How to memorize piano music

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sit down at a piano anywhere, anytime and play something heartbreakingly beautiful from start to finish without sheet music?

One of my favorite memories of the piano was listening to a young man at the Oregon State University student union casually play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata without any sheet music. Until then, it didn’t really occur to me that someone could memorize that many notes!

Years later, while studying how the human mind works, I learned that playing piano is part “muscle memory” and part driven by thoughts. To play a piece of music from memory, one must put in substantial practice time to learn proper muscle patterns, and also rely on internal cognitive cues.

Memorizing a piece of music is actually quite achievable.

Here is a basic guide to help you memorize that piano piece that you’ve become obsessed with.

Listen to recordings of the music

You can often find a good quality recording of the music on a streaming app, such as iTunes or Napster (yes, Napster is legit now and has a vast collection of songs). You will internalize the music by listening to the recording with your full attention.

Start practicing at the middle or the end of the music

You’ll notice that if you practice the music from top to bottom every time, that you will get really good at playing the first part of the music, but not so great at the middle and end sections. Instead, choose a spot in the middle or last section by marking the sheet music and beginning your practice there.

Practice hands separately, then together

Nail the left hand part first, then the right hand. After you feel somewhat comfortable with your performance of the separate parts, try practicing slowly with your hands together.

Practice slowly (at first)

Focus on getting each note down and executing appropriate expression of the music at a slow tempo. Once you are able to do a small segment of the music perfectly at least four times in a row, move on to another section. As you do more practice sessions, you can gradually increase the tempo.

The beginning stages of learning a piece of music requires a lot of thinking, analysis, and self-correction. GO SLOW.

Memorize small segments

You may need to memorize the music in segments of two to four measures at first, and later add more segments. New information is easier to digest and memorize if it is broken into chunks.

Use good fingering

After you find the optimal fingering patterns for the music, mark up your sheet music and use the same fingering patterns consistently. Using the same muscle patterns will ensure that your body knows what to do when your brain fails you in the event of “spacing out” during performance.

Analyze the music

This is where any education in music theory comes in quite handy. Every piece of music has some kind of underlying melodic and harmonic pattern. Study the sheet music carefully. Note chords and key changes. Find the pattern and mark up the sheet music as necessary.

Watch your hands as you play

After many practice sessions, hopefully you’ve gotten somewhat comfortable with playing the piece. Spend some time watching your hands as you play. However you shouldn’t be watching your hands the entire time…try looking up from time to time.

Take a break

If you are the type to practice more than one hour a day, you may notice that your performance during the practice session declines. In this case it may be best to take a break from practice until later in the day, or put away the music you are trying to memorize and pick it up again after a nap or a night’s rest. During sleep, our brains consolidate memories and neural pathways. Also, if you are tired, it is more difficult to learn new information. Getting an adequate amount of sleep is critical for memory and learning.

If you’re a beginner at the piano, I highly recommend finding a good piano teacher to coach and support your developing musicianship. I don’t teach lessons, but if you need a referral I’m happy to help!

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