Playing From Memory FAQ Page

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From: (Isako Hoshino)
Subject: FAQ-Playing from Memory
Followup-To: poster
Reply-To: (Phil Tompkins)
Organization: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Approved: news-answers-request@MIT.EDU
Summary: This article includes some discussions pertaining to performing piano from memory.

Archive-name: music/piano/memory-playing-faq
Posting-Frequency: monthly
Last-modified: 7 April 1997
Version: 1.1a

This is the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) article for on playing piano from memory.

This FAQ is intended to present questions frequently asked in regarding playing a piano music from memory. It covers some reasons for memorizing, and also some pointers on how to go about memorizing piano pieces. This FAQ is posted every month. Updates, additions, suggestions and corrections are always welcome: send e-mail to

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Playing from Memory FAQ
by Phil Tompkins


  1. Introduction
  2. Why Memorize?
    1. Tradition and today
    2. Benefits
    3. Drawbacks
  3. How To Memorize?
    1. Choosing what to memorize
    2. The role of listening
    3. At what point in learning a piece should memorizing begin?
    4. Identifying memorizable units
    5. Memorizing and integrating the units
    6. Working backwards
    7. The practical use of theory
    8. Visual memory
    9. Memorizing away from the piano
    10. Introducing difficulties
    11. Testing your memory
  4. Retaining What You Have Memorized
    1. Stress and forgetting
    2. Some practical steps
    3. Maintain the other memories
  5. Some Further Reading
  6. Appendix - Some Psychological Notes
  7. Acknowledgments

1) Introduction

From time to time people on have raised the question of how to memorize. Discussions of this question inevitably evoked the prior question of whether to memorize at all. This FAQ addresses these two questions.

In preparing this document I am indebted to a number of contributers to r.m.m.p. I have also drawn on some of the literature about playing the piano. In addition, since memory is a topic that psychologists investigate, I looked briefly into what they had to say that would be relevant.

I do not claim to have all the answers, but I hope to have at least presented the major considerations. There is no single set of answers which applies to everyone. Different people have different methods of memorizing, not to mention different views on whether to memorize at all. I tried to take these differences into account so as to come up with a document which will be of general use. I have also tried to clearly indicate what are my own opinions.

This FAQ has been re-written based on comments, corrections, and additional information received in reponse to draft versions posted on r.m.m.p. I will gladly incorporate further information into new versions should I continue to receive responses.

2) Why Memorize?

2.1) Tradition and today

For at least the last 100 years it has been a tradition for professional pianists to perform solo works from memory. (There have been some notable exceptions - the famous turn-of-the Century French pianist Raoul Pugno, Dame Myra Hess, and Bela Bartok performed with scores. Svyatoslav Richter has done the same "in respect for the composer", as he put it in an interview.) Today, playing from memory is one of the abilities a professional is expected to have. However, the tradition is often abandoned in concerts where new compositions or contemporary pieces which are difficult to memorize are played.

In the past, piano teachers observed the tradition by requiring memorization for student recitals regardless of whether or not the students would become professionals. Nowadays, in deference to individual variations in abilities and requirements, some teachers make memorizing optional.

2.2) Benefits

There are a number of benefits to playing from memory:

Memorization may provide the only means by which certain passages can be played. Passages of very rapid notes, because of their speed, can only be performed automatically, that is, from memory. This is because the feedback mechanisms of the brain do not work fast enough to provide control at a detail level over movements of great speed. The details of executing very rapid passages must be worked out in advance, after which, through practice, they must become "pre-programmed". Playing such rapid passages does not require memorizing an entire piece, or even memorizing when or on what notes these passages begin. However, once begun, these passages are completed from memory. If an entire piece consists mostly of rapid passages, not memorizing the whole piece may turn out to be a hinderance.

2.3) Drawbacks

Playing from memory may not suit everyone, and it has a few disadvantages:

Some people feel more secure with a score in front of them even when the piece has been memorized. Although they may seldom look at the score, it is always available as a prompt or for use in the event of a memory slip.

For amateur pianists, memorizing is an option, and each person will have to determine what is best for her/himself. The ability to memorize is not the same as the ability to make good music, although the former may facilitate the latter.

