Say Goodbye to Memory Slips: How to Memorize Music

By James Flood

How many classical guitarists and musicians out there can relate to this experience. It may have been as an adult or as a child, but you’re performing something that you’ve practiced a ton. You’ve played it from memory so many times you could play it in your sleep. Suddenly in the middle of your performance you draw a blank. It may have been precipitated by a mistake, or perhaps not, but you now find yourself stuck and unable to remember a passage that you’ve played a thousand times and never had any trouble with remembering in the past. The music stutters or stops entirely. After a few failed attempts, you choose either to skip the entire section, or, more probably, you go back to the beginning of the section, or worse, back to the beginning of the whole piece, desperately hoping that when you arrive at that passage again your fingers will be able to remember it.

This is the trap that many have fallen into. Children are especially vulnerable to it, but it can happen to accomplished adult players if they’re not careful. It is the complete reliance on muscle memory. Don’t get me wrong. One’s ability to play an instrument (or do practically anything physically) absolutely depends on muscle memory. But playing music from memory relying mostly on muscle memory is risky business as muscle memory is great at home, but gets shaky under pressure. Muscle memory is that part of the brain that records movements. When a movement is repeated enough times, the muscle memory kicks in and takes over. When you can play a piece of music, and your mind can wander while your fingers know exactly where to go just like a driverless car, you’re seeing muscle memory in full action. Many mistakenly accept this as having something memorized.

Playing from memory must be a combination of both muscle memorization and conscious memorization, two very different sections of the brain. Conscious memory is stored in the temporal lobe, muscle memory in the cerebellum. We’ve already talked about how you know if your muscles remember a piece, but how do you know whether or not you have it in your conscious memory? People have varying degrees of aptitude towards this kind of memory. It also depends in part on how well one knows their instrument, whether or not they know music theory, and how aware they are of what is happening musically in the piece. So a thoroughly trained musician will have a stronger conscious memory than a lesser trained amateur, even if the former does not make an intentional effort at conscious memorization. But a person who thoroughly knows the music consciously can see the music and fingers in their head in all it’s details. Without playing it, they can walk through the piece and know what finger is doing what and what note is being played. Honestly, most professional classical musicians do not memorize on this level of detail, but they probably have it visualized on a certain level. But the more they have conscious memory, the more secure they will be when playing under pressure and the better they’ll be at the piece in general. The less they have it, the more vulnerable they are to memory slips, big or small, and their performance of it, even without any memory slips, will probably fall a tad short of what it could be.

OK, so how do you commit a piece of music to the conscious memory? As mentioned above people do this to varying degrees without deliberately intending to, some people fairly well, others very poorly. Regardless of where one falls in this, the best way is to commit music to conscious memory is to do so with systematic intention. I was trained in the process developed by Aaron Shearer called visualization. This was applied to the guitar, but it could be applied to any instrument, and really any physical activity requiring elaborate muscle coordination. I have observed that dancers and figure skaters do this when they sit still with eyes closed and imagine their entire routine in perfect order and precision. I have developed two preliminary steps to visualization for my students who aren’t ready for the kind of time it takes to do full-blown mental visualization. These techniques are what I call simply “left-hand alone” and “left hand in air.”

Finger Exercises to Strengthen Conscious Memory

Level I: Left hand alone
Muscle memory does not remember individual muscle contractions, but rather a kind of symphony of muscular contractions all coordinated in timing and intensity. It happens something like this: these five muscles work together in various intensities of muscular pulls while a millisecond later two of those muscles increase their contraction. Then another millisecond later three of the muscles are dropped entirely but six new ones are suddenly introduced, and it goes on and on. But take a few muscles out of that collection and the whole thing breaks down. The muscle memory suddenly remembers very little, and one has to recruit another faculty. This is where the “left hand alone” memorization technique enters. Try it yourself. Take a guitar piece that you can play from memory ad nauseum without a hitch. Now let your right hand just hang motionless on the side of the guitar. Remember it must be motionless. Imitating the right hand movements in the air as you go is “cheating.” See if your left hand then can go through the movements on the fretboard in precise rhythm. (If you don’t do the rhythm precisely this exercise will not work.) If you find you go through the piece left hand alone just fine then you have a pretty decent conscious memory of it. But for most people, when taking the right hand out of the picture their left hand becomes very confused. This means one’s memory is heavily dependent on unconscious muscle memory as the muscles have no memory of a left hand moving independently of the right and therefore has considerable difficulty proceeding.

