Memorisation – Part 1

Until quite recently I was quite poor at memorising pieces of music – especially long, complicated classical works. Over the past few months I’ve researched memory and found a number of helpful strategies that make memorising music easier. Although quite a few sites around the net offer tips, I found that only certain suggestions worked well for me, and these are not necessarily the ones that will work for you. So rather than simply compiling another list of tips and tricks I’m looking at first principles. By developing a solid understanding of how memory actually works you will be able to develop your own strategies and adapt existing approaches to your needs. So lets being by looking at the three basic stages of memory: encoding, storage and recall.


The encoding stage is the actual transfer of information from short term to long term memory, typically via the hippocampus. Short term memory is understood as being around 30 seconds, however the process of encoding information into long term memory can take much longer than that – perhaps over a few months depending on the nature and complexity of the information being stored. The hippocampus is believed to hold the information whilst it is being encoded into long term memory. It is also understood that the transfer of information from the hippocampus into longterm memory can happen subconsciously, “in the background”, and even during sleep. This explains why its important to take breaks during practice and why it is often easier to come back to a difficult task after a night’s sleep. Obviously any errors in encoding will hinder recall later on, so a key component of any good memorisation strategy is being thorough and accurate at the encoding stage.


This stage is where the information is kept in long term memory. However, provided that the information was encoded thoroughly, that reliable strategies for recall are in place, and that the brain remains healthy, there is very little that we can do to influence the storage component of memory; although periodically accessing the stored memory does seem to make future recall easier by helping to mitigate ‘trace decay‘. This is just another way of saying that regularly using the information will help to keep it fresh and easier to recall. Of course, it is also useful to continue to improve how deeply the information is encoded by regularly studying and reviewing previously learned information. Essentially, this amounts to use it or lose it.


Once we’ve successfully encoded and stored a memory, the final step in the memory process is recall – when we actually retrieve the stored information for use. The types of recall we are covering today are serial recall and cued recall.

Serial Recall

Serial recall refers to the ability to recall information in the order in which it was learned. For students who are overly dependent on only serial forms recall, it can be quite difficult to pick up a piece in the middle of a phrase, line or bar/measure. This can be particularly disastrous when a player loses their place during a performance, often having to ‘back-track’ to find a part that they are more familiar with first and then play from there. A good memorisation strategy then, should address the limitations of serial recall to help mitigate any occasional lapses in memory and to ensure that the performance goes on relatively uninterrupted. In practice, this means developing other recall processes so that one is not entirely dependent on only serial recall.

Cued Recall

A cue can be considered to be anything that may act as a reminder and prompt the recall of information. Any good approach to memorisation will have multiple, carefully planned and organised cues. The more cues that we have available to us, the less likely that the failure if any single cue will effect the performance.

Context-Dependent Cued Recall

Context-dependent cues are cues which depend on the environment or situation. For instance a particular smell may ‘trigger’ (that is, ‘cue’) a person’s early childhood memory of their mothers home cooking – this may even be a long “forgotten” memory, or may trigger the memory of information that the person was not even aware they knew.

An excellent example of this from my own life occurred when I was driving with my parents on an old, scenic country road. Due to the local vegetation and crops, this particular area had a subtle but distinctive smell, which triggered a memory of being there before. When I asked my mother when I’d been there, she replied that I was two years old at the time and travelling in a booster seat!

The physical environment can also act as a powerful cue even if we aren’t aware of it. As an example, many students tell me that they play better at home than they do in their lessons, which can point to a change in environmental cues effecting their recall. In the case of my previous story, there may also have been an element of environmental cues that prompted my spontaneous recall – I happened to be sitting in the centre back seat, which is the place that the booster seat used to go. Adults rarely sit in the centre back seat so it is likely that the majority of the memories associated with the centre seat were formed as a young child during my years in the booster chair.

The other side of the coin is how a lack of environmental cues can cause forgetting. I knew an extremely accomplished saxophonist and clarinettist who played in our local community concert band, and, depending on the availability of players, the scoring of the music, etc he would happily swap between instruments as necessary. On this occasion he was playing clarinet, but when the sax section asked him a question regarding fingering he completely blanked and couldn’t recall the correct saxophone fingering. However, once he had put down the clarinet and picked up a sax he immediately demonstrated the fingering. The presence of a clarinet in his hands cued memories of clarinet fingerings, whilst the sax was an environmental cue that was needed before his brain could ‘change gears’.

Accordingly its very important that our method of memorisation makes good use of contextual cues and accounts for any cues that may be unavailable during a performance context.

State-Dependent Cued Recall

Although the current understanding of state-dependent learning is still widely theoretical, it is generally understood that the emotional state or mental state of the person during encoding can be an important cue to recall. Information learned whilst happy for instance, can be more easily recalled during periods of happiness, or information whilst intoxicated can be better recalled when intoxicated than when sober.

Unfortunately for us, our emotional state is usually very different when performing than when practicing, which means that we will be lacking important state-dependent cues which can result in a memory lapse. For instance some people experience performance anxiety, nerves, excitement, stress, euphoria, or any of a number of other performance related changes in emotional state. In contrast we usually learn in safe, emotionally calm conditions, and in a relaxed non-demanding environment. During performance, many of the state-dependent cues that we are accustomed to during practice are no longer present, and can lead to poor recall. In developing approaches to memorisation we should therefore account for the emotional state during performance and attempt to mitigate any negative effects on recall. Where possible, we should also use learning environments that approximate performance conditions so that the emotional state during performance and practice might be more alike.

