On Memorizing. Part One

Playing from memory is a skill that I believe is not only possible for every player, but is indeed essential for every player.

logo
Ultimate Guitar
1

Playing from memory is a skill that I believe is not only possible for every player, but is indeed essential for every player. I never feel that I know a piece, or have "internalized" a piece, until I have been playing it for quite some time from memory. I have written about the importance of having a Repertoire, and being able to play from memory really makes your Repertoire (the group of pieces or songs you can play well) your own; a solid, dependable part of yourself.

I always found it quite easy to memorize pieces, and thought everyone could do this, until experience in teaching taught me otherwise. As I began to study the subject, I gradually uncovered the reasons why I found it easy, and others found it difficult. I could summarize those reasons as follows:

01. I practiced more 02. I paid more attention when I practiced 03. I isolated sections and worked on them separately 04. I often played "fragments" from memory during practice while watching my hands, one or the other. After awhile of working on a piece this way, I would just discover that I could play it from memory, because in many ways I was already doing that when I practiced it.

Why Do Students Have Trouble Memorizing Music?

I have noticed that many students have an absolutely fearful dependency upon the written notes! They seem to "grasp" at the notes with their eyes, while their fingers are having a desperate time trying to get the notes out. This whole approach, and the inner attitude that initiates it, is wrong.

The most glaring example of this fearful attitude is an experience I once had, watching an older man play. I met him after a concert, and he told me he had played his whole life. He did not play well, and had incredible tension, but what really struck me was this curious phenomenon. He was playing from memory, (with many gaps), but kept his eyes glued to the music stand, where he had a piece of paper with only the names of the pieces he was playing! Not the music itself, but just the titles! It was like a security blanket for him to look at it while he played, when of course, he should have been watching his hands.

I have noticed this tendency in many students, and I am mentioning it first because it is the first thing you must deal with in order to develop the skill of memorization. If you haven't already, you must overcome the feeling that you NEED to look at the notes all the time. Notice I said all the time. Of course you must look some of the time.

But you must also not look at the notes some of the time. This is the only way the ear, brain and fingers will begin to form the kind of connections they must form in order to play from memory.

After you determine if you are being held back by this fear of playing without notes in front of you, you must examine something else: the quality of your Attention while practicing. I firmly believe that Attention is what it is all about when it comes to memorizing. People just do not know when they are paying attention, and when they are not, because they are not paying enough attention to notice if they are paying attention in the first place! I spend a good amount of teaching time simply pointing out to people that they are not really paying attention to what they are doing, or to what they should be doing. Very often, the key to "getting something" is simply REALLY paying Attention.

Examine yourself while you are practicing. If you pay great attention, you will notice that there are a few "channels" of attention playing in your mind when you are practicing. Usually, one of the channels is the "Critic", the one that points out and magnifies every difficulty you are having! Then the Critic delivers the latest news to that other part of yourself, the "Punisher", who turns up the volume on his channel, so you will hear him as he reminds you that you probably just don't have the talent to ever play what you are trying to play. And if those two voices don't get you, the "Worrier" probably will, especially when it comes time for your big solo, in front of an audience. Instead of focusing on what you need to do, you will be focusing on how afraid you are that you won't be able to do it. I think it's called "self fulfilling prophecy". I know, I've done it many times!

If you are to develop to the higher levels of playing the guitar, these extra channels will have to go! You will have to allow yourself the luxury of turning off those channels, and using the power they have taken up for better purposes, like paying attention to what you need to do while practicing (Intention), and what you are actually doing (Attention).

Next time, I am going to go in to some specifics about the 3 kinds of memory that musicians use to memorize a piece of music. Most musicians do it instinctively, but they can be learned by anyone, and even musicians who do it instinctively can improve by having a conscious understanding of the processes involved.

