The Two Most Efficient (and Two Least Efficient) Memorization Strategies

Making the bed in the morning is one of those activities in life that seems like a questionable use of time. I mean, it’s going to get unmade anyway the next evening, right?1

Socks (or more accurately, their seeming proclivity for ditching their partners) are another time-sucking black hole in our lives2.

Then again, because of my fundamental laziness, I’m always looking for ways to be more efficient.

Not that all shortcuts are better, of course. But spending more time on something than is necessary seems like a waste, when there are so many other meaningful and interesting outlets for our time and energy. So whenever it’s possible to do more in less time, with less effort, I get oddly excited.

Which takes us to memorization, which is probably everyone’s least favorite thing to do ever, but also one of the biggest sources of worry and anxiety for musicians.

Usually, when we ask questions about memorization, it’s oriented around the issue of effectiveness. As in, what memorization strategy will result in the most durable memory, abolishing memory slips forevermore? While there doesn’t seem to be a 100% guaranteed memory-slip-proof system quite yet, there is another question regarding memory that is also interesting. The question of efficiency. As in, what strategy will help us memorize music most quickly?

Obviously, we’d prefer a strategy that is both efficient and effective, but an effective strategy that takes forever isn’t much good to us either.

In one study3 of pianists working on the Bach D minor Prelude and Fugue , for instance, it took an average of ~14 hours to memorize the piece – but some pianists memorized the piece in less than 10 hours, while others needed almost 20 hours.

That’s a pretty big difference.

So are some people just born better at memorizing than others? Or are the fastest memorizers simply doing something different than the slower folks?

Four strategies

In a study of 60 instrumentalists4, researcher (and violist) Jennifer Mishra analyzed the memorization strategies of the four fastest memorizers (8.66 to 17 minutes), and the four slowest memorizers (66.83 to 100 minutes), discovering that they relied on four basic strategies. She called these Holistic, Additive, Segmented, and Serial, and found that the fastest memorizers relied more on the Holistic and Additive strategies, while the slowest memorizers tended to use the Segmented and Serial strategies.

Which is to say…

  • Holistic = starting at the beginning and playing straight through to the end, backtracking only a tiny bit if you make a mistake or have a memory slip
  • Additive = starting at the beginning and memorizing an initial segment of the piece, then progressively adding a little more music to the first bit, until the initial segment grows larger and larger and eventually contains the whole piece.
  • Segmented = breaking the whole piece into chunks, memorizing the chunks in isolation, and then trying to link the chunks together into a whole
  • Serial = starting at the beginning and playing until you make a mistake, at which point you rewind back to the beginning and give it another go, hoping that you can get further the next time.

Putting the strategies to the test

Very intriguing stuff, but from this data alone, it’s not really clear if the faster memorizers were faster because of their use of these strategies, or if it was just because they were better memorizers to begin with. So the researcher ran another study5 to systematically test the effectiveness of these four strategies.

Forty music education majors were asked to memorize a 16-measure exercise, and randomly assigned to one of four groups. One group used the Holistic strategy. The second group used the Segmented strategy. The third group used the Serial strategy. And the final group used the Additive strategy.

Once the participants were able to successfully perform the 16-bar exercise without any memory errors, they were put through a 5-minute distraction task designed to encourage a bit of forgetting.

Then, they were asked to perform the 16-bar passage again, to see how much of the music they could still recall and successfully play from memory.

Which strategy is the best?

It’s important to remember that a simple 16-measure exercise and say, a Bach cello suite, are two very different things. And memorizing something in the short-term, and being able to recall it perfectly under pressure after more than just a 5-minute break is quite a different challenge as well.

Nevertheless, the study suggests that some strategies do seem to be more efficient than others.

The Holistic strategy led the pack with an average memorization time of 39.2 minutes. Significantly faster than the Segmented strategy (58.49 minutes) and Serial strategy (58.53 minutes). The Additive strategy seemed to work pretty well too (46.39 minutes), if you’re keeping score.

Of course, memorizing music isn’t a race, and the point is to maximize the durability of our memory, so as to prevent memory slips in the future. So while the Segmented and Serial strategy may have taken longer, perhaps the extra time was worth it?

Well, as it turns out, maybe not so much. All four groups made a comparable number of mistakes when trying to play the passage from memory after the 5-minute break, and neither the Segmented or Serial groups displayed any advantage from the extra time they spent memorizing the passage6.

