of 14.08 (Steinway-Kawai) and 15.96 (Kawai-Steinway).


I was never much of a pianist, but I did take piano lessons as a kid, and used to swear to my piano teacher that I sounded better at home, and imply that her piano was to blame. So I was right! Ha! Sweet, sweet, vindication!

Then again, to be fair, I didn’t practice very much and refused to learn bass clef, so there may have been some other contributing factors…

Ok, so what are we supposed to do with this information? Is there anything we can do to counter the context-dependent memory phenomenon?

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Fortunately, yes! It turns out that learning material in multiple contexts during learning can help to strengthen our ability to recall information in a new environment and nullify the context-dependent memory effect.

So even though I know we all have a tendency to gravitate towards our favorite practice rooms and favorite pianos, it seems like it’d be particularly important for pianists to embrace opportunities to practice and do run-throughs on many different pianos, not just the ones that feel most comfortable. In that sense, while it’s easy to complain about practice room pianos not always being in tune, or how some keys are stuck, or the action isn’t to your liking, it’s kind of a luxury to have access to so many different pianos, as it takes way more work and effort to arrange time on different pianos when we leave school.

I imagine this would also apply to organists, harpists, percussionists, and other instrumentalists who may not be totally familiar with their performance instrument in advance.

Of course, it’s less clear how much of an impact the context-dependent memory effect would have on other musicians who use the same instrument but still must practice in one type of setting (e.g. practice room, or one’s home), and perform in a very different physical and acoustical setting like a concert hall. I’d imagine that there’s still benefit in practicing in different spaces, no matter the instrument, but with regards to the context-dependent memory effect in particular, I guess I’ll have to keep looking to see if there’s any research that looks at this with string/wind/brass/vocal performers…

A version of this article was originally posted on 11.30.2014; reposted on 05.15.2022.


Mishra, J., & Backlin, W. M. (2007). The effects of altering environmental and instrumental context on the performance of memorized music. Psychology of Music, 35(3), 453–472. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735607077838


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22 Responses

  1. I am a pianist and a cellist. I’m not surprised by the results of the study – if I’m not completely familiar with my music, then playing it in a different place is certainly going to stress me out, but the same would go for the cello. When I’m confident with my pieces though, and I’ve practiced them enough to perform them, I don’t really find that playing on an unfamiliar piano makes a difference, although I do like to practice on that piano a couple times before the performance. I also don’t feel like it’s harder to memorize on the piano than it is on the cello, although I’m much more of a pianist, and memorizing is one of my strengths. Since you’re playing more notes at once on the piano, it’s easier to compare the harmonies from one chord to the next, and that for me is very helpful in memorizing. I think it’s impossible to say which instrument is harder – I will never master either of them!
    I also teach piano and hear the “it sounded much better at home!” excuse almost daily. And you’re right, it’s because they didn’t practice enough at home! If they’re really comfortable with their pieces, they’ll usually do just fine when they play on my piano.

  2. I’m a flautist, and a pretty low level pianist, and maybe this is an experience common to this kind of level, but I’ve always found it MUCH easier to memorise piano music. I assume the two major factors are that I can see my hands, and the ‘shapes’ of the harmonies (like Amy, knowing the harmony is a big part of holding things in my memory), and secondly that I really struggle with reading multiple lines of music, so I’m really memorising as I learn. Then again, these days it’s extremely rare that I would perform in high pressure situations on piano. But to memorise the flute music I perform takes extreme effort for me, and always feels risky.

  3. Hi Noah-
    I’m a pianist/teacher. I believe that contextual learning can definitely make or break a memorized performance, particularly where some students THINK they have mastered their piece, but perhaps have some gaps in their learning. I think that in the case of myself and my students, the more we have CONCEPTUAL learning, the better off we are under pressure, concepts here being a clear interpretation plan and a clear technique plan put into place and tried out multiple times under pressure in performance classes. It’s like having a map when traveling down the road, and the road is so much more familiar with the concepts in place. I wonder if CONTEXTS and CONCEPTS are similar regarding the learning and the recall experience, especially under pressure? If the concepts are strongly in place, then the context may not effect the performance. That’s what I am aiming for, but the study you shared above is fascinating and adds another facet to teaching students and learning to be strong under the pressure of performance.
    Thank you so much for your Blog-I look forward to it every Sunday. I send it out to all my students!

    1. Hi Karen,

      I do think the conceptual piece is really important, in the sense that we often don’t take the time to form a really clear idea of what it is that we want – musically and technically – making for a less compelling and reliable performance. I received this message time and again from teachers I’d study with, and interestingly, even now, I’m finding with my kids that it takes a lot of work to get them to articulate specific details in their writing – though this is key to really good writing and performing well on the standardized tests they are having to take.

