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Memorizing Complex Music: Basic First Steps

So often, we memorize music by playing a piece (or passage) over and over again. This simple technique might work well for some people or for particular pieces of music. However, in my experience, once I am onstage and my nerves have been activated, this passive method of memorization does not withstand the pressures of performing, especially when the music is complex. If I haven’t used several methodical approaches to memorize the work, I am in greater danger of having a memory slip.

Today, I’m going to focus on some techniques to use during the beginning stages of memorization. The following three-measure passage, which is from Karim Al-Zand’s Capriccio (2009), is perfect for demonstrating effective tools to use when memorizing a complex passage:

Step One: Analyze the Structure of the Passage

The first step is to analyze the structure of the passage. Everyone will notice something slightly different when examining the passage. The following observations happen to work for me, but use the observations that resonate with you.

My first observation is that the selected passage is a sequence: the unit to be sequenced is one measure long, and it moves upward by a minor third. This means that once I have memorized the first measure, I can more easily memorize the second and third measures:

My second observation is that the bass line outlines an octatonic scale. As I am playing the passage, I can prioritize the outline of the octatonic scale, thereby guiding my ears and fingers:

My third observation is that the passage alternates between a major triad in first inversion and a major minor seventh chord in second inversion. This is a more complicated observation that, while helpful during the initial stages of memorization, will need to be bolstered by muscle memory as tempo increases. (In other words, I won't have time to think too much!):

Step Two: Break It Down

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of memorizing a long work or even a demanding phrase. The best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to break the passage down into smaller, easily digestible units. In the given phrase, I am able to absorb only the first measure at first.

Step Three: Repeat Four Times

I have chosen to work only on the first measure for now, so I am going to play the first measure four different ways:

1. Play SLOWLY while looking at the music! As I'm playing, I take in all that I can about the shape and structure of the measure (see observations above).

2. Play the same measure slowly, this time not looking at the music.

3. Play measure faster looking at the music.

4. Play measure faster not looking at the music.

I then repeat step three with the second measure.

Step Four: Sew the Patches Together

After I have memorized measures one and two separately, I go back and repeat step three with both measures, thereby weaving them together. I then memorize measure three using the technique outlined in step three and subsequently sew together the entire three-measure sequence.

The Icing on the Cake: Be Musical:)

There is so much to think about when memorizing: the notes, the rhythms, the fingerings, the bowings, etc. As a result, we often forget to play musically. Unfortunately, neglecting dynamics, articulations, and colors at the beginning of the process can delay our progress later. So I challenge myself to play musically throughout steps three and four, even when I'm playing very slowly.


While I chose a rather complex and challenging passage, these techniques can be applied to memorizing almost any piece of music. The journey of memorizing a piece can be long, and the above are only initial steps. In my next post, I will explore additional techniques that can be used to solidify memory.

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