3) How to Memorize?

3.1) Choosing what to memorize

Playing a piece of music is a rather complex task. Thus it is understandable that learning to play from memory may pose difficulties. In fact, some pieces are just too complex for most people to memorize.

For someone who has played little or not at all from memory and who wants to develop this ability, selecting what to memorize is an important choice. For an initial effort it is probably best to choose a piece which is appealing and easy to play.

3.2)The role of listening

If a recording or live performance is available, I think it may be useful to start out by just listening to the piece. A mental idea of what the piece ought to sound like will be needed to shape the sounds produced by physical activity into a musical interpretation. This musical idea will of course evolve, even on the fly.

(Some people caution against listening too much to a piece before learning to play it, believing that to do so may influence you to adopt the interpretation you hear, thereby hindering the development of one your own. This question has come up on r.m.m.p. According to most who addressed it, no such harm will come from listening.)

3.3) At what point in learning a piece should memorizing begin?

Some teachers advocate beginning to memorize a piece when you begin to study it. I tend to think this works best under the guidance of a teacher. On your own you may face too complex a task. And you may end up memorizing such things as mistakes or sub-optimum fingering.

Not only will it be simpler to memorize a piece which you have already learned using the score, but also by the time you have learned to play the piece fairly well this way, you have already come much of the way toward memorizing it. You now can play without focusing on as many of the details in the score as you did when you began learning the notes, and you have formed some sense of the piece's structure. And if you began to study the piece without listening to it, you now have a memory of what the piece sounds like.

3.4)Identifying memorizable units

As with all skills, repetition is required to establish long-term memory of a piece. For some people, just playing a piece over and over again is sufficient for memorizing it. However, the quantity of material that the mind can take in and master at once is limited, and for most of us an entire piece is too much to deal with in this manner. The normal procedure is to first break the whole piece down into manageable parts, or memorizable units.

In doing this you can proceed hierarchically top-downward. This gives you a structural overview of the piece. The major divisions may already be indicated in the score as movements, and sections at the next lower level by repeat marks. Pencil in the boundaries of further sections and sub-sections based on the beginnings, transitions and endings of thematic material. Proceed further downward using phrases and "breathing" points, until you have marked off note groups which you can memorize without much difficulty.

These bottom-level groups may be the size of a measure or even smaller. They may not correspond to measures at all, but rather may begin in one measure and end in the next. Their boundaries should not be arbitrary, but rather should correspond to the contours of the music.

In addition to mastering note groups in the horizontal dimension, it may help to memorize each hand or even each voice separately. Doing so will force you to be more conscious of what each hand is playing. Working on one hand at a time is usually necessary for memorizing such pieces as fugues, in which each hand has a lot to do independently of the other.

3.5) Memorizing and integrating the units

Once the memorizable units have been identified, you can proceed one by one to master them and then integrate them into the whole of what you have memorized so far.

The number of repetitions required to commit each musical unit to long-term memory will vary for each individual and among the units themselves. Do not try to proceed too fast, for newly forming memories may be crowded out by subsequent ones if the former have not yet solidified. If today you cannot remember what you worked on yesterday, go back and work on those parts some more.

It is more effective to memorize in frequent brief practice sessions than in fewer longer ones. Last minute prolonged cram sessions work fine for remembering over the short term, but long- term retention is poor. However, if you have four months to learn a four movement sonata, it is better to acquire a shaky memory of the whole thing the first month and improve your memory in the remaining time than it is to learn a movement a month.

3.6) Working backwards

The famous 19th Century teacher Leschetizky taught memorization by having his students learn pieces a part at a time starting at the end. They would first memorize, e.g., the last measure, then the next to last, then play them together (in order), etc.

Learning in reverse probably increases your ability to begin somewhere in the middle of a piece if you need to do so. The time you need to do this is when you have had a memory lapse while performing and you must recover and carry on.

Another advantage of learning in reverse is that, since many pieces are more difficult toward the end, you spend more time practicing the more difficult parts. Always starting over from the beginning while integrating all the parts you have learned up to now results in devoting the most time to practicing the easiest parts!