  4. I am not a pianist by any stretch at all. I am a violinist and occasionally accompany my very beginning students. Can anyone explain why when student pianists are playing memorized and play a wrong note, in either hand, they totally lose it? They can’t seem to keep the right hand going while the left catches up, or vice versa. I can do that in my very simple accompaniments and I find that if my violin students get lost in a difficult piece, they can use the accompaniment to find their way. To me, it seems if pianists have both the melody and harmony elements going, it would be easier to find a way back, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

    1. Joan, I think it’s because although both hands are doing something similar (playing on the keys), they are also so totally different at the same time. I had a student yesterday who was doing fine playing her piece hands apart, but it was SO hard for her to put the hands together. I think it takes a long time and years of practice for the brain to be able to separate the hands.

    2. Being a piano teacher I have also observed the same situation, a student who has memorized forgets one note during a performance and they totally lose it. I think it could be due to not knowing the structure of the piece and relying only on kinesthesia, the touch of each note in succession. I have encouraged students who have had this problem to see their pieces in sections and memorize accordingly. This way in case they hit a wrong note during a performance, they can think about where they are and where they should be going, instead of drawing a complete blank. Prior to a performance I work with students while they memorize holding the book and then prompt them if they have trouble reminding them of where they are and the next section. Some students see the music in their minds as they play, and I used to do this and would mentally turn the page as I perform if need be. Others randomly memorize and this is shaky for a performance. If need be we go through the entire piece measure by measure and have them say the note names or identify the chords out loud as they play before a performance. This goes a long way for the student and makes a giant difference as I have seen with adults and children. Hope this helps!

    3. I believe it has to do with the fact that, most often when pianists have refined a piece, they are recalling and further refining the memory of the hands and limbs working in collaboration with each other. Dancers, for instance, don’t have separate memories for what each leg does. In the same regard, it is likely that once pianists get past the initial learning stages (which may involve some amount of hands-apart practice), a lot of time and energy goes into coordinating hands together–this becomes the memory that gets created and further strengthened over time. It makes sense than that, when pianists have memory slips it’s often difficult to keep one hand going for and extended amount of time since both hands are so interdependent.

  5. Not sure this is quite relevant, but it comes to mind. (personal background: piano from age 4, then pipe organ, and classical guitar started at age 30). When I started guitar as an adult, I virtually memorized nearly everything – especially “pieces” (as compared with exercises such as arpeggios, scales). No purposeful intent, it was simply a result of learning the complexities and very different layout of the fretboard cf. keyboard. However, over the years, as my reading matured, it became increasingly less intuitive – even difficult – to memorize. As a grad-student organist, memorizing EVERYTHING was a requirement. However, as a church organist, the quantity and type of material (service music as well as solos, accompanying) required good sight reading – another deterrent to memorizing from a purely practical standpoint.
    – Concert performing guitarists tend to be comfortable with either reading or memorizing, and may even do a bit of both in a program. Nevertheless I’ve always found it intriguing that memorizing was not just easy, but a necessity when I started guitar. – Then gradually dissipated as reading ability developed.

  6. This is an interesting article. I am more familiar with the guitar because I have been playing it longer (20 years) and the piano I have been working at for close to 4. How I memorize on one vs. the other isn’t all that different. First and foremost I have to have the sound of the piece in my ear, sometimes singing a long with it, before I can take the steps to memorize it.
    I guess a lot of it is muscle memory: what fingers are doing what. Because the guitar presents the problem of playing a certain phrase sometimes 2 or 3 ways (depending on your position, etc.) it might take a while to figure out the BEST way to play something first before I can memorize it. If I memorize it one way and then, for some reason, try to play it different in a performance setting, then I am setting myself up for a possible mistake!
    In that regards the piano is certainly easier because you can only play something one way. The only thing you have to be careful of is knowing what fingers are doing what in each hand. I have found this to be especially true in music where there are 2 different things happening in each hand. I pay attention A LOT to what my hands are doing!
    The choice of piano doesn’t really make difference either. I prefer the feel of a real keyboard to an electronic one anyway.

  7. I’m a guitar player. I play rock and roll and I-m studying jazz guitar. I’m not a great reader, but I can read music well enough to understand basic music theory. I can and do read chord charts. I own about 4 or 5 guitars. I do notice a difference in my playing from one guitar to the other even if both guitars are of the same make and model. Each guitar is different regardless and for me that does play a role in how I play and I think that affects me more than environment. I also play a lot from memory.

  8. I am a pianist and organist. I find that playing a familiar piece on an unfamiliar instrument can be difficult. I just played a fairly difficult but familiar piece yesterday as a substitute in church on a piano I’ve never played on. It certainly made the piece harder to play because the touch was different, the sound brighter than I’m used to hearing and there was a shadow on the keyboard from poor lighting. I got through it ok and the congregation thought it was great but I know how much better I could have played it. The organ is a totally different animal. ALL organs are different so I am more used to feeling/hearing differences on that instrument. Experience on the organ has taught me how to handle differences better.

