Performing music from memory

Performing music from memory means knowing a piece of music well enough to be able to play or sing it without the written music.

Although some people can learn music by ear, most people who are taught to play musical instruments learn new pieces by reading the printed music which is in front of them on a music stand. When someone has learned to play a piece of music well enough to perform it, it is good if they can learn to play it without the printed music. This is called “playing from memory” or “playing by heart”. When a musician is practising a piece of music so that it can be played from memory this is called memorizing the music.

Most Classical musicians will agree that it is good to play from memory when performing as a soloist. It means that the player understands the music really well, and he is able to concentrate completely on the way he plays the music (the interpretation). In some music competitions the competitors are expected to play from memory. A pianist playing a recital will usually play everything from memory. It is particularly important for singers who are performing songs (Lieder) to sing without music because they can then communicate directly with the audience using the expression on their faces. Some conductors conduct from memory. If they do, they ought to know every single note for every single instrument from memory. There are some conductors who have such amazing memories that they can do this.

Some people find it easier to memorize music than others. There are different ways of practising to help memorize music: by memorizing a few bars at a time, by studying the printed music away from the instrument, or by “thinking” through the piece away from the instrument.

Some people have a “photographic memory” and can see in their mind the music as printed on the paper. Some people rely on aural memory (hearing it in one’s imagination). There is also muscular memory (the fingers "knowing" what to do). Probably most people use some combination of all these methods.

When people perform from memory they are often worried that they might have a memory lapse (forget how the music goes). It can happen, of course, even to the greatest musicians. The famous violinist Bronislaw Huberman and the pianist Eugen d’Albert were once performing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Both were playing from memory. One of them kept going wrong in the same place, playing something that had happened earlier, so that they played the middle bit three times before eventually managing to finish the piece. However, this is quite common, and can happen to anyone.

People who learn musical instruments should try to memorize some of their pieces. Many famous musicians have a large repertoire (a collection) of pieces that they can play from memory.

Sources change

"Pianoforte Diplomas" by Geoffrey Tankard (Sevenoaks 1973)