Why Some Musicians Seem to Be Memorization “Naturals” (and How to Become More of One Yourself)

Ah, the dreaded memory slip.

We’ve all experienced at least one in our lifetimes. And spent many a sleepless night playing and replaying music in our heads, in an effort to reassure ourselves that we actually do have everything memorized. Or spent most of a performance fearing that we’re going to forget what comes next, or get stuck in an endless loop.

It may not literally be life or death, but it can certainly feel that way at times.

But then there are those for whom memorization seems to happen naturally. Easily. Almost without trying.

What’s up with that? Do they know something we don’t? Or are their brains just wired differently than ours?

The study of memorization

Roger Chaffin, a professor of psychology at UConn (and amateur flutist), has conducted a number of studies on the learning processes of high-level musicians.

Several are related specifically to the memorization process, and provide some insights into how expert memorizers memorize.

Two types of memory

Type #1: Serial chaining

It turns out that there are two types of memory that musicians rely on. Each has its pros and cons, so it helps to know which is which, so we don’t put all of our eggs in the wrong basket.

The first type is called serial chaining. This is where playing one phrase cues up your memory of the next phrase, which cues up your memory of the phrase after that, and so on. On the plus side, this type of memory develops naturally as you work on a piece, so there’s not much you have to do other than practice as normal. And it works pretty darn well too – so long as the conditions of retrieval are close to the conditions of practice. But when does that ever happen?

Any deviations from our experience in the practice room, either internal or external, have the potential to weaken these “chains” which link one phrase or passage to the next. And if one of the chains break, we’re kind of screwed, because often, the only way to get back on track is to start at the first chain again. Kind of like singing the alphabet song. Real quick – start singing the ABC song from F – BUT DO NOT cue up the tune by singing from A. Not so easy, right?

I had a job in grad school that required doing lots of filing of records alphabetically. You’d think I would have figured out the alphabet by then, but it was surprising how often I had to sing the ABC song to myself to figure out which letter came after which. And even more surprising was how often I had to start at A. In fact, I still seem incapable of starting anywhere other than A or Q. Bizarre.

All this to say, if serial chaining is the only type of memory we have developed for our recital program, we probably should be a little bit freaked out about the reliability of our memory.

Type #2: Content addressable access

If serial chaining is like autopilot or cruise control, the second type of memory is like manual override. Termed content addressable access, it involves creating specific “retrieval” or “performance cues” that allow us to get ourselves back on track at any of a whole range of locations throughout the piece. So if everything goes to crap, and we break a chain, instead of having to backtrack and start at the beginning, we are never more than a few bars away from a fresh start.1

The downside, however, is that these cues must be created and rehearsed. So it takes deliberate effort and a bit of time. Though if you ask me, this is a small price to pay for the peace of mind which comes from knowing a piece like the back of your hand.

What do performance cues look like?

What do these performance cues look like, you ask?

Well, there are at least 4 different kinds.

  1. Structural cues are natural breaks in the structure of a piece – like the exposition/development/recap, or where phrases begin and end.
  2. Expressive cues are mood or character-based. Sections that are sad/happy/sarcastic, or represent a specific action or dialogue between voices.
  3. Interpretative cues are musical in nature, having to do with changes in tempo, phrasing, dynamics, etc.
  4. Basic cues are technique-related, such as bowing or fingering choices.

Taken together, these four types of cues add additional layers of information to the music, kind of like landmarks that let us know if we’re on the right path or not, and help us get back on track if we start to lose our way.

How so?

Mental performance scripts

Through observational studies of musicians learning and memorizing new works for performance, Chaffin found that these performance cues are created during practice sessions, and are themselves rehearsed during practice as well.

In other words, rather than just starting a phrase mindlessly without a clear intention, expert memorizers seem to start and stop at these recovery points during practice, thinking about the structural, expressive, interpretive, or technical element involved. Over time, this creates a “mental script” of the piece, which gets encoded into memory along with the physical script (i.e. the technical execution of the piece).

So as expert memorizers work out the musical and technical details of a piece, making clearer and deliberate decisions about the musical structure, character, phrasing, fingerings, and what to focus on from phrase to phrase, this not only boosts the level of their musicianship, but also serves to anchor these performance cues more deeply into memory. Particularly, as they think about these things while practicing, much like paying attention to street signs and landmarks as you drive through a new city that you’ve just moved to.

Below is a graphical representation of what this kind of memory map might look like (just as an illustration – it’s not like you would necessarily write this out on paper away from the score, though I suppose you certainly could).

Chaffin, R., Lisboa, T., Logan, T., & Begosh, K.T. (2010). Preparing for Memorized Cello Performance: The Role of Performance Cues. Psychology of music, 38, 3-30.
Chaffin, R., Lisboa, T., Logan, T., & Begosh, K.T. (2010). Preparing for Memorized Cello Performance: The Role of Performance Cues. Psychology of music, 38, 3-30.

Take action

The big take-home message for me is that even when it comes to memorization, simply playing through pieces over and over on autopilot is an inefficient use of time. And, that how we practice lays the groundwork for how we will perform.

