Developing a Mnemonic System for Music

I’ve been thinking about ideas for developing a mnemonic system for music.

Images for Notes

I'm thinking that each node will get a sound based on solfege. My guitar teacher once told me to use a "fixed do" system. He is a brilliant, so I'm going to take him on his word. The only problem with the traditional "fixed do" system is that it doesn't distinguish the accidentals. C is "do" and so is "C♯".

One workaround would be to use one of the chromatic variants or the syllables from “movable do”.

One other interesting idea that I would like to incorporate is hand signs (kinesthetic memory). In the beginning stages of learning the Ben System, I was using hand signs in my number system, where a certain hand movement indicated a vowel sound. I just came across this interesting concept from Curwen/Kodály:

Curwen hand signs

Hand signs, also borrowed from the teachings of Curwen, are performed during singing exercises to provide a visual aid. This technique assigns to each scale degree a hand sign that shows its particular tonal function. For example, do, mi, and so are stable in appearance, whereas fa and ti point in the direction of mi and do, respectively. Likewise, the hand sign for re suggests motion to do, and that of la to so. Kodály added to Curwen’s hand signs upward/downward movement, allowing children to actually see the height or depth of the pitch (Wheeler 1985:15). The signs are made in front of the body, with do falling about at waist level and la at eye level. Their distance in space corresponds with the size of the interval they represent (Choksy 1999:14).

Here are some other explanations of the method:

Images for Rhythm

Kodály also had rhythm solmization:
The Kodály Method incorporates rhythm syllables similar to those created by nineteenth-century French theoretician Emile-Joseph Chêvé (Choksy 1999:16). In this system, note values are assigned specific syllables that express their durations (12). For example, quarter notes are expressed by the syllable ta while eighth note pairs are expressed using the syllables ti-ti. Larger note values are expressed by extending ta to become ta-a or "ta-o" (half note), ta-a-a or "ta-o-o" (dotted half note), and ta-a-a-a or "ta-o-o-o" (whole note) (Wheeler 1985:13). These syllables are then used when sight-reading or otherwise performing rhythms.

Here are some examples:

I think that giving names to unknown concepts helps to increase understanding of them. I was going to apply my Ben System syllables to rhythmic notation, but I might just use Kodály’s method.

Images for Intervals and Chords

I’m thinking of making images for each interval. Chords may be more complicated. I’m not sure whether images based in figured bass would work.

These are a few of the ideas I’ve been thinking about, but the system hasn’t been built yet. If anyone has any ideas, please leave a comment… :slight_smile:



What is the purpose of this memorisation? What do you want to do with it?

I am learning piano and definitely a mature age student :slight_smile: A lot of things
I need to remember are a combination of muscle memory, aural memory and a little bit of thinking
about harmony.

A big challenge for me is to “memorise” a piano piece so I can play it without
needing the music. Such a task is a combination of skills but I haven’t made a
lot of progress yet.

Other mnemonics for memorising music I have used are:

Given a key signature to work out the key:

  1. If the key signature consists of sharps, the key is the next note above
    the last sharp. For example, 3 sharps F C G, therefore A major
  2. If the key signature consists of flats, the key is the second last flat.
    For example, a key signature of B E A flat will be E flat major
  3. The sequence of sharps and the sequence of flats are the same but in reverse.
    scales sharps: F C G D A E B
    scales with flats in key sig; B E A D G C F

Music is very mathematical so first look for the underlying structure or pattern.


I’ve played guitar for most of my life. Music is what I was going to do with my life until I got a hand injury.

I can’t play music, but understanding music is one of my goals in life.

I was going to save this idea for a blog post but here it is: :slight_smile:

Because I can’t use my hands for much, I have an idea to learn something I’m calling “mental performance”, where music is performed entirely by visualization in the imagination, without an instrument.

If you play a song and no one else hears it, does it matter that only you heard it? It’s for personal development and enjoyment. I don’t think there is much difference between mentally performing a piece and physically performing it, if the visualization is strong enough.

The first piece I want to memorize/visualize is the Sarabande from Bach’s first keyboard Partita (as performed by Wanda Landowska on harpsichord, which isn’t online, but you can hear a different version here). It is constantly running through my head, but there are pieces missing from my memory and I’m unsure about certain notes.

Guitar version:

If I am someday able to play again, I’m hoping that the “mental performance” will keep my music skills progressing. If I never play again, I think this exercise will still help me achieve my goal of understanding music… :slight_smile:

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Josh, et al;

This is an area of interest that I also have some expertise in. I will put together a longer post when I have time to organize my thoughts. First I think this area of mnemonic study is one of the most functional uses for technique and one that is the most needed.
The solfege (do, re, mi etc) and the rhythm symbols should be helpful for chunking since ideally a piece of music should be poured out as a single entity.

My only suggestion would be to use a moveable do system. My reasons are simple. A moveable do system allows you to understand and internalize the functionality of each note in a key and each chord in a key. Do always sounds like “home” but c is not always the “home” note. Moveable do also allows for the ability to transpose easily from one key to another. If I know that the first notes of “twinkle twinkle little star” are do-do-sol-sol-la-la-sol I can now play that in any key having practiced my scales on the instrument of my choice.

Josh, I think you are really on to something thinking about mental performance. I believe that by training your brain to code and remember music you will be way ahead of the game when you can play again. Which I hope will be soon

This is a decision that I’m not 100% sure about, but I’m leaning toward fixed do.

