How to memorize music

When I was younger, I had a lot of fear of going on stage. I was terrified of staying in front of all people and forgetting the piece of music I was supposed to play. 

Most musicians experienced this at least once or twice in their performance history. I’m talking about the sleepless nights before a performance and being on stage not thinking about the music, but having anxiety about if I will remember what comes next.

Yet, when I was a student, I never learned how to memorize music. I wish somebody taught me how to develop a trustworthy system for memorizing music.

There are many studies on that subject, and it’s difficult to summarize all together in one article, but I can put out some points of what I learned.


Of course, we all know that nothing but repetition and practice help to strengthen and encode the music into our memory. What many of us do can be described as mindless repetition, or playing something over and over without really thinking about what we are doing. Just hoping that muscle memory alone will take care of everything on stage.

Our ambition here is to alter how we practice and encode the music into our memory and enable ourselves to use different methods to memorize the music.

For example:

  • Try to visualize the peace without looking at the music;
  • Sing or hum through it;
  • See if you can mentally “hear” yourself play the piece through from beginning to end;
  • Close your eyes and try to rehearse the piece mentally from beginning to end, “imagine” yourself playing the piece on your instrument. “Hear” the desired outcome of sound, intonation, and dynamics, and even “see” the notes pass by on the score with right fingering and bows (if you are a string musician).
  •  Structure—Organize the music in different chunks. Take a look at the musical structure of the piece. If you are playing with other instruments, do you have the same note values and articulation? What are the dynamics, and tempo?
  • Amplification—Make mental images, emotions, stories, places, and colors and connect them to sections of your music. Link them in a way that makes sense to you. As more unconventional and vivid it is, the better it will make it stick in your memory.
  • The method of Loci or Memory Palace—The method of loci is a strategy for memory enhancement, which uses visualizations of familiar spatial environments to enhance the recall of information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, journey method, memory spaces, or mind palace technique. (Wikipedia)

To use the method of loci, you first need to choose a familiar location that you know well, such as your home or workplace. Next, you need to create a mental image of this location in your mind, including as many details as possible. Once you have a clear image of the location in your mind, you can start to associate the items you want to remember with specific parts of the location.

For example, imagine the beginning of a piece as the starting point, perhaps walking in the front door of your house and making a route through every room linking it to the piece of music you have to memorize. The Intro can be the corridor where you hang your jacket. Imagine that you “hang” the notes or phrases on the hooks and the shoes are your music’s dynamic. Next, you go up the stairs, and that’s the difficult passage you have trouble remembering, then you see the bedroom, and you can place the next phrase or melody there and so on until you can link every room to your music.

It is a lot of work, and you need to be patient. It takes time and effort to find a mental “path” that works for you, but seriously, how fun is it to mindlessly repeat a piece of music?