However, the subject of Attention is primary to the whole matter, and that is why I wanted to go in to it in detail first. I will summarize the things you can begin to do right now to improve or develop the ability to play music from memory:

Examine yourself when practicing to see if you are broadcasting and listening to those "extra" channels, the Worrier, Critic and Punisher channels. If so, pull the plug!

Take that extra mental energy you now have at your disposal, and focus on what is happening at the moment. Physically, be aware of fingers, hands, arms and body. Mentally, be noticing everything, and THINKING. Ask yourself "Why is this happening? What can I do about it? What can I do differently?" Emotionally, be aware of your feelings about the music. (If you don't have any, ask yourself what you are doing with a guitar in your lap!)

Now, try playing some of that music from memory. Two notes, three notes, whatever. So many people say "I can't play from memory". They don't know what they are talking about. Try it, just a few notes, then add some more. When you get stuck, THEN look at the music, and pay great attention to what comes next. Say the notes out loud, do whatever you have to do to "burn it into your brain", and then try it again. Play it once while looking, then without looking. Keep repeating that process, you will get it.

If you are a musician who already plays from memory, I hope you are not annoyed and feeling like I wasted your time. I am writing this because I know there are many developing musicians who do have a problem in this area, and I want them to get as good as the rest of us! Anyway, next time I will go into some of the details of memory mechanics that will be of use to even advanced musicians.

Copyright 2000 by Jamie Andreas. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission. Playing from memory is a skill that I believe is not only possible for every player, but is indeed essential for every player. I never feel that I know a piece, or have "internalized" a piece, until I have been playing it for quite some time from memory. I have written about the importance of having a Repertoire, and being able to play from memory really makes your Repertoire (the group of pieces or songs you can play well) your own; a solid, dependable part of yourself.

I always found it quite easy to memorize pieces, and thought everyone could do this, until experience in teaching taught me otherwise. As I began to study the subject, I gradually uncovered the reasons why I found it easy, and others found it difficult. I could summarize those reasons as follows:

01. I practiced more 02. I paid more attention when I practiced 03. I isolated sections and worked on them separately 04. I often played "fragments" from memory during practice while watching my hands, one or the other. After awhile of working on a piece this way, I would just discover that I could play it from memory, because in many ways I was already doing that when I practiced it.

Why Do Students Have Trouble Memorizing Music?

I have noticed that many students have an absolutely fearful dependency upon the written notes! They seem to "grasp" at the notes with their eyes, while their fingers are having a desperate time trying to get the notes out. This whole approach, and the inner attitude that initiates it, is wrong.

The most glaring example of this fearful attitude is an experience I once had, watching an older man play. I met him after a concert, and he told me he had played his whole life. He did not play well, and had incredible tension, but what really struck me was this curious phenomenon. He was playing from memory, (with many gaps), but kept his eyes glued to the music stand, where he had a piece of paper with only the names of the pieces he was playing! Not the music itself, but just the titles! It was like a security blanket for him to look at it while he played, when of course, he should have been watching his hands.

I have noticed this tendency in many students, and I am mentioning it first because it is the first thing you must deal with in order to develop the skill of memorization. If you haven't already, you must overcome the feeling that you NEED to look at the notes all the time. Notice I said all the time. Of course you must look some of the time.

But you must also not look at the notes some of the time. This is the only way the ear, brain and fingers will begin to form the kind of connections they must form in order to play from memory.

After you determine if you are being held back by this fear of playing without notes in front of you, you must examine something else: the quality of your Attention while practicing. I firmly believe that Attention is what it is all about when it comes to memorizing. People just do not know when they are paying attention, and when they are not, because they are not paying enough attention to notice if they are paying attention in the first place! I spend a good amount of teaching time simply pointing out to people that they are not really paying attention to what they are doing, or to what they should be doing. Very often, the key to "getting something" is simply REALLY paying Attention.

