Learning and Memorizing Music

Question: Hi Albert,

I’m beginning to work on some quite difficult pieces now, as I’ve finished the 8 grades of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). How should I go about learning a piece? And how can I make sure I’m building up my memory from the moment I begin learning? I have a bad habit of relying on muscle memory and would like to develop other aspects of my memory to ensure I don’t blank out during public performances.

Also, should my approach be different for varying periods and composers?

If these questions have been answered before please send the relevant links.

Thanks so much – awesome website by the way. =D

– Dolan (New Zealand)

Albert’s reply: I wrote an extensive article about this topic, called How to Learn Music. I’d like to answer your questions by adding a few points here. First, the brain is always learning. The memorization process is automatic in that the brain records our every movement at the piano. If we make mistakes, the brain learns to make mistakes. If we practice accurately, the brain learns to play accurately.

The key is to learn consciously, and the basic principles are simple. The vast majority of your practice should be done slowly, and all of it must be accurate. Only when we slow down enough to think each finger and each note one by one is the brain most capable of absorbing both musical and sensorimotoric information.

Next, the better your knowledge of harmony – most especially applied harmony (the ability to comprehend and play what you hear) – the better you’ll know the piece and the more secure you’ll be onstage. You can improve your ear by reducing accompaniments to block chords by memory and transposing passages into various keys. The key is to let your ear guide your fingers, not the other way around.

This final bit of advice is technical and may not fit all methodologies of piano technique, but I’ve found it to be one of the most useful principles for learning piano music: Never touch a key until the moment you strike it. Don’t let the fingers rest on the keys. Prepare the hand in advance but never the key. This will force you to think each key, each note and each finger in advance of playing, making the learning process conscious.

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