Take action

You can read the study here for more nuances and insight about the memorization process, but the two big takeaways are:

(1) Encourage students to play through larger, meaningful sections of a piece so they can get a sense of the larger structure and how things fit together (Holistic), rather than stopping and circling all the way back to the beginning every time they run into a snag (Serial).

(2) Memorization should be an active process. Simply engaging in mindless repetition of a chunk of music over and over hoping that it will stick, is not a very efficient or effective way of committing music to memory. So if a student is going to memorize a piece in chunks (Segmented), make sure that they take the time to identify chunks that are musically and structurally meaningful – not just some arbitrary 2-bar or 5-bar block of notes.

What’s your favorite memorization strategy for those occasions when you’ve got a ton to memorize, and time is not on your side?

Footnotes

  1. And apparently, this guy feels the same way
  2. Simplify your life one sock at a time
  3. Quantity and quality of musical practice as predictors of performance quality
  4. A Qualitative Analysis of Strategies Employed in Efficient and Inefficient Memorization
  5. Influence of strategy on memorization efficiency
  6. Holistic=3.0 mistakes; Segmented=2.75 mistakes; Serial=5.14 mistakes; Additive=3.1 mistakes

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.

Comments

29 Responses

  1. Dear Dr. Kageyama,
    First of all I’d like to thank you for your blog, it has been very helpful for my lessons.
    I would like to know a little bit more about the «holistic» method, as I don’t get how you can play the whole piece from heart if you don’t know the music before.
    Thanks! !

    1. Good question – the delineation between whole and part practice is not so consistent in the literature, so sometimes it’s unclear what holistic vs. segmented might mean in practical terms. So holistic doesn’t necessary mean playing an entire movement from beginning to end from memory when it hasn’t even been learned yet. The passages in the studies mentioned weren’t particularly challenging either on a technical level, so there wasn’t much of a need to work on specific sections in isolation. Whereas if you are working on an actual piece of music, you’ll likely be practicing things in segments anyway, before you get to trying to play through the whole thing from memory. The idea, I believe, is to try to get through larger, meaningful sections, as opposed to chopping things up into arbitrary x-bar sections that don’t help you develop a sense of the larger structure and flow of the piece.

  2. Not mentioned is the reverse-order segmented method, which should be fastest — if the same principles apply as for memorizing poems.
    It works by positive reinforcement.
    Memorize last segment first. Then play and learn second to last plus last. Memorize that, Then do third to last, second to last and last,
    The increased familiarity of each successive segment gives positive reinforcement for the preceding section so it’s like rolling downhill, getting easier and easier as you go on/
    I know this works for memorizing poetry.
    COuld be different for music with repeated themes.
    But–worth trying alongside the others methods

    1. I have played several instruments over the years (mostly one at a time). I always had trouble memorizing on clarinet, guitar, recorder, piano, saxophone. Then I picked up the cello, and I don’t know if it is the cello, increased overall musical skill level, or advanced age (I started cello in my 40’s), but suddenly I can play things from memory.

      After I practice for a while (a few weeks) without trying to memorize, I turn the music over. At this point, I can usually play 80% from memory without having made any effort at all. If I glance at the music as needed, after a couple of weeks I don’t need to look at the music any more. This lasts until I stop practicing that piece, and after that the memorization fades away if I don’t use it.

  3. A technique that was taught to me for memorization that works, though admittedly I’m a lousy memorizer, is to work from the end of the piece or movement so you’re always playing to the end. I try to learn 4 to 8 measure phrases at a time and play to the finish. Along with always completing the phrase your also reinforcing the ending of the piece working towards the beginning which seems to be a plus as we do tend to learn a piece from the beginning hence having a better ‘handle’ on the beginning parts of a composition rather than the ending.

  4. Did anyone try adding a phrase at a time from the end? This way you are always heading towards something you already know. You can memorise and learn the music at the same time.

  5. I don’t see any difference between starting at the beginning and starting
    at the end, everything else being equal. In the first you have repeated the earlier measures the most and in the latter you have repeated the later measures the most. Yes, if the most difficult measures are in the second half, it may make sense to start at the end.
    Otherwise, it makes no difference.
    What am I missing?
    Thank you.

