Memorizing Music: Is it Important?

A man memorizing music by stuffing scores in his head

Historical Perspective

As an introduction, a brief historical perspective of piano performance traditions is explored as this sheds light on the topic of memorizing music. Until the latter part of the nineteen century, it was in bad taste to perform from memory. It was disrespectful and showy. Mozart, for example, had an expansive musical memory yet always performed with the score placed in front of him. Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt established the tradition of performing from memory. In Clara Schumann's view, since a serious musician always memorizes their music in preparation for a performance, bringing the score on stage is unnecessary. Perhaps she felt that without the distraction of the visual contact with the score, she was able to listen more intensely and to perform with greater freedom. Next, we will explore the benefits of memorizing music.


Benefits of Memorizing Music

Acumen of Mind

Firstly, memorizing music sharpens the mind. This knowledge dates back to the Ancient Greeks. Athenaeus said, "The study of music contributes to the exercise and acumen of the mind". The Ancient Greeks, without exception, performed from memory. Recent studies demonstrate that music education enhances scholastic performance. These studies confirm this ancient wisdom. Without a doubt, memorization is a contributing factor to this enhancement.


Internalization of Music

Secondly, music is not completely internalized until it is committed to memory. Details go unnoticed until we absorb the music into our conscious mind through the process of memorization. Our understanding of the music deepens and technical problems vanish. Memorization releases "bandwidth" enabling greater freedom during a performance.


Leaning to Perform from Memory

Students sometimes protest at the prospect of memorizing music. Its hard work but the payoff is huge and it becomes easier as we gain experience. It is helpful to test our memory under performance conditions such as a recital or exam (without music). This way we can determine what works and what doesn't. If we start from the beginning levels and work our way up, our musical memory will develop and mature in tandem with the demands of the music. We must not be insensitive to the challenges inherent in this process. Fostering a positive, supportive, and nurturing environment are crucial.


With or Without the Music?

In conclusion, most solo performers today perform without music, however, there are many notable exceptions. Some performers find having the music in front of them distracting. They feel the risk of a memory slip is less of an issue than this distraction.  Other performers feel totally comfortable with the music and prefer the security it offers. All have their repertoire securely memorized. The deciding factor, in the decision to perform with or without the music, is the quality of the resulting performance.


2 thoughts on “Memorizing Music: Is it Important?

    1. Great idea Paul. Stay tuned for a sequel to this post about memory practice tips. Thanks for the suggestion.

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