An alternate approach is taken by Charles Cooke in his book "Playing the Piano for Pleasure." Cooke advocates learning the most difficult passages first, even spending so much time on them that they become the easiest parts to play.

3.7) The practical use of theory

Leschetizky placed great emphasis on theoretical analysis of a piece as part of memorizing, as do many teachers today. I presume to question whether this is absolutely necessary to memorizing, but it does contribute much. What you learn from a study of music theory is a set of technical concepts with which to talk about and analyze music. These have two important uses in memorizing:

First, identifying the components of a piece draws attention to all the details of the piece; the increased attention to detail helps the memorizing process. This means that the analysis should be done in parallel with or slightly in advance of memorizing.

Second, learning is facilitated by what psychologists call "verbal mediation", that is, actively using the description of what you are to do as a learning tool. Learning to operate the manual gear shift of a car is facilitated by using the words "left foot", "clutch pedal", "neutral", etc. (Imagine how you would learn without using these words.) As part of the learning process you may even repeat to yourself the verbal instructions for shifting gears as you perform the corresponding operations. You can do something similar while memorizing music. For example, you may say to yourself, "The piece begins on G, followed by an arpeggio starting on C", perhaps in a greatly abbreviated manner. Later, once the skill has become automatic, the words recede into the background.

A technical analysis of a piece would include breaking it down into formal parts as described above in 3.4 plus identifying elements and structures of the following types:

Also, note repeating patterns and variations of or deviations from the patterns.

3.8) Visual memory

Visual memories of scores are retained in varying degrees by different people. I do not know how prevalent the so-called "photographic" memory is, nor how people who allegedly have this ability use it while playing from memory. (Do they play from the score in the "mind's eye" while playing without it physically?) For most of us visual memory tends to be an ability to recollect where things are in the score when we refer to it after the piece has been partially or fully memorized. For people who recall more vivid images of the score, conceivably these images could serve as cues while playing from memory. Markings made on the score which relate to playing from memory may be recalled in this manner also.

3.9) Memorizing away from the piano

Time away from the piano can be used to become more familiar with the score and analyze it from a theoretical aspect. It can also be used for a form of practice, such as imagining or singing the music or/while playing the "air" piano. Some people even learn to reconstruct the score itself from memory.

3.10) Introducing difficulties

A number of psychological studies of learning indicate that learning in the presence of difficulties, rather than in a smooth step-by-step approach, results in better long-term retention, although to do so prolongs the learning process (Metcalfe and Shimamura). In the learning of tasks such difficulties include,p

Applying the notion of doing the same thing in a variety of ways to memorizing a piano piece might mean playing with different rhythms or phrasing, or possibly transposing the piece.

The method of learning through introducing difficulties is used in some piano memorization classes. After memorizing each hand separately, students may be given the task of reversing the hands, that is, playing each hand's part with the other hand, first separately, and later with the hands together.

As another exercise, a piece may be divided into blocks of about 10-15 measures in length. Each block is numbered. After memorizing the blocks, students are asked to play the blocks by the numbers in random order.

I would say that exercises of this type probably work best when used by an experienced teacher. In particular, an efficient balance must be achieved between learning through variations and learning a piece as it will finally be performed. Playing one hand's part with the other hand may help to fix the long term memory of the notes, but does not result in a firm memory of the optimum fingering. This approach may have implications for the discussion in 3.3 about whether to begin memorizing a piece when you first learn to play the right notes.

3.11) Testing your memory

The use of difficulties as described above in 3.10 can be a basis for testing how well you have memorized. Here are a few more possible tests. (You may think of others.) Note that none of these is an absolute indicator, but they may be useful gauges depending on your particular abilities.

The ultimate test is how you play the piece in a performance situation. The presence of an audience may cause you to play a piece which you have worked on for four months as if you have worked on it for only two.

4) Retaining What You Have Memorized

4.1) Stress and forgetting

Stress is an enemy of memory. It tends to make the limbic part of the brain, which controls the fight or flight responses, predominate over the other functions. The stress of a new situation, such as a different piano or venue, an unanticipated distraction, worry about possibly forgetting, and, most of all, the presence of an audience or of examiners all make remembering difficult and even cause memory lapses. Going directly from isolated practice at home to the recital stage introduces most of these causes of stress all at once. How can such stresses and/or their effects be minimized?