Examine yourself while you are practicing. If you pay great attention, you will notice that there are a few "channels" of attention playing in your mind when you are practicing. Usually, one of the channels is the "Critic", the one that points out and magnifies every difficulty you are having! Then the Critic delivers the latest news to that other part of yourself, the "Punisher", who turns up the volume on his channel, so you will hear him as he reminds you that you probably just don't have the talent to ever play what you are trying to play. And if those two voices don't get you, the "Worrier" probably will, especially when it comes time for your big solo, in front of an audience. Instead of focusing on what you need to do, you will be focusing on how afraid you are that you won't be able to do it. I think it's called "self fulfilling prophecy". I know, I've done it many times!

If you are to develop to the higher levels of playing the guitar, these extra channels will have to go! You will have to allow yourself the luxury of turning off those channels, and using the power they have taken up for better purposes, like paying attention to what you need to do while practicing (Intention), and what you are actually doing (Attention).

Next time, I am going to go in to some specifics about the 3 kinds of memory that musicians use to memorize a piece of music. Most musicians do it instinctively, but they can be learned by anyone, and even musicians who do it instinctively can improve by having a conscious understanding of the processes involved.

However, the subject of Attention is primary to the whole matter, and that is why I wanted to go in to it in detail first. I will summarize the things you can begin to do right now to improve or develop the ability to play music from memory:

Examine yourself when practicing to see if you are broadcasting and listening to those "extra" channels, the Worrier, Critic and Punisher channels. If so, pull the plug!

Take that extra mental energy you now have at your disposal, and focus on what is happening at the moment. Physically, be aware of fingers, hands, arms and body. Mentally, be noticing everything, and THINKING. Ask yourself "Why is this happening? What can I do about it? What can I do differently?" Emotionally, be aware of your feelings about the music. (If you don't have any, ask yourself what you are doing with a guitar in your lap!)

Now, try playing some of that music from memory. Two notes, three notes, whatever. So many people say "I can't play from memory". They don't know what they are talking about. Try it, just a few notes, then add some more. When you get stuck, THEN look at the music, and pay great attention to what comes next. Say the notes out loud, do whatever you have to do to "burn it into your brain", and then try it again. Play it once while looking, then without looking. Keep repeating that process, you will get it.

If you are a musician who already plays from memory, I hope you are not annoyed and feeling like I wasted your time. I am writing this because I know there are many developing musicians who do have a problem in this area, and I want them to get as good as the rest of us! Anyway, next time I will go into some of the details of memory mechanics that will be of use to even advanced musicians.

Copyright 2000 by Jamie Andreas. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission. Guitarprinciples.com.

