Describe to Memorize

I’m reading a book on Piano Technique at the moment. One of the big things Gieseking and Leimer were big on was visualization and mental practice that’s done concurrently with physical practice.

Gieseking and Leimer also give some fairly detailed advice on memorization. I’ve written on this briefly before, but one way to memorize something is to describe it to yourself. Make sense of all those notes on a page by grouping them into coherent chunks. The key is to make them meaningful. Describing a piece to yourself is a way of reinforcing memorization, and can lead to a more secure performance. This could mean saying the chord names or using roman numerals if that works for you. Or it could be more simple. Let’s look at some Bach. This is taken from the first cello suite’s prelude (BWV 1007).

Bach's First Cello Suite, m29-30
Bach's First Cello Suite, m29-30

Instead of viewing this as a huge cluster of notes. We could say that the bass notes are always A, on beats two and four and in half notes. That takes care of one voice, and we can commit it to memory very quickly.

The top voice is a series of scales within the key area (D major)–there are no accidentals to mess us up. The first scale is from G to A, then G to G, then F to F. Really it’s a sequence of one octave scales in which the highest note of each moves down stepwise (Bach doesn’t give us the high A in measure 29 though!). Measure 31 starts with a descending scales beginning on E, but quickly moves away. So we’ve only memorized the outer notes of each scale, leaving the rest to be filled in easily enough.

In this description, I’ve done nothing more than talk about the contour on the page, but it takes the notes and puts them into the context of patterns. No theory knowledge required! Try this out next time you’re having trouble memorizing.

Have any memorization tips? Leave them in the comments!

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship


  • Matt Warnock

    Great article. Breaking down the music is a very valuable practice resource that unfortunately doesn’t always get the most attention from teachers and students. A lot of the time people just look at the individual notes, or the whole piece, but learning in chunks can really maker things easier.

    Keep the great articles coming!