If the left hand alone cannot confidently pace through the notes on the fretboard then the player has to go to work trying to figure out just what the left hand actually does. This can be done either by referring to the music or by playing passages on the usual autopilot and observing what the left hand does. It is an epiphany for players as they may not only have barely realized what their left hand was actually doing but have had only a dim idea of what was taking place in the music. I ask my students a couple of questions here. Did you know D and F appeared after the open E and G (or whatever the passage entails)? With a look of astonishment they admit they didn’t. After they can successfully do left hand alone for a phrase I ask them if they now have better understanding of what is going on in the left hand and the music for that phrase. Their answer is always decisively in the affirmative.

Level II: Left hand in air

This is the same thing as left hand alone, only the student goes through the left hand movements in the air in perfect rhythm rather than on the fretboard. This further removes the muscle memory crutch as it doesn’t remember doing these movements absent the fretboard. Students who get their left hand alone down well will start having a bit of trouble again, though not as much, with this new challenge. But once they can do left hand alone in the air they have a still more certain conscious knowledge.

Level III: Right hand alone

This exercise should be done not only to achieve a greater conscious memory of what the right hand is doing, but it should be employed just as much to practice technical execution. Because of the technical aspect, playing right hand alone is already a common practice among classical guitarists. Since right hand alone is not just for memorizing, it would be wise to use even when one is not intending to memorize. The right hand demands a technical precision that is greater then the left hand, and so should be employed for any work that is challenging to the player.

Visualization: Levels IV, V, VI

Level IV: Reciting left hand fingerings from memory
If someone is intending to visualize , Levels I and II become unnecessary.

I was required by my teacher at Peabody to recite the left hand fingerings for any piece that was being prepared for performance from memory. Here’s how it works. First of all, the intention is that one has everything committed to their conscious memory, so one should be able to recite all the fingerings without any physical cues. While you are trying to figure out what the fingerings are you can have the guitar in hand to play passages when you get stuck, but the goal is to be able to recite the note names free of any muscle memory cues, so the goal is to be able to recite every fingering easily without the guitar in one’s hands and without mimicking the movements of the left hand in the air. If you need the aid of hand movements, you are still relying on muscle memory. If you can recite the fingerings, it means that you can see in your mind what the fingers are doing. In fact, it would be ideal to actually imagine your hand as you recite the note names.

As an example of reciting left hand fingerings, let’s take the opening phrase of the universally familiar easy classical guitar favorite “Romanza.” The opening notes are low E in the bass and B on the first string. If one plays the B with 4, then he or she would say “O4.” These are followed by the open B and G strings, hence the whole ¾ measure would be recited as “O4 O O.” Of course this gets far more complicated when reciting the fingerings for Bach or Ginastera, but the same applies. As much as is possible the fingerings should be recited in rhythm, and for notes that sound simultaneously saying them as close together as possible.

Level V: Reciting note names

This is the same as reciting fingering, only note names replace fingerings. So the opening of Romanza would “EB B G.” Once again, notes that occur simultaneously should be spoken as close together as possible and one should try to articulate the rhythm as much as possible.

Level VI: Reciting right hand fingerings

Just as the above two, only this time reciting a combination of p,i, m, and a. So for the first measure of Romanza one would say “pa, m, i.” You may need the guitar to learn exactly what the fingerings are, but again one does not have conscious memory until it can be recited without the guitar and without finger movements.

Now in all of this, after having something completely memorized, I would personally recommend practicing the piece not only without the music, but regularly with the music in front of you. Why? Because the music on the page heightens one’s awareness of what the piece is doing musically, and one should be making notes, not only about fingerings, but dynamics, rubato and phrasing. Once the music is fully committed to conscious memory, regularly playing with the music before you actually strengthens the memory as the page becomes intertwined with the visualized memory.

These memorization techniques may sound overwhelming and exhausting, but just like any other skill, if you do it enough visualizing becomes almost second nature. It becomes fairly easy to start rattling off the fingerings and notes of a new piece. For myself, I never felt comfortable memorizing something to be performed without being able to recite everything with ease, and it didn’t take a great amount of time to be able to do so. I never suffered a memory slip after doing this, and overall I felt much more secure and confident.

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