59 comments sorted by best / new / date

    difitzio
    Probably everyone can play a couple of songs by memory but he's trying to point out, to those who are relying on sheets too much... that they will progress much more if they make their brains do the work... and it doesnt look to great when somebody is playing a song off a sheet
    nansjs
    I guess when you play music by notes and staff... ie piano, you are used to playing w/sheet music in front of you. Sure when you practice the piece several times you get it by heart accidentally, but there are those out there that have a problem memorizing every song they play... ME for instance!!!
    broken fusion!
    rokknrollldude wrote: majonior : wow i can't even read sheet music i stick to tabs so memorization was just the way i had to go start learning to read music..It will open up your world as far as guitar goes
    meh I beg to differ
    Starchild_ex4
    If no one who has left a post has any trouble memorizing music, then wtf? This article could be about ppl having "issues" with picking their nose. Well, gee! I myself dont have trouble picking my nose, but its a well thought out and helpful article.
    IQuitMyDayJob
    Ya, I've been playing like 5 years, but i just started taking classes 2 years ago... Now i can play anything from memory, my sister and dad used to play moonlight sonata, as a duet when i was 8, and i can play it from memory after not hearing it for 9 years... But i can hardly read notes at all. In contrast, my younger brother, who started taking classes about the same time as me, can read notes easily... Except he couldn't play from memory with a gun down his throat.
    max1107
    This is very true, i find it easy to play from memory, by breaking it up in sections
    nansjs
    I have relied on chords in front of me for so long. I've used them as a crutch and would mess up if I didn't have them. I want to play from memory w/o music but I know I'll make a mistake. Especially doing more than 1 song. How do you keep them straight? ang suggestions? I wish my fingers would automatically go to the chords I want to hear. I do practice alot!!
    M.B.MetalTabber
    ok, it repeats itself...weird but a good joke, but this is very easy to memorise... i never struggle to memorise guitar parts, bass parts, drum parts etc, but i find lyrics really hard to memorise for some reason :S this didn't really help there...
    ShredderOmega
    Play along with the playback Powetab or something, it helps you to memorise it as you simply can't look ahead and get a peak of the next 4 bars, you have to already know them. Though make sure you go through it a few times at your own pace first, run over the riffs.
    HiyuKantaro
    When preforming I wouldn't look at my hands, but at the audience.. And give a cool show.. but it was a very good article!
    handlerb
    That was the longest, most utterly useless thing I've read in a good while. Who can't play by memory? Can any one person here not play a song without a UG webpage in front of your face.
    Chiefwiddler
    The way not to rely on sheets is never to use sheets in the first place. Not as a coherent piece anyhow. Learn each bit, one at a time, then put it all together. I didnt really think this was a problem for guitarists? Not to warrant an essay anyway!
    vjferrara
    i like this article. it doesn't really apply to me that much because i have a photographic memory when it comes to music so memorization isn't really that big a problem. kudos though
    MetallicaNRoses
    this could be posted on better places than a tab site. generally people memorize things better if they have to keep going back to the computer screen every time they forget. just a thought.
    jo5ef
    I reckon therees a deeper problem of learning the notes vs learning the patterns or themes of a piece. exhibit A: all the leaborately tabbed solos on this site. People, theres no point in learning rock or blues guitar solos note for note.
    eddy norbulous
    I have ultimate problem: to play guitar and singing at the same time..i cannot sing when im playing guitar..and cannot play guitar when im singing..it's just so hard for me..huhu..
    Stampede
    This is a really good lesson. I'm interested in the next article. I also have a hard time memorizing stuff, but my biggest problem is when I play in front of people i often forget the songs that I do know! I was playing a show once and was playing the lead to Turn the Page and just all of a sudden forgot the lick. It sounded awful and everyone easliy heard the mess up.
    demonmouse500
    I've never really considered a song learned until I've memorized it. This helped a bit because anytime I get stuck on trying to memorize a part of a song, I get that 'I can't play this' voice. Good article.
    daemonarchangel
    Very good article. I've been a musician for years but I mostly played Trumpet and sang in choir. I only picked up the guitar about a month ago but this same method is the one I've used all these years. Focus on the trouble spots in your piece but try it from memory as you're fixing it. The biggest problem with memorizing a song is remembering where to put your fingers! So just watch them. Even if you don't know what notes they are you can get in the habit of playing the same thing over and over then it'll stick.
    lestat1836
    Jamie is a horrible player, this person is a joke as a musician. Might have cool ideas about playing, but cannot play for crap.
    Jawshuwa
    jo5ef wrote: I reckon therees a deeper problem of learning the notes vs learning the patterns or themes of a piece. exhibit A: all the leaborately tabbed solos on this site. People, theres no point in learning rock or blues guitar solos note for note.
