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Music by heart: Tips on memorizing more efficiently

More than one hundred years ago, at a Paris book stall by the river Seine, a young German scientist had a flash of inspiration—an idea that changed our knowledge of human memory's mechanisms. Hermann Ebbinghaus wondered if memory and the process of forgetting could be measured scientifically, and, on his return to Germany, devised experiments to explore his questions.

Using himself as the subject for his experiments, Ebbinghaus created 2,300 three-letter nonsense syllables. In a typical experiment he would randomly choose sixteen of these syllables and review them until he could recite them perfectly in two executions. He then retested himself at various time intervals. 

He memorized 420 lists, executing more than 14,000 repetitions. Each list took approximately forty-five minutes to memorize. Ebbinghaus found the number of repetitions more important than the time spent. Later the Nobel Prize in Medicine would be awarded for the discovery concerning repetition and memory. Repetition causes neuronal networks to fire together and, eventually, wire together. Once wired together, they tend to fire together more easily—the very process that underlies human memory and recall.

In Memory, A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, Ebbinghaus noted that his brain lost its "freshness" after twenty minutes. When the test required longer periods of concentration, he admitted: ". . . toward the end of this time, exhaustion, headache, and other symptoms were often felt, which have complicated the conditions of the test."1

Lesson: The human brain quickly loses its focus and becomes bored. When you are trying to memorize something, take frequent breaks and give your brain a rest. This will allow the opportunity for the brain to regain sufficient focus.

After the initial memorization of the list, Ebbinghaus also tested his recall at various time intervals. His experiments helped show how human memory is a complex process that is time, association, state, modality, emotion, and brain lesion dependent.

Forgetting is the human memory's default mode

The "forgetting curve," one of Ebbinghaus's most important discoveries, relates to the mind's tendency to forget, and to forget quickly. After Ebbinghaus had memorized a list of sixteen nonsense words, only eight could be recalled correctly one hour later and only five could be remembered two days later. Thus, overly learned material slipped from memory at a rate of approximately one percent per second. This bias to forget helps us live our lives. Life could be challenging if you remembered every little detail for every moment of your life.

Memorizing music

Ebbinghaus's findings regarding time and repetition, meaningful association, and brain state have implications regarding memorizing music. Memorization takes time and repetition. Ebbinghaus proved that we learn better when items are studied a few times over a long time span (spaced presentation) rather than studied repeatedly in a short time span (massed presentation). Für Elise is probably better memorized over a period of two months rather than two hours. Once a piece is memorized, memory rehearsal enhances retention. If you feel bored or inattentive during the memory practice, switch to a different task or take a break.

Ebbinghaus discovered that, for most people, morning is the best time to learn, and that memory ability declines as the day progresses. It is best to examine your own learning rhythms to see what is best for you.

In addition to spaced repetition, association can assist memorization. Associate the new material with what you already know. Coincident association is a fundamental element, allowing the brain to remember items in the order presented. For example, if we say "A," most people will think "B" because that is the way we learned the alphabet. If we say "B," most people will think "C"—not "A."

The most useful associations are logical, organized, and patterned. If we don't know a logical association, we can create one. Suppose we want to learn that the Chinese word Bei (pronounced "bay") means back. We can make up a story that bridges the meaning. For instance, the mayor of San Francisco had a tattoo of San Francisco Bay put on his back. Say this aloud to solidify the memory. What is the English meaning of the Chinese word Bei? Or, say you want to remember that a certain Mozart piece starts with a high B-flat. Make a mental picture of Mozart slapping a bee trying to sting his head. Mozart flattens the bee with the flat of his hand.

Associations that chunk information meaningfully into easily assimilated concepts work even better. Look for patterns to organize the music in your mind. Ringing Bells by Edvard Grieg contains patterns that can enhance and promote efficient memorization (see Excerpt 1).

Excerpt 1: “Ringing Bells” from Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, No. 6, by Edvard Grieg, mm. 1-12.

The piece starts with the tonic and dominant notes of C major, alternating with the tonic and dominant of F major in the bass—continuing with this pattern for twelve measures. At measure 3 the treble staff contains the tonic and dominant of C major, followed by G major, and concluding with D minor. This sequence repeats, playing the middle note in each chord as a grace note. The next sequence includes the tonic and dominant of G major, D minor, and A minor. Chunking these chords into two groups using the cycle of fifths (CGD and GDA) as a sequential harmonic structure will make the passage easier to memorize.

Try memorizing this number: 17761812186119171941. The number is much easier to memorize if you realize the numbers list the years of important wars in United States history. Try memorizing this sequence of letters: nnamuhcs. The letters are easier to memorize if you recognize the letters are Schumann spelled backwards. A fluent knowledge of chords, scales, frequently encountered harmonies, and usual musical structures provides wonderful chunking tools.

State-dependent learning

Ebbinghaus hinted at the importance of brain state when one is memorizing, and modern research confirms his finding. Our memory is more reliable when the rehearsal mimics as closely as possible the conditions under which recall is needed. Divers who learn a task underwater have trouble recalling the task while they are on land. But when back underwater, they can recall the task without apparent effort.

Traditionally, memorizing music may be accomplished by playing through a piece repeatedly until it becomes automatic. Musicians who memorize using this method rarely attempt to put the music into their conscious or "awake" mind. The music exists in the artistic and expressive part of the motor brain and is subconscious. During a performance, when the pressure is magnified, it may be difficult to stay in the subconscious. If the brain shifts to the conscious state—where the music is not located—the performer may go blank.

Most performers will benefit from simulated performance before a group, attempting to duplicate the recital's setting. Wearing the clothes that will be worn during the performance, performance rehearsals at the same time of day, and duplicating the sound and feel of the performance instrument all bring the practice environment closer to the performance setting.

Additionally, over-learning can strengthen memory. Discipline yourself to practice the piece under various energy levels, audiences, pianos, and venues. Learning to persevere through interruptions, such as a cell phone, can prepare the performer for the unexpected during the recital.

Lessons should include many "practice performances," where the student plays through the piece or program without any breaks for coaching or suggestions. These lesson "performances" will strengthen the student's ability to maintain focus and continuity during the recital or competition performance.

Bernard Patten, A.B., M.D., F.A.C.P., considers himself to be lucky to have such wonderful music teachers and friends and to be able to play from memory some of the most beautiful piano pieces ever composed.

Ying Zhang, B.M., M.M., D.M.A., founded the Spotlight Piano Studio in Clear Lake, Texas, and is currently a highly sought-after teacher in the greater Houston area. She will be on the faculty of the Burgos International Music Festival (Spain) this summer.

Jimmy White, winner of sixteen piano competitions, holds a B.A. in Vocal and Piano Performance from Rice University and an M.M. in Music Education and History from Southwestern University. He is a Licensed Dalcroze Eurhythmics teacher, former instructor at The Julliard School, and has taught piano for twenty-nine years.

Ebbinghuas, Hermann. (1964). Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Henry A. Ruger and Clara E. Busseniius (Trans.). New York: Dover Publications, Inc. p. 34. (Original work published 1885.)

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