Problem-Solving Series

How to Memorize Music the First Day You Learn It

Nicole Dieker understands that not everyone memorizes things in the same way. That said, this is the method that is currently working for her.

Okay.

Yesterday I wrote that I had memorized seven pages of Ravel in seven hours (over seven days), noting that the problem-solving techniques I’ve been using to learn music more efficiently are starting to prove themselves.

Today, I am going to try to explain to you how I memorize music.

Or, since these kinds of blog posts are always better framed as calls to action:

HOW YOU CAN MEMORIZE MUSIC.

ON THE VERY FIRST DAY YOU START LEARNING IT.

Step 1: Identify the section of music you want to memorize.

This might sound a little basic, but remember that I am all about specificity — and in this case, that means beginning the memorization process by selecting a specific amount of music to memorize.

If you leave it open-ended, after all, how will you know whether you achieved your goal?

More importantly, how will you know whether your memorization rate has increased? When I started thinking seriously about the process of memorization — on March 1, if you’re curious — I was able to memorize eight measures of music in 30 minutes. Sixteen days later, I am now able to memorize sixteen measures of music in 30 minutes.

WAIT HAS IT ONLY BEEN SIXTEEN DAYS SINCE I STARTED IMPROVING MY MEMORIZATION TECHNIQUES

DOES THAT MEAN THAT BY THE END OF THE MONTH THE LILY POND WILL BE ENTIRELY COVERED WITH FLOWERS

AND THE FOLDED PIECE OF PAPER WILL REACH THE MOON

AND I WILL BE A MILLIONAIRE

(sorry, I do go on)

(also I know that this isn’t necessarily an example of exponential growth)

Step 2: Divide the section of music into chunks.

Once you’ve identified the section of music you’d like to memorize, divide it up into chunks.

Teeny, tiny chunks.

Like, two measures each.

(Maybe four, if that’s how the phrases work out.)

The point is — well, there are two points:

To make each discrete task as easy as possible. Memorize a page of music in a day, the first time you sit down to learn it? HARD. Memorize two measures? MUCH, MUCH EASIER.

To give yourself as many opportunities for success as possible. When I talk about this process with L, he likes to frame this as “giving yourself as many dopamine hits as possible.” Either way, once you memorize two measures of music, YOU WIN.

Step 3: Begin developing your recall tools (and if you’re me, write them down).

If you want to memorize something, you need a way for your mind to recall that something even when it is no longer in front of you. If you want to memorize a piece of music (as compared to a paragraph of words or a list of numbers), you also need a way to recall what your body needs to do to make the music happen.

For pianists, this starts with “where do fingers go” — but it doesn’t end there. (I’ve had my Chopin nocturne memorized for nearly a year, and I am currently investigating how to time my breath to the music’s tension/release.)

That said, “where fingers” will do for the first day.

So. HOW DOES ONE RECALL, both in the brain and in the body?

Wait. That should be HOW DOES ONE CAPTURE KNOWLEDGE FOR RECALL?

No, it really needs to be HOW DOES ONE CREATE SYSTEMS BY WHICH TO CAPTURE KNOWLEDGE FOR RECALL?

Some people do the Moonwalking With Einstein thing and build a memory palace of tangentially related images.

Some musicians memorize by ear — but that only really works if you know the piece well and have been playing it for months, and we’ve already discussed why memorization should be the first step in the music-learning process, not the last one. (Tl;dr: Memorizing first gives you the freedom to singletask your focus on whatever aspect of the music you are hoping to refine, specify, or manipulate. Until the piece is memorized, at least part of your focus is going towards reading notes — and that’s a waste of mental energy.)

When I started the process of memorizing music as I learned it, I literally memorized the names of the notes (like, I would think D# A C, D# A C as I played) and tried to carry an image of the sheet music in my mind’s eye. THIS WAS HUGELY INEFFICIENT AND I DO NOT RECOMMEND IT.

Now, my memorization process begins by scanning each teeny-tiny chunk of music for anchors and trouble spots — and every time I identify an anchor that will help me get those two measures of music into my memory as quickly as possible, I write it down.

L doesn’t write anything down, and he and I have argued over whether my writing on the music is an “unnecessary step” (his argument is why not just commit it to memory, and my argument is this is how I commit it to memory). Most of my notes on the notes won’t make sense to you, but every time I jot something down like “SAME” (which literally means “that chord is the same as the previous chord”) I give my brain an anchor to hang on to.

Eventually — often as soon as the next morning — you won’t need those anchors. You’ll be able to play the music without thinking “JUST ONE” or “SAME” or “MOVE HAND”, because you’ll have moved to the stage of memorization where all of that happens automatically.

But you aren’t there yet! This is the first day! The first time you are digging into this music, and the first time you are discovering at which point you need to pick up your hand and move it to a different place on the piano!

And yes, I do in fact write “MOVE HAND” all over the music.

And then I think “MOVE HAND,” every time I get to the point where my hand moves, until I don’t need to think it anymore.

Step 4: Take the sheet music away.

Your goal, when memorizing a piece of music, should be to take the sheet music away as quickly as possible. This morning, I pulled the sheet music off the piano 15 minutes in — which technically means that I memorized sixteen measures of music in just over one measure per minute.

Except I didn’t, really — because as soon as I took the sheet music off the piano, I quickly learned which anchors held and which ones failed.

Or, to use the language I developed earlier in this problem-solving series, I learned which parts of the music were knowing and which parts were still guessing.

And then I started working the bits where I was still guessing, until they became fully known.

Step 5: See what sticks in your memory over multiple play-throughs.

There’s a funny thing that happens when you play a section of newly-memorized music more than once. The first time through, you might get everything exactly right — and your brain might go “HOORAY! WE DID IT! BRING ON THE DOPAMINE!”

(please note that I am not a neuroscientist, I cannot guarantee that you or anyone else will receive actual dopamine during this process)

The second time through, your brain might go “WAIT, I THOUGHT THIS WAS A SHORT-TERM MEMORY THING, ARE YOU TELLING ME I WAS SUPPOSED TO SAVE WHAT WE JUST LEARNED?”

This is the most annoying part of the memorization process — that is, the part when you realize you don’t actually have it memorized — and it compounds when you add a new challenge to your already-taxed mental processes, like adding the sixteen measures of music you just memorized to all of the music you memorized yesterday (that is, playing 32 or 48 or 64 measures of music in a row).

BOY HOWDY will you find out what you truly know, and what you truly don’t.

You’ll also find out which sections are the first to go when your brain gets tired.

At this point, I should probably share a video of my navigating this process:

I end the video by saying “Well, this clearly needs a bit more work,” and that’s what I plan to do tomorrow.

Along with sixteen new measures, if I can fit them in. ❤️

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