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memorize music classical guitar

How (and Why) to Memorize Music on Classical Guitar

If you’re a beginner, the idea of memorizing pages of composed music may sound like some superhuman feat.

If you’ve been playing for years, but only recently began playing composed music (classical guitar), to memorize music may sound difficult, but not impossible.

And if you regularly practice classical guitar pieces, but have never memorized your music, you may be shaking in your boots right now.

Memorizing music is a skill. If you practice it, you’ll get better.  And there are methods and techniques that make the process smoother (more on this below).

And it’s important to note: Memorizing a piece doesn’t mean you can throw the sheet music away.  You still use the music in practice, you just have a deeper familiarity with the piece, and are able to work in different ways.

But first, you have to actually want to (intentionally) memorize your music.

  • And why would you want to memorize?
  • Why bother?
  • Why put in all that hard work?

What Usually Happens When Learning Music:

When most people learn a piece of music without the intention to memorize it, they fall into one or more common traps.

Here are a few common traps when learning music:

The Deer in the Headlights

Your eyes glaze over. Your jaw slackens. You lose awareness of everything but the music in front of you. The only thing that exists is the next note on the page.

In this state, you have very little self-awareness. All the work you’ve done on technique falls away and you rely on muscle habits that may or may not be advantageous. But you’re not aware of your hands anyway.

The Space Out

In The Space Out, you begin practicing/playing your piece of music, but then your mind drifts off. You plan your lunch menu, next year’s holiday, and what you’ll say to that certain person when next you meet.

This is NOT good practice. Not only are you not solving problems, but you’re likely ingraining mistakes, undesirable movements and tension.  And even worse: you’re ingraining the habit of spacing out when you play.

One of the most powerful tools in guitar practice is attention. Not only does focused practice feel more fulfilling and rewarding, but when we play for people (perform), we default to our ingrained pattern of attention. If we’re laser-focused in practice, we’ll be laser-focused in performance (perhaps after an initial adrenaline spike). If we let our mind wander in practice, our mind also wanders in front of people. We notice this, and, aware of it for the first time, get very anxious. This is one of the main causes of ‘stage fright’ (performance anxiety).

Sight-reading it to Death

Many players are guilty of sight-reading their music to death.

Sight-reading is seeing a note and playing it. The goal of sight-reading is to sound the note. The goal is not to learn the piece, play it beautifully, or solve problems.

The mistaken logic fueling this tendency is the notion that if you play through the music enough times, you’ll “get it”. Eventually you’ll “finish it”, and it will “be good”.

But this never happens. At best, you can play through the notes up to speed, in the right rhythm. At worst, you waste hours and bore yourself silly by repeatedly running into the same walls and making the same mistakes.

In the end, even if you do feel you’ve “gotten it”, you can only play it with the music in front of you. And if you spend any time away from the piece, you return to find it no longer “finished”. It’s once again full of mistakes and in need of work.

Introducing a Positive Agenda of Memory

But there is a better way. Even if you choose to keep the music in front of you, or if you have no intention of performing for anyone ever, you can still improve your practice experience, as well as your skills.

Introduce a positive agenda of memorization into every piece you learn. When you intend to memorize your music…

  • You’ll learn faster and better (more on this below).
  • You’ll feel like you’ve accomplished more.
  • You’ll be more engaged with your music and practice.
  • You’ll avoid problems that otherwise may have caused you grief.

Concentration

When you intend to memorize a measure or a line of music, you increase your focus and concentration. It’s no longer enough to sight-read the music and just pound out notes. You now have a higher objective, and your brain and physiology perk up for the challenge.

This increased focus and concentration is one of the ingredients of a “flow state”. The more time you spend in flow states, the higher quality of life you enjoy. (There is a correlation between perceived life happiness and the amount of time spent in flow states.)

Importance

The intention to memorize music also gives importance to the task at hand. You are more aware of the demands of the music, and you’re more actively engaged with solving the problems that arise. You’re also more likely to notice similarities and relationships.

Memory and Better Learning Go Hand in Hand

Memorizing music gives you a great advantage when performing (even just for friends or family), whether you use the sheet music or not.

But it also gives you a better overall learning experience.

  • You recognize patterns, both in the hands and on the page.
  • You become more focused.
  • You notice more in the music.
  • You connect aspects of the music in ways you wouldn’t otherwise.
  • You use more areas of your brain.
  • You realize similarities between pieces.
  • You learn to ask more and deeper questions.
Memorizing a piece doesn’t mean you can throw the sheet music away.  You still use the music in practice, you just have a deeper familiarity with the piece, and are able to work in different ways.

More Resilient than Reading

After you take time away from a piece of music, you are more likely to be able to play it (completely, and well), if you initially memorized it.

You’ll have mentally and physically encoded the act of playing that specific music. Conversely, if you’ve just been sight-reading the music repeatedly, you have far less chance of recalling and playing it through.

Also, if you want to maintain a repertoire (and you should!), memorizing your music is one of the best methods to ensure that you’ll have music to play at short notice.

Quick Tips to Get Started Memorizing Music

Assuming you’re now completely convinced to (intentionally) memorize any music you decide to play, how do you actually go about memorizing music?