More specifically, that what we think about in practice, will influence what we think about when performing. So if we’ve not created or practiced a mental script in advance, our mind will create one for us – one that is probably much more based in fear and anxiety than related to the nuances and musical elements that would make for a more engaged and compelling (and worry-free) performance.


  1. Having all these recovery points programmed into the piece has the additional benefit of providing us with a much clearer musical and conceptual “map” of the piece too.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


9 Responses

  1. Now here is the way I, personally, do it:

    First of all, i recognize that there are actually FOUR (4) different memories that miraculously come into play when learning to perform a piece from memory:

    1. muscle memory
    2. musical memory
    3. intellectual memory
    4. visual memory

    (intellectual memory – # 3 above – is what i understand the bulk of this article to be about. it correspond to a structural map of the piece. intellectual memory helps us remember what goes where, and if you’re really good at it, even the “why” of why it goes there.)

    Memories #1 and #2 gradually build up as we play and replay a piece. It can even be helpful to try to be conscious of what’s going on with these two memories as we learn a piece, although they are really not within our conscious control – at least not within the control of MY consciousness. They are, in my opinion, two magical, mystical, and wonderful memories that just happen to be built in to our brains and bodies. They are great, and can help a lot in giving us additional memories to work with while learning and performing a piece.

    Memory #4, visual memory, is sometimes called “memorize even the grease spots on the printed page around the area to be memorized”. This memory is very much within our control, and can be brought into play when trying to gain mastery over a tricky and elusive place. Like all the memories, visual memory is also quite magical, but like intellectual (structural) memory you can store stuff in it by really thinking about it, focusing on it, and eventually it somehow gets memorized.

    What works for me is that i enjoy trying to be conscious of what’s in each of these four memories as i learn and perform a piece. When performing, if i want to, i can switch back and forth through each of these memories as i play along. On some days one or more of these memories can be weaker or stronger for a particular piece. By being flexible and alert enough to know which memories are working best (or not working so good) at any particular time, i can usually feel like i really have one or more level of memory back-up as i move along.

    Anyway, that’s the way i’ve been doing it lately.

    Gary Berlind/

  2. I have been working on performance cues. I like to do what I call “drop the needle”- like you used to able to do with a phonograph record. You should be able to pick up from any part in the song in the same way when you are learning it. One thing that I found that helps me quite a bit is laying out the arrangement before getting into the particulars. I play mainly by ear and use an iPad app that allows me to flag sections of an MP3 and even give them a title in the graphical display of the song. Since most pop music is pretty much of formula thing it is easy to lay things out as intro, verse, pretty chorus , chorus , solo, etc. The app displays the list of section headings and selecting any one of them starts the peace from the exact point. That’s where my drop the needle concept comes into play. It really helps for a more thorough understanding of the structure of the piece. There is also a loop function that allows me to hammer away at repetitions and then the loop points can be adjusted to help add previous or subsequent sections to have it all makes sense. This is a great article. I highly recommend people take this information and put it to use.

  3. Thank you, I can’t love this article more since it’s about note taking in the practice room and I am passionate about it. I am passionate about the concept of “cue”. As you had said in your “centering” lecture, the cue can be a word (in the case of the note-taking in the practice room) but can also be a feeling, a sound? (“mellow”) ? I wanted to know if I could use the “cue” in my note-taking fore abook where a cue acts like a springboard as I reread my notes.

  4. Very insightful article Noa. I realized that this is basically what I unconsciously do when learning and practicing new material.

    I recently had to learn 10 new songs on drums before heading into the studio and had to do it in 2 days. Closed myself up in the practice room and literally immersed myself in those songs. It’s really a mix of “serial chaining” and “content addressable access” but what’s really important for me is usually the approach to learning the parts. Mostly I would divide the songs in its fundamental sections, and start scanning them from beginning to end until I can play the whole song several times without messing up. When it comes to learning with no written music, listening to understand which drum or cymbal is being played and visualising have a huge role as well for me.

  5. One other comment. I think this note taking system in the practice room that Noa gave us by the intermediary of the study he found is useful because this mental script is the script of what is relevant to what we are doing, and this builds our focus in the practice room as well, not only prepares us for the performance. Don’t you think, Noa?

  6. I had a piano teacher used a final test of memory prior to performance in which I had to play a measure then — with hands still — “think” the next measure throughout the entire piece. This ensured there were mental question at every measure. Very difficult, but if practiced, very effective!

  7. It’s master of one thing with a lot of work over time. I know there is a lot of explanation I’m learning an instrumental for 3 months and I can barely produce one sound it’s not my fault I think it’s how our brain works it needs time to process, to master.

    Why is someone different? Is this the real question? Or they worked more than the normal one in a single instrument?

  8. I always get a bit anxious before I need to play an instrument in front of an audience. Memorizing every note can be difficult but I noticed that being anxious doesn’t help either. I become less nervous once I start playing and manage to turn these negatives emotions into confidence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Do you know your mental strengths and weaknesses?

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice hacks that could help you level up.