Memorizing Music Without Playing It

Question: How do you memorize a piece of music without using muscle memory?

Albert’s reply: There are two poles to learning music without playing it. The first is a process of abstraction in which everything about the music is absorbed except for muscle memory. The second is imagining the actual, physical act of playing. These two aspects need to be studied separately for your learning to be most effective.

In general, the more we engage our analytical faculty during the learning process, the faster and more thoroughly we learn. The trouble is, we humans don’t necessarily like to think, because it requires great effort. Yet compared to mindlessly moving your fingers, think of the efficiency of learning several times faster, not to mention the confidence it brings!

A Top-down Approach to Learning Music

It’s important to point out that all music should be learned both abstractly and physically. Most students rely pretty much exclusively on finger memory, which is the simultaneously the most necessary and least reliable type of musical memory. To become a secure performer, it is necessary to underpin muscle memory (also called kinesthetic memory) with the knowledge and skills acquired in music theory and ear training.

A Bird’s-eye View

Start with the most abstract aspects of the piece. Learn the “pure” music, independent of the instrument itself. First analyze the overall structure of the music to get a bird’s-eye view of the piece. What are the sections of the piece? Is it in simple ABA form, or some variant thereof? Is the form more complex, such as rondo form (e.g., ABACABA) or sonata form?

Phrases

Next, study the individual phrases. Where do you recognize repetition of phrases? A common phrase structure (called a period and consisting of antecedent and consequent phrases) repeats only the first part of the phrase, with the second part leading elsewhere melodically, as well as to a strong harmonic cadence. It is essential to recognize these basic phrase structures in order to make musical sense out of them, as well as for memory retention. As simple an exercise as articulating the phrase structure to yourself mentally or verbally can do much to strengthen the memory and accelerate the learning process. As an example, you might say to yourself, “The piece starts with an eight-measure period of four plus four measures. The antecedent phrase ends with a half cadence, while the consequent phrase ends with an imperfect authentic cadence, with the melody ending on scale degree 3.” Although this description may sound overly technical, the simple act of taking conscious notice of the piece’s structure will have a major impact on your learning.

Hearing

Hear each note in your mind’s ear. Give yourself a reference note (usually the tonic) and challenge yourself not only to hear, but also to sing (using solfège) each note, one voice at a time. Don’t “cheat” and play the voices at the piano – see if you can really hear them. If you haven’t done this exercise or are out of practice, you’ll find this practice to be a wake-up call. Most students are shocked to discover that they have not been hearing the individual voices in the music they have been practicing for weeks or even months; they cannot sing the individual voices.

When you learn music away from the instrument, it is imperative that you hear each note in your mind’s ear. This task requires enormous concentration. If you learn at the piano (or any instrument), you should be able to stop playing and hear each note with perfect accuracy in your mind. More than anything else, save for the ability to transfer mental hearing to the instrument, this discipline will solidify your musical memory.

Harmony

You must recognize all the harmonies. If you’re versed in harmony and chords, most of them will be straightforward. As with musical form and phrase structure, simply stopping to analyze the individual chords and their place within the overall harmony will eliminate much confusion. Memory challenges often exist whenever we do not fully understand the harmony in a passage.

Whenever I’m confused about a harmonic progression, I abstract the chords and play them as a progression of block chords, disregarding any arpeggios and sometimes non-harmonic tones as well. Often I filter out the melody as well, playing only the harmony. Usually this exercise is sufficient for me to understand the passage, but I often like to test my knowledge and my ear by transposing the harmonic progression to random keys. Transposition by ear (this must be done from memory!) is the pinnacle of the process of abstraction! Transposition most often contradicts, or at least severely curtails, muscle memory, which makes it an ideal musical testing ground.

Visualization

The final step in learning without muscle memory is, paradoxically, to create muscle memory. Visualize the hands on the keys playing each note in slow motion. Use the exact fingerings in your mind that you will use at the keyboard. Obviously, it is not always possible to do so, and you will change your fingerings if necessary as you practice the piece. This is why I like to write out my fingerings as the first step in learning any new piece. My goal is clarity, and there is a tipping point after which writing in additional fingerings can defeat the purpose of doing so. (The exception is Bach’s fugues, in which I write in all fingerings, a practice I learned from Jörg Demus.) My rule is that I must be able to look at any measure and immediately know the exact fingerings. If there is any hesitation, I write down that fingering.

The visualization process of playing the keys should not be the equivalent of playing a dummy keyboard (i.e., one with no sound). Rather, be sure to hear the notes in your mind’s ear. You can always play the tonic, or any other note, on the piano to assist this learning process. Your biggest challenge will come not from single voices but from harmony and counterpoint, as it is difficult to hear multiple notes simultaneously in the mind. For this reason, make sure you start with music much simpler than your current playing level if this is your first experience learning music without muscle memory!

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