“How to memorize music” is a big subject. But here are a some practical starting points:

Mindset Switch: It’s Just Part of the Game

First, make the switch in your mindset to acknowledge that memorizing the music is just part of the process of learning it.

It’s not a separate act from learning, it IS the learning.

Memorizing music is not a separate act from learning, it IS learning.

When you stop resisting this notion and decide that memorizing the music is just part of the game, you can drop the resistance and fear, and get down to business.

Bits: Only Bite Off as Much as You can Chew

We work best memorizing music in small bits. A whole piece is difficult to memorize. But a single bar is doable. With some practice, two bars is doable. Fast forward a year or two and a line or a half-page is doable.

A measure per practice adds up to a LOT of music over the course of a year. If you continue to learn new music, as well as polish your existing repertoire, you’ll soon have more memorized music in your hands than you ever thought possible.

To drill down even further, how do you memorize the bits? Here are a couple of options….

The 7-Step Method

Using the “7 Step Method“, play each step from memory before proceeding to the next.

The “Look Away” –

  1. Play through a small section with the music.
  2. Look away and mentally play through it (visualize the music, your hands, everything).
  3. Look back to the music and check your visualization. If you missed anything, repeat steps 2 and 3 as much as needed.
  4. Finally, when you can mentally “play” it, play it slowly on your guitar.
  5. If you miss anything, go back to step 2.

If you’re ever having a hard time with a section, it may be too long, or too complex. So either make it shorter (such as a half measure instead of a full measure), or simplify it. Consider using the 7-Step Method to simplify your work.

In time you’ll learn other “tricks” for retaining and recalling music. It does get easier, and even intuitive.

The Turbo-Booster for Your Memory

Your mindset during practice also plays a big part in determining how quickly and easily you memorize.

Use these musical intentions to prime your brain to learn and memorize more quickly.

Effective Memorization is Effective Recall, So Recall Often

Of course the point is not to memorize music, but to be able to instantly recall and play the music.

While there are methods of memorizing music, it’s also very important to frequently recall the music.

The point is NOT to memorize music, but to be able to instantly recall and play it.

At first, recall and play your new material several times per day from memory. As time goes on, once per day, then once every other day, etc will suffice.

Eventually you’ll be able to go years between repetitions and still have perfect recall.

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

If you expect to immediately sit down and memorize pages upon pages of music, you may be in for a rude awakening.

New muscles take time to grow, and you may find memorizing mentally taxing at the beginning.  This is normal.  Just keep at it.

Seriously, memorizing one new measure per practice is a great start.

Try to keep your expectations realistic. Literally one measure per day. Or one note per day. Like a steady drip of water, you eventually break through even the toughest material.

It Gets Easier

At the risk of over-repeating this, memorizing music does get easier in time. All it takes is a steady engagement with the process. If you find it difficult, that’s great: you’ll be more appreciative of how easy it comes after a little time!

So all there is to do now is to start. In your very next practice (or right now!), choose a measure, or a few notes, and commit them to memory. Use one of the methods above if you like. Then play this small section from memory as many times as you can for the next couple of days. Build upon small wins.


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3 Responses to How (and Why) to Memorize Music on Classical Guitar

  1. Bish Wheeler September 17, 2016 at 7:55 am #

    I have undertaken to play in a duet which at first terrified me. I am playing with an excellent Cellist (my ex, but that is a different story) and we selected Six Duets by Paganini. We downloaded the music from “Virtual Sheet Music” (free), and with great trepidation I started examining the music and all I saw, as far as the eye could see was a “grape arbor” of chords and arpeggios. But once I settled down and started playing the music, those chords that seemed so scary in notation were really old, old friends whom I knew from my first attempts at folk songs way back when. Here was the famous composer, Paganini, using C, G, G7, B7 (a lot) Em etc.etc. and arpeggios that were not that foreign. i won’t say the music is easy, but it is not nearly as scary as I was sure it was going to be. There is even logic to the music and just like like when I was playing folk music, the chord changes in many cases jump right out at you so committing the music to memory is getting easier. Now, playing with another person/instrument is another story. That is taking some getting used to and I am being forced to actually count.

    Allen, thanks for all your insights.

    • Allen September 18, 2016 at 1:32 am #

      Hi Bish, that’s great to hear! You’re right, the Paganini duets are easier than they look. I’m glad to hear that you’re connecting it all with your existing chord knowledge. Nice work!

      All the best,
      Allen

  2. dtoh September 17, 2016 at 5:32 am #

    Thanks for a very timely piece. I’ve been spending a lot of time memorizing music lately and there are all kinds of benefits. I think though that it’s a little different for everyone depending on their experience and how their mind works. For example,

    1. I think some people memorize by sound. Others by seeing physical hand movements. Other by visualizing notation in their mind. And other still by logical construction.

    2. For me even after I have a piece well memorized, it’s much easier for me to concentrate on dynamics when I have the notation in front of me.

    3. I have friend who is a very high level solo classical piano performer. He has never consciously tried to memorize music. He says it just happens after working on a piece long enough.

    I find your suggestions really helpful. Also the more you do it the easier it gets.

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