    1. This is a little complicated to explain, but it really does work better to start from the end. Here’s why:

      Whether you are talking about actual memorization or simply learning to play a long technical passage or study, working “backwards” from the end can result in much more even preparation, because (I’m not shouting at you, I just want to emphasize this point in CAPS) YOU ARE ALWAYS STARTING WITH THE LEAST FAMILIAR SEGMENT.

      Let’s say you’re trying to learn a technical passage that has 5 sections: 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5.

      If you start from the beginning, then first you play section 1 and you make a mistake. So you practice section 1 several more times until it’s solid before you can go on to section 2. Then you practice sections 1 & 2 together before you get to section 3. Every time you do a partial run-through, you start with section 1. And whenever you make a mistake on that partial run-through you will have started with section 1. You end up playing section 1 a zillion times, but section 5 gets almost no practice.

      Now imagine learning the same piece “backwards” from the end. At first, your progress is similar, because you have to keep practicing section 5 until you move back to the previous section. Then you practice 4 & 5 together, etc.

      But here’s the difference: YOU ARE MORE LIKELY TO MAKE MISTAKES WITH LESS FAMILIAR SECTIONS. So on partial run-throughs, the backwards approach works much better because you are always starting with (and frequently repeating) the least familiar section.

      Let’s say you’re working backwards and now trying to run sections 2-5. Section 2 is the section you’ve just learned. So you try the run-through but make a mistake in section 2. You start again with section 2 (reinforcing the least familiar section). This time you get all the way to section 4 before making a mistake. You have to start back again at section 2 (the least familiar one). But you don’t waste time on section 5 because that’s the most familiar one, the section you’ve been practicing right from the beginning of your session.

      By the time you get back to working on Section 1, the rest of the piece is fairly evenly prepared, and almost all your effort is devoted to mastering this one remaining section.

      When using this “backwards” approach, you obviously need to identify sections that make musical sense. You don’t literally learn the piece “backwards” by one note at a time. But if you divide the passage you’re learning into small but meaningful phrases or sections, and learn each section from the end backwards, you will probably find you’re learning things more thoroughly and evenly. Try it–I think you’ll like it.

    2. I was encouraged to “work the ending” by my piano teacher, and I find it works for me. There is something about “getting to the end” that provides a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, and so working from an earlier point to the finish line seems to be more motivating than “seeing how far you can get” from the start.

  6. I like to use a memorization exercise I found online. I put my instrument down, close my eyes, and mime through the piece. I act out all the bowings, fingerings, and shifts in the air. While it can get a bit dry, doing it one or two times a week in the month leading up to a performance really improves my memory and confidence.

  7. I honestly can’t answer your closing question.

    I’m a fingerstyle guitarist who’s spent about six months trying to learn a piece… and applying everything I learn on this site. I always know when my latest formula for practicing is better because it gets me farther, even if I still stall sooner or later. But I have to admit, I was a bit scared to realize that in applying these strategies I lined up more with the Segmented, and to a lesser extent the Serial, strategies.

    However, I was kind of confused as I read as to what we meant by “memory” here. As I see it, there are two kinds: 1) Knowing the song, knowing what it should sound like, and 2) muscle memory, being able to move your body such that the sound you know in your head comes out.

    I sort of can’t tell which one is under discussion here. And I have to point out that I know the song I’m trying to play like I know myself – it’s a very short song, I know how it goes from beginning to end, it’s just that I can’t always get my body to make the sounds that must be made in accordance with it.

    1. Ultimately, we’re talking about both, but in the studies, we’re mostly looking at the former sort of memory – being able to play from beginning to end without having any memory slips. The music was easy enough technically, that the players wouldn’t have had too much difficulty getting the notes out.

  8. I guess what I do is some combination of holistic and segmented, but I have to rely a lot on theory to help me memorize things. So if I’m doing the first movement of a concerto, I’ll work on the exposition as a chunk, the development as a chunk, and the recap as a chunk. Also, if I don’t know WHAT I’m playing, I’m lost. I will memorize a flurry of notes a lot faster if I consciously think about what scale it’s based on and what all those altered notes are doing there. The third thing is visualization. If I can’t get away from the instrument and still feel the music in my fingers and visualize myself playing it (without using air fingers), then I know I don’t have it memorized. My best performances have been when I vividly visualized playing the piece beforehand, instead of just picking up the instrument and “making sure I have it.”

