Memory Magic


Gotcha! There is no such thing as memory magic. Yet, some students often treat memory as something that’s just going to happen, because it always has before. As a student progresses, pieces get longer, more difficult, and trickier to memorize. Thus, form study, key/chord analysis, and visualization are just three ways to provide a multi-layer approach to memorization that repetition alone cannot provide.

Form Study

Form study simply means looking at the big picture. This is often done better away from the keyboard, pencil on the score. I provide a specific example of this for my students, taken from a piece that I often teach to late beginners. Essentially, we just look for the themes and mark where they appear.

In basic sonata form, the first theme typically appears in the tonic key, whereas the second theme appears in the dominant key. When you move out of the exposition, or opening part, into the development, those themes often appear in a variety of transitional keys. When you arrive at the recapitulation, which is the third and final section, the second theme will often come back in the tonic key. Being aware of this one detail can help a lot when memorizing!

Key/Chord Analysis

I’ve already pointed to some of this above, but the chords are sometimes worth further study away from the first and second themes. We often use what are called major cadential points, as a landing place for memory issues. If you get lost in the details, it’s best to be able to jump to a nearby place, and then continue. Otherwise, you might jump to the beginning of the piece, and get stuck in a loop. Or, you might skip to near the end and cut out lots of good playing.


By visualization, I mean playing the piece through in your mind. You know you’ve been teaching too long when you can memorize a piece just by seeing it on the page. This happens frequently with pieces that I teach often to my students, without any separate effort. I refer to playing a piece in my mind as musical meditation. You could sit in a chair, or even lay down on a bed to do this. You could even do it as sleepy-time practice – and don’t worry if you fall asleep before you get to the end. The true memory magic might happen without any effort from you!

In Conclusion

When memorizing music, it’s important to obviously know it well from the score. However, repetition alone makes for a risky performance, since the tactile and aural memory is easily thrown if you wander onto the wrong keys. . You increase the chances that you will have a memory secure performance by studying the score away from the keyboard. At least you can get back on track quickly. That’s where you find the real memory magic!

Frederik Magle –; Photo by Morten Skovgaard
Last Updated 2021-09-18 | Originally Posted 2019-12-01