  9. As a lifelong pianist who now accompanies quite a bit of student violin lit, I absolutely believe that in some ways that piano repertoire is more difficult than violin rep, at least in terms of the sheer amount of musical information that must be sightread moment-to-moment (and memorized, as well). A good friend of mine who’s a fine pianist and a decent violinist once told me that, for him, given two concerti of the same scope (let’s say Tchaik violin and Tchaik 1 piano), he’d have the violin concerto twice as polished in half the time. And he’s a much better pianist than violinist. Not to mention taking into account the sheer technique and body awareness required to achieve accuracy on a 4-foot-long keyboard (though it’s a different type of accuracy than that required to have spot-on intonation on an only 18-inch-or-so fingerboard).

    And to address the issue of a different instrument affecting memory–I have never found this to be the case with me. Luckily, at least with tonal music, I memorize easily and without conscious effort, though it is slower than with some (a few weeks to a month for a substantial piece). And of course, many college students don’t have a piano in their dorms/apartments so they are constantly switching among whatever practice room instruments they can find, which might unwittingly assist them in overcoming that issue if they have it.

    The only times I’ve found the instrument switch to be a problem, as I imagine most pianists might, is if there is some serious difference in the tone, weight, etc that requires me to do something very different with pedaling or technique. We had to make a pretty serious switch in pedal technique for a Mozart concerto recital I accompanied (for a student of Mr. Pressler’s at IU) to fix balance issues in the (crappy) hall, but ultimately the performance went very well. The pedaling change was not an issue of memorization, however (and I had the score pretty thoroughly memorized, which came in handy when my promised page-turner didn’t show up that night!)

  10. The information in this blog has been very helpful. A little over a year ago, I started taking piano lessons again after several years of not playing. I took piano lessons as a child into my teenage years and played occasionally in my young adult years. I played well enough to accompany soloists and small church congregations. Then I went through several years when I didn’t play at all–except when I visited my parents. In the past year, my playing has improved significantly but the slightest variation in piano touch or sound causes me to forget everything that I was able to do on my own piano. An example that was very frustrating to me is when I visited my parents this thanksgiving. I tried to play a piece from memory for my father and couldn’t get past the introduction. The keys on his piano seemed to be more stiff than on mine and the sustaining pedal did not work. After a day or two of getting used to the feel of the piano, things started to come together and by the time I left I was feeling a little better. However, the unpredictability of knowing when this will happen does concern me.

  11. I’m a music (therapy) major with piano as my primary instrument. I do have to switch between pianos depending on what practice rooms are open. I find there’s quite a difference in quality of tone and touch between different brands of pianos (and can even vary within brands). Pedals especially vary from piano to piano. These differences don’t necessarily mean a bad performance, but they do affect my personal response to the music. When it comes to performing, I like to be able to practice on the piano I will be performing on at least once prior to actually performing to prevent messing up due to trying to make changes. As far as memorizing goes, I usually have the piece memorized naturally by the time it’s ready to perform, but if I were to have to make changes I’m not used to making to accommodate a piano, it could mess the performance.
    I think Nicole said pretty much the same thing, just with a few variations.

  12. I don’t understand the expectation that pianists play from memory, where organists almost always use a score, as do many other soloists. I’ve gone back to study again in my ’60s, and the memorisation just isn’t happening, so I’m using a score most times I play, particularly away from my own piano.

    I have a well regulated and voiced top level piano at home which I adore playing. Almost anything else is more difficult to play. I have been asked to play in Aged Care homes on occasions – to entertain the residents. The pianos are generally horrible poor condition old uprights (un-saleable so donated by previous residents). With even easier repertoire I memorised earlier in life, I’ve given up trying to play on those pianos from memory, and take a music score with me.

    I’d second Anne’s comments about organs – no 2 are the same even if they’re the same model from the same organ builder. Bench height, lighting, acoustics, state of tune affect the playing experience. And many have had modifications carried out over the years, and in some cases, the entire tonal quality of some stops has changed.

  13. Hi Noa!

    I’ve been talking about this with my students for quite some time. I encourage them to practice on a variety of pianos simply to add lots of variability to their learning. The hope is that they gain plenty of different types of experiences (with touch, tone, tuning, general environment, etc.) that their brains and bodies become in some ways desensitized to all of the scary stuff that comes along with playing on an unknown piano.

    Down here in Lubbock there is still lots of positive talk about your visit in early September! Thanks again for sharing your work with our faculty and staff.

    1. Hi Carla,

      Glad to hear there is still positive dialogue of the visit!

      I remember in college, how many of the pianists (my wife being one of them) had piano “favorites” that they tried to get. Understandably, of course, as some may have sounded better, or had a more preferable touch. But in hindsight, this is the perfect place to take advantage of access to such a range of different instruments. Of course, now that I think of it, I think I had room favorites too, where out of habit, I just got used to practicing in certain rooms. Even though they were all pretty much identical…

  14. Pianist here, and I can’t stop laughing at your comment that you”refused to learn bass clef” when you were studying piano.

    1. Yeah, I was a stubborn kid. I’d just think up a minor third and down an octave and memorize the left hand part first, then add the right hand part in afterwards. Somehow that seemed easier to me than just learning another clef…

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