Other than state-dependent and context-dependent cues, other common memory aids can also be considered to be a cue. Unlike state- and context- dependent cues, we are often more aware of these cues and may even employ them deliberately as memory aids. Mnemonics, ‘cheat sheets’, dot points, cue cards and so on are all cue systems as they prompt or aid recall. There are many such devices which can, and should be employed in the memorisation of music. For instance, I always study the underlying harmony (i.e. the chord progressions) which I find makes it much easier to remember difficult passages. Rather than focusing on recalling complex fingerings, I simply need to memorise the progression which is often be sufficient to cue the correct fingering. Similarly, learning the structure of the piece makes it much easier to recall changes of key, mood, dynamics and phrasing etc.

Occasionally some students may find that they still need the music in front of them, but nonetheless play the music 95% from memory – only looking to the music at a few key points or for certain phrases. In this instance the music is acting as a set of ‘dot points’, where only a few bars are required to cue whole sections of music. In my experience this scenario can often be easily remedied by playing as much of the piece from memory as possible, and then noting any parts where the fluency falters. This helps to identify exactly what key phrases and important bars are acting as ‘dot points’. Once the student has found these key areas a little deliberate rote learning of those sections is usually enough to bring the entire piece together from memory. Using small sections of music to cue larger sections of music is a technique that I refer to as ‘sign posting’.

Another similar strategy which can help is what I call using a ‘trigger’. In complicated passages, or sections where my fingering can easily become muddled up causing a lapse in recall, I use trigger fingers to ensure that I adhere to the correct fingering. A ‘trigger’ may be something as simple as remembering to play a particular note with a particular finger or using an up stroke on a particular chord. Triggers are usually one or two notes, which, if played incorrectly, can quickly unravel the whole section. Playing these triggers correctly ‘sets me up’ in the correct hand position for the coming bars making recalling difficult sections easier.

Procedural Memory and Implicit Memory

Procedural memory is what many musicians term ‘muscle memory’ or ‘motor memory’ and refers to the brain’s ability to memorise processes. For musicians, procedural memory is typically the first way we learn to memorise music. By rehearsing music many times over, our brain gradually memorises the actions required to play the piece. Procedural memory is a form of implicit memory, meaning previous experiences aid in the performance of a task without conscious awareness of those experiences, or being consciously aware of the steps in the task being performed. Skills such as driving, tying shoe laces, and playing an instrument are typically remembered with procedural memory – we perform these skills automatically and without conscious thought. However, once again, an over reliance on a single mode of memory can make a person more prone to memory lapses. Engaging the declarative memory system an make recall significantly more reliable.

Declarative Memory and Explicit Memory

Where procedural memory is used for skills, declarative memory is the area concerned with memorising information, facts or events. Simply put, procedural memory is concerned with the how whereas declarative memory is concerned with the what.

Declarative memory is usually sub-categorised as episodic memory (memory of ones own life events, and of little use for memorising music), and semantic memory which concerns factual information – such as studying the harmony, structure, compositional devices etc. Declarative memory also differs from procedural memory in that it is an explicit form of memory – that is, it involves conscious recollection of information (i.e. its not automatic like procedural memory).

In the context of learning music, engaging declarative memory involves analysing the music to have a more thorough understanding of the compositional devices including harmonic, rhythmic and melodic structures. Understanding the composition at a deeper level gives the information more meaning and significance. Meaning and significance are powerful cues to recall. For instance, recalling a random number is much harder than recalling a persons phone number; while a phone number is easier to recall if it belongs to a close friend rather than a random acquaintance. Similarly, a phone number that has sequential or repeated digits is usually more memorable because the phone number is no longer a collection of seemingly random numbers. Sequenced or repeated numbers are more meaningful and significant to us, and are therefore more memorable.

Till Next Time….

Now that we’ve covered the basics of exactly what memory is, the next post will cover how we can put this understanding to work and develop memorisation strategies. In developing these strategies the key points to remember are:

  • Engaging the procedural memory process through rehearsal and practice
  • Engaging the declarative memory process through compositional analysis
  • Making strong use of contextual- and state- dependent cues to aid recall
  • Accounting for any missing contextual- or state- dependent cues that may not be available during performance
  • Developing other cues such as ‘trigger fingers’ or ‘signposts’
  • Encoding the information accurately and thoroughly so as to allow dependable recall
  • Encoding the cues accurately and thoroughly so as to develop dependable recall

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  1. Ron Amundson says:

    Thanks for writing a most fascinating piece… I think of all the times I’ve been burned via near exclusive use of serial recall and always wondered what was going on. The protocols you suggest to bring in other models of memory I plan on putting to use shortly, both as a performing musician but also as an instructor.

    One thing that comes to mind, is how much faster I find it is to memorize a piece via ear vs sheet music. Ie, if I have sheet music, it can take weeks to really get it solid and memorized, vs if I am forced to learn it via ear, perhaps just a 2-3 days of intensive work. Any idea why this would be so?

  2. Hi Ty

    A memory graph indicates the general recall ability and reninforcement required over time.

    Memory techniques should be taught to all school students along with speed maths and speed reading.

    One thing that is not mentioned in public discussion is that having a poor memory is a disability. I believe most people who have normal recall have no consideration for this fact.

    My students tend to recall their lessons because they, write the information on charts, explain it back to me, play it back with the chart then without the chart, same at home.

    Kind Regards, Ross

  3. Harold says:

    So nice to have these processes succinctly summarised. That a knowledge of the harmony should act as a cue to the fingers I find to be central to my own memory of pieces, along with knowing what notes are coming in the different voices and understanding the voice leading. But the fingers do need considerable training to react instinctively to the harmony.
    Terrific article!

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