4.2) Some practical steps

Here are some measures one can take against stress:

If forgetting turns out to be due not to inadequate memorizing but rather to performance anxiety, then it is the latter that needs to be addressed. That is a different topic.

4.3) Maintain the other memories

After a piece has become automatic, you can lose your theoretical memory of it just like you can forget how to explain how you tie your shoelaces. When you are playing up to speed, there is not enough time to think in words about all of what you are playing. Slow practice is one way to allow you to bring back and consciously apply your theoretical knowledge. Maintaining your ability to think of the piece in terms of the identity of its notes and structures will in turn assist you in recovering from a memory lapse.

Likewise, if you use your visual memory of the score to provide cues, then, as your automatic memory becomes solid and your playing has become independent of the score, you may need to maintain your visual memory.

5) Some Further Reading

6) Appendix - Some Psychological Notes

Since memory is an object of study by psychologists and neurologists, I spent a little time trying to find out what they discovered that would help us to play the piano from memory. I did find a few practical suggestions (see "Posing Difficulties" above). In general, much of what they say tends to confirm the methods that have evolved through the practical experience of pianists and piano teachers. However they provide a different way of understanding some of the phenomena. Here are a few psychological points.

Nearly all our voluntary movements involve motor skills. These motor skills are not reflexes, at least not in the sense that swollowing is, nor are they exercised without using the mind. The muscles are all connected to the brain by nerves, and as such are extensions of the brain. It is not accurate to say that rapid passage work is in the muscles or in the fingers. It is executed, unconsciously for the most part, under control of the brain's motor cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum, and is monitored and modified in flight based on conscious or unconscious feedback provided by the senses to the brain. (Some musical passages are executed too fast to be modified at the note level by feedback. In those cases, feedback is used to modify the on-going contour of the passage at the note group level.)

Complex skills are built upon previously learned component skills:

"The child first combined reaching and looking into grasping; the grasping of single objects evolves into the passing of objects from one hand to the other; the use of passing of objects from one hand to the other; the use of sets of objects for daily tasks is transformed into the building of simple structures..." (Gardner, p. 221).
There are analogies in playing an instrument, which is quite a complex task indeed. All one's previously acquired musical experience and skills are involved in learning a piece as well as in playing a piece from memory. This experience includes such things as facility in playing scales and memories of such things as where notes are on the keyboard and what notes make up a particular chord. What you learn becomes a tool for further learning.

The "site" of the interaction of conscious behavior and learned unconscious behavior is referred to as "working memory". This is where music is processed as we are memorizing it and as we attend to playing it. There is a limit to not only the speed of the conscious mind, but also to the quantity of things with which it can deal. Psychologist George Miller in his landmark paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two" placed this limit at about seven discretely different things. This explains why we need to learn in small units, and also why we need to make lots of our actions automatic. It also supports one of the benefits of memorizing. The more we make playing the notes automatic, the more we can focus on interpretation and making good music.

7) Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the following people, who have provided information for this FAQ or who through their posts to r.m.m.p. caused me to think about memorizing: James Douthit, Achim Gratz, Alexander Hanysz, Anne Marie Himmelheber, Guy Klose, Martha Beth Lewis, Leslie Liu, Toshiro K. Ohsumi, Janice Rathmann, Bert Rowson, Dee Stark, Carl Tait, John Yeung, and Peter Zakel. Although for various reasons I chose to acknowledge contributions en masse in this section rather than indicate specifically who contributed what, I must say that I could not have completed this FAQ without you folks, nor would it even have occurred to me to begin it.

end Playing from Memory FAQ

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Copyright 1995-2013 by Phil Tompkins, submitted and translated into hypertext format by Isako Hoshino with permission from the author. All rights reserved. This document may be reproduced provided that this copyright notice is not removed. It may not be modified without the author's permission. It may not, either in whole or in part, be sold or included in anything which is for sale.

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Author: Phil Tompkins

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