  9. I find often that the Additive method helps me not only in larger doses in music, but also in smaller bits for more difficult lines. Usually if I’m learning something by ear, I don’t try to learn the whole thing and come back to the parts I missed because I’m effectively not learning those parts. Rather, I use the Additive method to piece together the line without missing any individual pieces (jazz musician here). In this way I’m listening for inflections, articulations, what part of the beat we’re talking about. This also really helps when I’m working on Bach’s Violin Partitas, which personally have become a huge project. The Presto from the B-minor Partita has been difficult to work on, but trying to go note-by-note without missing anything along the way has actually been entirely more effective than running through the majority of the piece over and over again. This might be a density thing too, where if you’re dealing with a lot of notes and rhythms, Additive practice is more effective, whereas if you’re dealing with less notes over a long duration, the Holistic approach is more effective.

  10. These are all terms I learned about in Psychology of Music in my last semester of college for Music Therapy.
    They were all unfamiliar to me before although I had practiced with the different techniques at different times. I believe that segmented works best for me. In our piano class our teacher would make us start with the more difficult parts of the piece first, or the end of it, and work our way back to the easier parts or beginning, depending on the method used.
    I am primarily a guitarist and when I had to memorize recital pieces (which were 2 pages at most) I would work on segments of the piece first, looking for any similarities between the different sections. I would figure out what the chord shapes were in my head, often marking them on the paper. This would help me to memorize the sections quicker.
    I found that working on a little bit at a time, getting plenty of sleep and not trying to learn it all at once (as I used to do) was much more effective. I could even notice a difference in a later practice session in the same day, when what I been working on earlier that day or the previous day stuck better.
    Singing also helps me memorize things better as well.
    I know I have piece memorized when I can it straight through (holistically), and also play specific sections (segmented) out of order (especially if there are specific parts that need to be fine tuned).

  11. Back to the basics, Noa ! I propose, to get into the music, to play rythm, like him : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWoL4S_Q_DI
    He looks into the music, and I think hearing the beats helps him!
    I do not say to watch the entire video, but
    Just playing repetitive notes, this can put you in the mood to practice!
    Rythm to play with others!

  12. I am a Trumpet player. I was taught to work on difficult passages starting from the end of the phrase. I also memorize music by starting at the end of the piece. Usually 4,8,or 27 bar phrases depending on the difficulty of the phrase. I then memorize the next phrase. This what works for me. I consider myself good at memorizing music and no piece is to difficult as long as you are patient.

    Retention for extended periods of time is my biggest issue. If I don’t play the piece frequently it will fade from my memory. PLEASE DO AN ARTICLE ABOUT THIS! I would love to know how Jazzers can retain so many songs.

    Finally, being able to sing the entire piece prior to memorizing on your instrument makes the memorization process that much quicker.

  13. A thought-provoking article, as always.
    It was a pity that the sample was so small however and I wonder to what extent varying prior experience of music from the genre of the music to be memorised could have influenced the outcomes.
    I wonder also whether the learning was affected by the students in this experiment being music majors. As such, they would, presumably, already have fairly sophisticated knowledge in place that enhanced their memorisation, such as advanced understanding of musical structures and harmony. It would be interesting to repeat this experiment with a larger number of learners who were not music majors, to find out whether the findings are applicable to less experienced musicians.

  14. All the approaches mentioned, except for “segmented” too often rely disproportionately on muscle memory. I’ve seen this in students, and even in my own memorization, when memory fails and the only fallback is to rewind to bar 1 and hope things go better next time around. For example: a problem occurred in measure 24, it’s impossible to start the next play through at 23 without looking at the sheet music.
    For me certain passages are more difficult to memorize. They’re more “note-y” than the average, there’s a degree of randomness in the line and/or it’s often difficult to find underlying patterns. It makes more sense to use an alternative approach, perhaps writing out the passage or singing it.
    One thing has become clear for me recently: having music memorized sooner in the learning cycle (rather than later) takes my work to a much higher level than endlessly trying to perfect the technical issues of a piece and leaving the memorization to “eventually you’ll get it.”

  15. Hello Noa.

    Thank you for this great article.
    It’s very intersting!

    With this in mind, the 2 links in the end of the article doesn’t work.

    Wishing you a good continuation

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