My daughter began noodling around on the piano a couple years ago, making up songs, and giving them names1.

She’s been taking lessons for a year now, and while it’s super cute to watch her practice, dog at her side, there’s one particular thing she does that drives us (and surely our neighbors) bonkers.

Whenever she gets stuck or forgets a note, she circles back to the beginning and starts the piece again.

Not a big deal at first, but when it’s the 634th time you’ve heard the first two lines of Bach’s Minuet in G, there’s a part of you that reeeeeeally wants it to work out this time and silently screams NOOOO!!! when she gets stuck and leaves you hanging as she hunts and pecks for the right note to complete the V chord and instead jumps back to the beginning.

I know this phase will pass in time (or else we may be looking for a new place to live), but it’s a glimpse at a bigger issue that strikes fear into the hearts of many (if not all) musicians.

Memorization. Dun dun duuuun!

Mindless memorization?

We know that practicing mindlessly (i.e. playing something over and over without much pre-planning, analysis, or reflection) sort of works, but that it’s not especially efficient or effective. And that “deliberate,” or mindful, thoughtful, and problem/solution-focused practice is one of the hallmarks of elite performers.

Well, it appears that the same may be true for memorization too.

The typical approach to memorization involves a process called “associative chaining.” This is where you play through a piece from beginning to end a bunch of times, until you can get through it without any issues.

So very often, we end up memorizing pieces even if we’re not trying, simply by virtue of working on them long enough. It’s not such a bad system, in that it happens naturally and easily. With enough repetition, the first phrase reminds us of the second phrase, which reminds us of the next phrase, which reminds us of the one after that, and so on.

Good while it lasts

And when it works, it’s great. But when it doesn’t, we’re kind of screwed, because the only way to recover when one chain breaks is to go back to the beginning of the piece and hope that our memory holds up better the next time we get to that same spot.

Remember those old-style strings of Christmas tree lights from ye olde days of yore, where if one bulb in the chain didn’t work, the whole string wouldn’t work? And how Dad would sit around in a tangled mess of wires swapping bulbs in and out along the chain, muttering under his breath? It’s kind of like that.

So…what’s the alternative?

Deliberate memorization?

“Better” memorizers don’t necessarily have a better memory. They just utilize a more effective strategy – a more deliberate strategy that gives them a safety net in case their memory fails.

What they do is embed little retrieval cues (or “performance cues”) throughout the piece. Little reminders about phrasing, dynamics, character, articulation, musical structure, and more. You’ll notice that these things aren’t necessarily related to memorizing notes, but nevertheless comprise a “mental script” of little details to focus on as you make your way through the piece. Reminders to keep you on-task, ensure that you bring out every nuance and detail, and don’t just cruise by on autopilot.

Recovery points

The idea being, every time you start playing from one of these sections and think about its associated performance cue, the connection between this cue and the phrase gets stronger. This, in effect, creates a “recovery point” in the event that your associative chain is broken. Kind of like creating a trail of breadcrumbs for you to follow in the woods – where even if a little forest critter comes and eats one, you can just skip ahead a bit and pick up the trail without too much trouble.

The downside (if you want to call it that), is that this kind of memorization takes effort and a lot more active thought during your practice sessions.

Which brings up an interesting question – is this something anyone can do? Or does “deliberate memorization” require advanced knowledge of music theory, a high degree of technical expertise, and a real commitment to memorizing music?

“Maria”

A team of researchers and musicians conducted a case study of an 18-year old piano student named “Maria,” who had been taking lessons since age 4, and practiced ~2-4 hours per week. She had memorized pieces before in the course of learning them, but not in any deliberate, conscious way. So, her memory would fade pretty quickly, and she’d be unable to play them without the music after a few weeks.

She began the study having sort of learned Schumann’s Der Dichter Spricht. Meaning, she could get through the piece, but “…haltingly and with extremely limited musical expression.”

Over the course of 7 lessons, her teacher (one of the authors of the study) introduced her to a more deliberate method of memorization.