    Maybe we want to play them note-for-note ? l0l ? Like "Iron Man." It just can't be played any other way. You would butcher it. =P ! Throw in an improvised guitar solo somewhere, but apart from that, gotta know it note-for-note.
    yorkey
    Thank you for a great article. I'm able to memorize (even if it takes me a bit longer than I think it should) and not refer back to the sheet but I still wanted some advice on it anyway. Thank you.
    yorkey
    lestat1836 wrote: and this article is 8 years old!
    Surely this article could be 50 years old and the same methods would still apply?
    Jackolas
    Wait this article repeats itself twice, delete the repeat and it will be way more presentable!
    mp3stalin
    im horrible at sight reading... so i never had much of a choice tabs are only useful for memorizing patterns.
    fagelamusgtr
    Even though i don't have a problem memorizing music, this article was great. It gave me a few awesome pointers. Can't wait for the next one.
    majonior
    wow i can't even read sheet music i stick to tabs so memorization was just the way i had to go
    rokknrollldude
    majonior : wow i can't even read sheet music i stick to tabs so memorization was just the way i had to go
    start learning to read music..It will open up your world as far as guitar goes
    sxymnky777
    i didn't know people had trouble memorizing songs. Well maybe memorize is the wrong word
    Zebra_Planet
    hm... not sure about other people, but i depend solely on memorisation and sounding out stuff. i cant read sheet music either. and so far im not too troubled by it.
    thefoldarsoldar
    TdotBass wrote: Repeating is a tool to help you memorize things...get it?
    haha I didn't think of that.
    mattgab1
    This is indeed good advice, but it does not only pertain to guitar playing, but rather, anything. Items #1 and #3 are the most important, in fact. Recent findings in neuroscience reveal that the brain's long-term memory center (mainly, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex), indicate that the sole method of forming memories is repetition. The process itself that the brain uses is referred to as "chunking". Without getting too deeply into it, one's proficiency will tend to allow larger chunks and the mind can use about 3 chunks at once. A chunk is portion of something. In chess, it is usually a specific position on the board, and one's developed skill determines whether it comprises 10 pieces or the whole board. In music, it could be one measure, or several. A few chunks might make an entire verse riff, or most of the Freebird solo. Everyone already probably knows that it is easier to memorize a song (or anything) by taking small parts of it rather than playing the entire song over and over. The "isolated sections" will develop the chunks and help one memorize the song. I could safely assume that neuroscience is of little interest to the average guitar player (or anyone), but I am relating these statements because the way the brain memorizes things is not a mystery anymore.
    brandonmontana
    i play mostly from memory, but if i have the tab or whatever close by i usually sit it near me so i can look if i forget part of a song.
    prateak
    yeah i also realized this and i have been developing pyaing memory since i was almost blank for memory
    Quantonyne
    coming back to a song you are stuck on helps...good example...Bed of Razors - Children of Bodom...2 years ago i could play the intro for shit...now i can play it flawlessly...but at first did i focus on the intro...not really...i worked on the other parts of the song i could play...every once and a while i would go back to the intro and compare how much i got better...so i dont know if that helps anyone...just pick out the parts you can play 100% then keep going back to the hard parts.
    nolanxxx
    sweet article..yeah, the part of you taht goes "I'll never be able to play this" is a RETARD. Tell him to shut the fack up! I learned songs that some would say were above my skill level...most of Blitzkrieg by Yngwie Malmsteen, Bullet Proof Scales by Despised Icon, and Heretics and Killers by Protest the Hero..jsut to name a few. I've only been playing for about a year and a half and I can do them all pretty smoothly..not perfect, but well enough to play with teh song and make me wanna keep playing. Anyone could learn it, you just gotta practice it a loot, it took me half a year to be able to play half of Blitzkrieg with the song. I still learned others songs, i'd just go back to it everyonce in a while. THeres no such thing as natural talent, well theres things that help..like long finger, but anyone can become really good at guitar, just gotta practice. Play things that are supposedly above your skill level and it will force you up to that skill level. My comments been pretty shitty. so all i wanna say is BANAN-O-RAMA!
    nasadm
    wow people have trouble memorizing? I don't know anyone who does..... okay only one but out of how many people I know? all they have to do is try harder memorizing is possible for everyone some people have to put more effort in than others... and he took an entire article to say that.
    Jumboshrmp
    While I have always been able to memorize music, I never really knew why, and this article explains exactly why. I'm trying to teach my friend how to play guitar, and it's really hard trying to teach someone technique, and moving on to a chord and having them already pressing the strings wrong because they just did it right once and moved on.