The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

How I Memorize Music



When I was first starting to do a lot of playing from memory (preparing for a big competition in my first year of graduate school), I wanted to have some sort of method that would help me feel certain that I had studied the music enough to know it for sure.   I thought that if the process of memorization felt systematic, I could be sure my preparation was thorough, which would translate into more confidence on stage.

I developed the following system at that time, and it has served me well in the years since.  I will devote future articles to some of its finer points, and why it works.  For today, however, I’ll cover the basic steps, so you can start using this system immediately.

The first thing you need to do is choose a short passage to memorize.  The principle of small sections is absolutely crucial to successful memorization – I can’t stress this enough! Please read my previous post on the topic of small sections if you need more information.

Once you’ve chosen your section, here’s what you do:

First stage:  Learning the passage mentally

1.    Play the passage twice through, reading it from the music, with the metronome on.
2.    Now, without looking at the music, think the passage through once at tempo (i.e., keep the metronome on).
3.    Play the passage once more while reading the music, noting anything that you forgot or didn’t know when you thought it through.
4.    Look away from the music, and think the passage at tempo another two times.

Total:  six times, three times playing from the music, three times thinking it through without the music

Second stage:  learning the passage physically

1.    Play the passage twice through, reading it from the music, with the metronome on.
2.    Now, without looking at the music, play the passage once through at tempo (keep the metronome on).
3.    Play the passage once more while reading the music, noting anything that you forgot or didn’t know when you thought it through.
4.    Look away from the music, and play the passage at tempo another two times.

Total:  six times through, three times playing from the music, three times playing from memory

Grand total:  twelve times through

For a slow passage, one or two times through this whole process is often enough to get it memorized.  Even if this process takes less than 10 minutes, I only do it one time through in a single practice session.  I come back to it the next day if I feel the passage needs another cycle through the memorization process.

For a fast passage that is technically challenging, here’s my routine:

  1. First I do the whole process, all twelve repetitions, at a slow tempo (often a tempo even slower than where I would start if I were merely working on the passage technically)
  2. Then I work on the passage using Metronome Trick No. 1, and at every tempo level I do the following:
  3. a.    One time through mentally, at tempo
    b.    Two times through playing while reading
    c.    One time through playing from memory
    d.    One time through playing while reading
    e.    Two times through playing from memory

Basically, at each tempo level you go through the passage once mentally, and then go through the entire second stage of memorization.

If you would like a cheat sheet that lists the basic steps of this memorization technique, here it is: memorization-cheat-sheet (click to download as a pdf).

As you try this technique, know that your skill with it will develop slowly, but it will improve over time. If at first you don’t succeed, try again with a shorter section of music.  There have been occasions (most notably complicated music like the Ibert Concerto) when I have memorized one beat at a time!

I find that working from memory is like developing any other skill—it gets easier as you get more proficient.  Your memory, just like your muscles, can be ‘in shape,’ and when it is, memorization happens faster.  And when you’re just starting, you need to start with small units, just as you would start with small weights for your first day at the gym.

NOTE:  This is the first in a series of articles about memorization.  If there are any particular aspects of working from memory that are of interest to you, or you have questions about the techniques I share, please leave a comment below, and I will endeavor to answer those questions in future posts.

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12 Comments to

“How I Memorize Music”

  1. On April 16th, 2009 at 1:22 pm Helen Says:

    [I tried to post this a few days ago, before I made the comment to the Metronome Trick No. 1 -must not have gone through]

    It’s great you are willing to share your ideas like this. I have also kept a notebook on and off for several years, but you have taken the art to a new level!

    I like your ideas about memorization and will definitely try them out! My next concert will be partially from memory and my memory is very out of practice. Glad to have some inspiration.

  2. On May 19th, 2009 at 5:25 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » Memorization & Working Memory Says:

    [...] I’d like to explain a bit about how my memorization technique works. [...]

  3. On May 25th, 2009 at 11:28 pm jamijo Says:

    Thank you so much for posting this — coming back to complete my undergrad in music ed after a 7-year break from school and having my violin teacher treating me like a performance major (not that I’m complaining) has left me scrambling to try to find practice techniques that work. I’ve been applying this memorization concept to practicing both piano and violin, and have been impressed with how well it works.

    I do have a question about this, though… maybe it’s something that will be coming up in a future post, but I figured I’d ask anyway. I can see where memorizing in small chunks is much more effective than trying to memorize larger parts of a piece, but how do you approach stitching them all together, and how do you avoid stumbling where the sections begin and end?

