Why do we memorise music?

Before looking at the “how” of memorisation, it’s important to discuss the issue of “why”.

So why do we memorise pieces?

Well, in the pop, folk and often the jazz idioms (ooh there’s a good word) it de rigueur to play without any kind of score. And that often reflects the way the music has been composed and brought together

Chopin trio partiture
Memorise this…..Go! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

with the musicians playing it. Not to mention we’d probably think it looked a little strange with Keith Richards turning his sheet music, or Pete Townsend scissor kicking his music stand (OK probably not likely found scissor kicking these days, but you get the idea). One may also argue that pop songs are a little less complex than certain pieces we as classical guitarists might play, and therefore arguably more easy to memorise. Having words to a song helps too.

So why do we classical musicians memorise?

One could argue that it “looks good”, or say “because that’s what we’re supposed to do, that’s the culture”. Well, yes. And also no. It is recounted that Chopin threw up his hands in horror when a student rocked up and played something from memory. He considered this the height of rudeness, very flippant and arrogant of the student, that they couldn’t be giving the due care and attention to this written instructions on the score!

You’ve got to admit he did have a point – there’s a lot of information on there, and it can really help in the middle of a piece (or start or end – I’m non-discriminatory!) when your mind wanders a little or you lose yourself a little too much in the musical moment.

Interesting. So back to the question. Why do we really memorise music, if we don’t need to as such?

1. It helps us to learn and really know a piece inside out, upside down and back to front. When you’re flying solo you’ve really got to know exactly where you’re headed, where you’ve come from, the melody, the structure of the piece and so on. Can you pick up in the middle of a phrase? Or can you skip ahead and start from the third or fourth phrase or some other landmark in the score? If not, you probably don’t know it was well as you could do yet. Really knowing something inside out is also going to help in managing performance anxiety too. If you’re not worried (or less worried) about whether you’re going to forget something or stuff something up because you’re not quite rocksteady with it yet, that is likely to significantly reduce the feeling of nerves.

2. Gives us the freedom to take a look at both our left and right hands for some of those more challenging sections and then not get lost trying to find our place on the page again.

3. Once we really feel we know the structure, technical requirements and mechanics of a piece inside out, it’s memorisation allows greater freedom in exploring tones, colours, dynamics, phrasing and other musical expression. Some say it removes a level of interference in playing the music from the heart. By knowing it by heart, it can perhaps more easily come from the heart.

4. Memorisation allows us to really LISTEN and be aware of what we’re playing and how we’re playing it. It allows us to focus on producing exactly the quality of tone and sound that we want at any given point in the piece.

5. By playing something from memory, even if only partially memorised, it’s a fantastically direct indicator of which bits you know very well and those that you don’t know so well. When you’re first committing a piece to memory which are the bits where you have memory fade? Ask yourself this and examine why? What’s going in the melody – can you sing it?, the harmony? The phrasing?

6. Last, but not least it’s good for the brain! It’s an excellent exercise for the grey matter, regardless of age. It helps build up your noggin’s cognitive reserves!



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