Creating a mental map

Maria’s teacher showed her how to mark up a blank copy of the score with arrows and colored pen, so as to begin coming up with specific “cues” to pay attention to while practicing. There were four kinds of things she was encouraged to think about:

1. Basic technique (e.g. positioning of her hands, the notes)
2. Musical structure (e.g. phrasing)
3. Interpretation (e.g. dynamics)
4. Expression (e.g. the mood or character she wanted to convey)

They did this together at first, writing short notes into the music as Maria reflected back on the previous week’s practice and described what aspects of the music she had paid attention to while practicing. It looked like this:

From Lisboa T, Chaffin R, & Demos AP (2015), Recording thoughts while memorizing music: a case study, Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (1561), 1-13
From Lisboa T, Chaffin R, & Demos AP (2015), Recording thoughts while memorizing music: a case study, Frontiers in Psychology, 5 (1561), 1-13.

Maria had 6 more lessons over the next month and a half, where either she, or she and her teacher together took out a blank copy of the music, and repeated this exercise of identifying and writing key musical/technical landmarks or interpretative/expressive cues into the score that Maria had focused on while practicing.

They also did this after in-lesson performances of the piece to see what sort of cues Maria had focused on while performing the piece from memory.

It didn’t take long to get the piece memorized. By her fourth lesson, Maria successfully played through the piece from memory – surprising both herself and her teacher. And by her sixth lesson, Maria was happy with how the Schumann sounded and felt like it was time to move onto a new piece.

What would happen after 2+ months away from the piece?

This was near the end of the school year, so Maria took a break from piano lessons for the summer, and didn’t touch the piece until her next lesson about 9 1/2 weeks later.

Would she still be able to play it through from memory after that long of a break?

Well, she couldn’t play it straight through without stopping. But she did manage to get through it without looking at the music. And when given an opportunity to play it a second time, it got better. All in all, quite a departure from previous memorization experiences.

Takeaways

You can read the complete study here for more of the nitty gritty details and nuances, and keep in mind that it’s just one student’s experience – but the concept of deliberate memorization and the strategies used in this case study are based on a convergence of past research and theory. In any case, here are a few important takeaways:

1. Increased confidence in memory and performance

Maria had long avoided performing in public, but after learning this memorization strategy and participating in the study, she volunteered to perform (from memory) at her teacher’s annual student concert.

Associative chaining is great, but when this is the only method we’ve used, I think there’s a part of us that knows that we’re taking a chance by putting an awful lot of eggs in that one basket.

Having a full set of consciously accessible performance cues to help guide us from one meaningful musical moment to the next lets our inner worrywart rest easier, knowing that we have a solid Plan B, just in case.

2. More engaging practice sessions

Even after the study was complete, Maria continued to mark up her scores, saying “This is a much more interesting type of practice than just repeating bits of the music.”

Identifying and embedding performance cues is something you could do specifically for memorization, but I think enhanced memory security is actually just a bonus. The primary benefit of this approach may be that it encourages us to be more thoughtful practicers, and more thoughtful musicians, by compelling us to think of and verbally articulate what we want to do with each note, gesture, or phrase instead of having just some vague, fuzzy notion of what we hope to get.

Indeed, pianist Leon Fleisher once emphasized the importance of being able to verbally describe in clear terms what we are striving for in the music, explaining that if we can’t articulate our desired objective in words, it’s a sign that our ideas aren’t clear enough, and as a result, they’re not likely to come across to the audience.

So in many ways, it seems that being an expert memorizer goes hand in hand with being a more mindful, self-reflective practicer, and a better musician too. A win-win-win!

Odds and ends

Here’s Alfred Cortot performing the Schumann: Der Dichter Spricht ala Cortot

And video of Cortot in a master class, talking a student through some of his performance cues in this piece: Cortot Master Class - Paris, 1953

Footnotes

  1. Like “Walking the Dog,” which was essentially just a bunch of middle C’s, punctuated with the occasional IV chord. Pretty much on-point, now that I think of it…