    Thanks again for the wonderful practice process and performance insights–I have your blog on my favorites list and look forward to each week’s post!!

    –Jami K.

  4. On May 26th, 2009 at 5:46 pm admin Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Jami, and I’m so glad to know this is working for you. I am planning to address pulling it all together in a future post, but in the meantime:

    How you stitch the small sections together depends a little bit on how small they are, and how well you already know the piece. If the sections are full or half phrases, a little study away from the instrument (studying the form of the piece as a whole) might be all it takes. If the sections are very small, you might have to go through the process a second time with larger chunks (I once memorized some very complicated music one bar at a time, then went back and did it two bars at a time, then four bars at a time…)

    If it is a piece you know previously from listening to it a lot, or playing it with the music, you will probably find that studying slightly larger sections (like the exposition, or half the development section…) will be enough to stitch together your memorized small chunks. For pieces that you are learning for the first time as you memorize them, considerably more study will be involved.

    As much as possible, I like to do that kind of study mentally, away from the instrument, to avoid the temptation to test myself and thus to add anxiety into the process.

    This is a pretty big topic! I hope these bits tide you over until I can approach this stage of the process in a more complete way.

    Let me know how it goes.

  5. On February 25th, 2010 at 12:15 pm Practice Tips @ “The Practice Notebook” blog Says:

    [...] teachers actually teach how to memorize.  I am thrilled to find this blog that lays out a specific step-by-step method.  I am taking her suggestions to heart as I prepare my piano pieces for my midterm next [...]

  6. On February 26th, 2010 at 2:00 am Carrie Says:

    Hi Zara,
    Thanks so much for the time you put into this. do you think this method would work for young students (7 – 12 years old) as well?

  7. On February 26th, 2010 at 10:22 am admin Says:


    I would guess so, though they might need quite a bit of supervision on choosing small sections, and some guidance on the thinking part. I find it interesting that sometimes I think analytically (noting what all the intervals are, for example), sometimes I think of the note names, sometimes I narrate to myself (this is the part with the big crescendo…), and various organic combinations of those ways and others. Younger kids might benefit from guided questioning from you: “what are you seeing when you think this passage? what are you hearing?” and reminders to try and memorize everything–the dynamics, articulations, interpretation as well as just the notes. I’m working on this method with an adult student and a 14 year old at the moment, and have not used it with anyone younger yet. Let me know how it goes for you!

  8. On March 4th, 2010 at 5:22 pm tony Says:

    Hello Zara:

    Do you actually see the notes subconsiously when you are playing.


  9. On March 4th, 2010 at 5:32 pm admin Says:

    Well, sometimes…mostly I think of the note names, and a sort of “narrative” of the music (“this is the part where it goes up a Major 6th, and then ends on the dominant…this is the part with the long crescendo and ascending scale…make sure to change the color here…”). I don’t have a photographic memory–I can’t read the music in my head. But I do have a mental-visual framework–usually where a certain passage is on the page, and it’s general shape on the page.

    The idea behind my memorization technique is that it is a way to structure the process of memorization, but that within that framework, any way of learning the music will do. If you think analytically, visually, aurally, intervalically, use note names or solfege, or some combination of those (and any other) ways, the structure of repetitions should still be a useful one to follow.

  10. On March 5th, 2010 at 11:20 am tony Says:

    Thanks for your reply

  11. On November 13th, 2010 at 10:34 pm Quint Randle Says:

    This is great. I’ve read through this and other techniques on your blog and they are working. No my question is how should I go about prepping for a show where I have to fully memorize 17 songs. A lot of them I already know, but about half of them I totally have memorized and know. The other half I’m either starting or there are big spots that I don’t have memorized. So I guess my question is, let’s say, tonight I learned 2 new pieces and have them “memorized” tonight. And can play them all the way through. So tomorrow, what kind of a cycling through them system to you recommend. I can’t do all 17 every day… She I keep practicing the chunks that I didn’t know… Or should a play an entire song every other day or ???? So it’s not just stitching them together, strategy for memorizing an entire show’s worth of material. And this from a 51-year-old!!!


  12. On February 4th, 2011 at 8:10 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » Memorizing a Whole Program Says:

    [...] I received a question from a reader about memorizing a whole program.  (You can read his question at the bottom of this post).  He is learning 17 songs. He noted that it was not possible to cover each every day, and asked [...]

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