From the heart – memorising music and memory lapses

English: a human brain in a jar
Brain – the best musical instrument of them all (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Musician and blogger, Caroline Wright, is currently pursuing a project at the moment looking into the question of how and why musicians memorise music – I was invited last week to participate and answer a few questions about how and why I memorise music. Check out her blog here:


So, I thought I’d share with you, dear readers, some of these thoughts of mine on memorisation of music and memory lapses.


Should we memorise?


Only if you want to, I’d say. In some situations you may have to play from memory, such as during an exam, then you have no choice really. Otherwise, it’s up to you and you shouldn’t feel you have to just because that’s what others may be doing. Sometimes I like to play with a score, sometimes without. If a piece is particularly involved and complex, like a Bach lute suite for example, I like to use the score.


Yes, it looks kind of cool to play without the score, and in some ways can really help you get to the heart of the music, play from the heart literally (they don’t calling it “playing be heart” for nothing you know!). Conversely, having the score there with you when performing can really help keep you on track and help concentration, especially if performing a multi-movement work or many pieces within a recital.


What about memory lapses? Can they be avoided?


I think it would be unrealistic to say that memory lapses will never occur. It’s going to happen at some point. And that’s just fine. So long as you recognize that and don’t get caught up in it. Just move on. It’s happened. It’s passed. It’s gone. It’s done. No use ruminating on it, especially in the moment of performance!


It’s also vital to remember that when we’re performing, we are invariably doing so for others. It not about you. It’s about what you’re giving to the audience. So get over yourself and give it your best for the performance of the music to come!


But how can I minimise the potential for memory lapses happening or happening more than once?


We must know our pieces inside out. We must know what our right hand is doing. We must know what our left hand is doing. We must know where the music is headed. We must know how we want it to sound. We must be able to sing it or hear it in our head. We must understand the structure, the harmonies, the landscape. We must know the various “signposts” in a piece.


If a memory lapse has occurred in a performance situation – and yes, it has happened to me –  you must pay attention when coming back to the practice room, address that particular issue and ask ourselves a few questions – why did that memory lapse occur just there? What is that bit? Do I really know how it sounds? Do I really know what the left hand is doing? Do I really know what the right hand is doing? What is the harmonic landscape doing? What is that chord? What is the key there? And so on…


And please, please do not look on a memory lapse a failure. I like to believe instead that there is no such thing as failure. It’s pure and simply feedback. It’s a gift that’s telling us we just don’t know that bit quite as well as we might. So we just need to tweak our learning strategy for that particular element. Job done!


I think it would be a great idea to follow up this post with some pointers on how to memorise! How about that? Feel free to let me know your own thoughts on memorisation.


Oh and if you want to get involved with Caroline’s projects and provide your thoughts head here: 



5 thoughts on “From the heart – memorising music and memory lapses

  1. Thank you for this article. I suffered not one, but two memory lapses while performing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” in church this weekend, and can honestly say that it was because I really didn’t know what my left hand was doing at that point in the piece. I kinda skimmed over that part during practice and it came back to bite me. All I could do was smile and keep playing. Folks complimented me afterward and I wanted to say, “Were you listening to them same piece I was playing?” But, as you stated, it’s not about me. Thanks again.

    1. Hey Stan,

      thanks for sharing, good on you 🙂
      That’s most definitely the best course of action – just keep on going and smile. Good stuff!
      And I’ll bet your audience was right in complimenting you and I’ll bet they did genuinely enjoy it. Memory lapses happen to every musician from time to time, it’s a part of being a musician, of being a human. If you’re not prepared to experience the “mistakes” how can you expect to experience the more immediately positive feelings of nailing something spectacular? Everything balances out. And if you’re not prepared to experience the “mistakes” how can you genuinely learn and move forwards? You now know you need to do a bit more work in that area right?

      It’s also part of the excitement of being an audience member for a live performance – knowing that this person is playing something they’ve worked on for many hours and is sharing that with you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s