Piano Piece Memorization

Question: Is there such a thing as effective memorization technique on any given piano piece? I only know memorization through repetitions.

– Leo (California, USA)

Albert’s reply: There’s an enormous amount that could be written on the subject of memorizing piano music, but I’d like to summarize the most important points here.

First, the brain learns music through several sensory modalities. We thus have a visual, aural and tactile memory for piano music.

Different pianists may rely more on one or the other, yet we rely mostly on tactile or kinesthetic memory, also called “muscle memory.” At the end of the day, muscle memory is what we need most since playing the piano is a performative act, yet it’s also notoriously unreliable.

This is one of the reasons I insist on proper ear training. The more the fingers are informed by a developed ear, the less we need to rely solely on one form of memory, and the more secure we feel.

Visual memory should be of the score itself rather than of the fingers and piano keys. Can you close your eyes and see the notes in your mind’s eye? Similarly, can you play your music with your eyes closed?

Even in terms of purely kinesthetic memory, we can gain much greater security if we practice properly as well. The most important ways to practice are slooowly, and hands separately.

The final type of memory is not sensory-based, but rather theoretical. This is analytical memory, which is where your knowledge of music theory comes into play. It’s also the basis of Walter Gieseking’s and his teacher Karl Leimer’s excellent approach to learning music, which involves memorizing it completely before you ever play a note!

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