The 4 Most Effective Ways to Improve Your Musical Memory

Posted by Anthony Cerullo on Aug 8, 2016 07:00 AM

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Having a memory lapse during a musical performance can be quite a traumatizing experience or, at the very least, an embarrassing one. Getting up onstage only to forget a simple piece of music that you thought was mastered is perhaps one of the largest causes of anxiety for musicians. That being said, even the best out there are capable of memory slips. Ask anyone and they'll probably confess to that much.

Whether it's just blanking our for a second in small, low-key concert or getting lost past the point of no return during a major competition, memory can be our worst enemy when it comes to music. However, much of this anxiety can be avoided simply by learning how to memorize music the right way. It seems rather self-explanatory, but some systems are better than others.

Those who have seemingly mastered the art of memory know that their memory is capable of failure. For that reason, they seek out certain memory strategies that work and avoid the ones that don't. Psychologists have made a career out of creating various memory exercises, but given the importance of your time, let's keep it short and just look at four of them.

1. Practice mindfully

This one is obvious, but that doesn't make it insignificant. Repetition and rehearsal do help increase the relationship between music and our memory. However, just playing something over and over without thinking about what you're doing isn't going to help with memory.

The goal in practice needs to be encoding the music into your memory and then forcing yourself to remember that information with different methods. For example, try playing a piece on your instrument without even making a sound. Or attempt to hum the entire song without even looking at the score. If you can visualize the score in your head and mentally "play" the song from start to finish, you'll be able to hear the piece better, thus encoding the music into your memory.

Repeat these methods multiple times until you can get through the piece, eyes closed, without any mistakes. That way, you're not just relying on repetition but your actual memory, which is the goal here.

[5 Tips for Mindful Practice]

2. Get organized

Organization, in this sense, refers to how you approach practice. Let's say you have 20 songs to learn in a week or two. You could just dig right in, attacking each piece furiously until you think you've mastered them all, but that's a disorganized approach – and a counterproductive one at that.

Start by picking up just one piece to learn. From there, look at the material and organize it into various levels of groups and subgroups. Take the time to analyze the structure of the piece. See where your part fits in with the other instruments in your band. If possible, try to see the various dynamics, note values, and the tempo of the piece. If it's not there, then do your best to figure it out.

Once you have your particular part neatly organized, attempt a challenge. Get a blank piece of paper and try to write out the entire piece from memory. Studies show that taking notes by hand is associated with increased memory, so give it a try.

[6 Tricks to Learn a Lot of Music Insanely Quickly for a Last-Minute Gig]

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3. Add detail

By adding detail, or elaborating on a piece, you can far surpass the exercise of just repeating and "learning." Adding detail helps build meaning around the material. The piece becomes more than just a bunch of sound and notes. Detail will bring the piece to life by adding mental images, stories, personalities, emotions, and so on. These qualities can then be linked to the various notes, phrases, and movements that make up a given piece of music.

Keep in mind that the more clear and specific these qualities and how you use them are, the more the music will resonate with your brain. Not only will this help with memory, but it will help you convey your ideas easily to an audience.

Think about a certain time in your past that you remember fondly. Perhaps it was a favorite book as a kid or fun weekend with old friends. Odds are that you're going to remember the specific details over the whole thing. Maybe it was a song that sparked your memory, or a unique image. Qualities like these help you remember the past better, and it has the same effect on music.

It's important to treat your music like a one-of-a-kind creation, not just something spit out of an assembly line. Adding details will bring a piece of music to life. The best part is, it doesn't matter what qualities you associate with a given piece of music. It's completely up to you, so whatever you think works will work.

4. Build a memory castle

If all else fails in your quest to improve upon memory, give this one a try. Often referred to as the "method of loci," a memory castle can help one memorize information by putting an item to be remembered at a point along a made-up journey. From there, the information can be remembered in a certain order simply by retracing the same route through the journey.

Loci is the plural for the Latin word locus, meaning place or location. What you want to do is collect a series of loci to help your memory. 

For example, start by taking a journey down a well-known route in your house – say, from your bedroom to the kitchen. Create a mental adventure by taking note of the locations on this trip (e.g., your bed, your bedroom door, the hallway, the steps, living room, and then the kitchen). These items are the first line of defense in your memory castle. 

Next, get a little more specific with a list of items you want to memorize, like a grocery list, for example. Take this list and assign each item to a location in the last exercise (e.g., milk on your bed, bread in your bedroom door, beer in the hallway, etc.).

From there, attempt to remember the items by mentally retracing your route through the memory castle. You should find it much easier to remember the list now that they have some association. To relate this to music, try creating a list of song lyrics or chords to remember.

If you want to make this stick even more, just repeat the same process a few times.

[Why Some Musicians Seem to Be Memorization 'Naturals' (And How to Become More of One Yourself)]


Anthony Cerullo is a nomadic freelance writer and keyboard player. In his spare time, he can be found reading, hiking mountains, and lying in hammocks for extended periods of time.

Topics: Performing, Honing Your Craft


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