I’ve heard about the benefits of moveable do and relative pitch… but the guitar teacher I took lessons with said that he (and his teachers Ghiglia, and probably Segovia) used fixed do. I don’t know his exact reasoning (other than in Italian and Spanish, “do, re, mi …” are the actual names of the notes), but he apparently has perfect pitch so it might have something to do with that.

Check this out:

Rimsky-Korsakov synesthetically experienced colors for musical keys (musical keys →color). For example, for him, the key of C major was white, and the key of B major was a gloomy dark blue with a steel shine.

And this:

Amy’s mother encouraged her to relate melodies to the colors blue, pink, or purple, but before long Amy had a wider range of colors, which she associated with certain major keys. Thus C was white, F# black, E yellow, G red, A green, Ab blue, Db violet or purple, and Eb pink. Until the end of her life she associated these colors with those keys.


The only thing aural synesthetes agree upon are the same things that non-synesthetes agree upon: low notes are dark, high notes light, soft notes dim, loud notes bright.


I am inclined to synaesthetic perception. I associate sounds with colours and shapes. Like Rimbaud, I feel that all letters have a colour.” “Major chords are red or pink, minor chords are somewhere between green and brown. I do not have perfect pitch, so when I say that C minor has a rusty red-brown colour and D minor is brown this does not come from the pitch but from the letters C and D. I think it must go back to my childhood. I find, for instance, that numbers also have colours; 1 is steely grey, 2 is orange, 5 is green. At some point these associations must have got fixed, perhaps I saw the green number 5 on a stamp or on a shop sign. But there must be some collective associations too. For most people the sound of a trumpet is probably yellow although I find it red because of its shrillness ...

Duke Ellington:

I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.

I don’t think that the people are necessarily born with these things; it’s just a different way of thinking.

I’m wondering if having fixed images for specific pitches will have any effect on being able to distinguish a pitch. Mnemonic images for numbers and cards are a kind of artificial synesthesia, so maybe there will be some interesting result when applying it to music. It’s an experiment… :slight_smile:

I read a study where people who imagined lifting a weight performed better at a task than people who didn’t. They thought that the visualization was training the brain part of the action. I’m hoping that applies to music too…

Just reading Josh’s posts above led me down several different thought paths. This is a huge topic. The idea of mentally playing music is fascinating and might make for a great learning tool in to the pleasure that you’d get out of it.

I’m a bluegrass musician (guitar, banjo, bass) and am teaching in a couple of weeks at the California Bluegrass Association music camp in Grass Valley, CA. I’m teaching singing, but I offered to do an elective afternoon class on “How to Remember a Song.” I’ve never seen that done before at a music camp. I’m going to concentrate mostly on remembering lyrics by using the loci method and by making the lyrics what I’m calling the 3 Vs - visual, vivid, and virtual. In other words, make the words concrete, make them vivid by mentally experiencing the images sensorially, and the virtual by creating a journey or story with them. Then placing those images along a path in loci.

I thought I’d also have ways of remembering what key they sing a song in, and also figuring out what tone of the scale the first note is on and what the first couple of intervals are. For instance, the interval of a sixth is how “My bonnie lies over the ocean starts” - the “My bon-” part. Most people can sing that so if you have a song that starts with that interval that can help you remember that interval.

I’ve never taught memory techniques before, so if anyone has any advice or any other thoughts on remembering lyrics and melody, please respond here. It’s a fascinating topic.


Ah yes the perfect pitch vs. relative pitch argument. Remember that Europeans mostly learn a fixed do and Americans usually use a movable do. I do not have perfect pitch and so movable do works for me better than fixed because without an instrument I have no idea what key I’m singing in anyway.

People have claimed to be able to develop perfect pitch but I really think that a well trained ear that can hear intervals, rhythms, chords etc is a far better mental tool.

cv–great ideas on your bluegrass tutorial. I wish I could come I have always wanted to be able to play the banjo. Check out this book the idea is to be able to identify any note against a home note. So if you know that you are in DM and do is d (in movable do) then you learn to identify every note in relationship to it. Good luck

A couple notes on what I hope will continue to be a fascinating discussion:

  1. Perfect pitch is trainable, as it turns out. Not just perfect relative pitch, but perfect pitch. You can learn to isolate one pitch perfectly, then train perfect relative pitch to that, and go from there.

  2. Remember always that not all modes of music are comprehensible as a line/melody with various kinds of bassline, accompaniment, etc. You’ll never make any sense of Beethoven that way, for example.

  3. To memorize pre-20th C. music, it seems to me that you’d have to set up a vast system of fundamental chords as basic images. Between guitar tablature and harmonic notation there are lots of keys about how to do this. Then you’d have to figure out the best way to chunk sequences of such images, which wouldn’t flow neatly in twos or threes because of rhythmic variation. Perhaps you’d run a system of twos or threes against some other structure that tied them to your loci (or whatever sequential system) in order to produce a sort of primitive basis? I don’t know – but it does seem to me very strongly that memorizing a J.S. Bach fugue is never going to submit to quite the same rules as memorizing a Beethoven concerto, much less a Mahler symphony.

I think the brain has a great aural memory, so if one could memorize the basic structure, aural memory could take over from there…

I didn’t know that perfect pitch is trainable, but that sounds promising. :slight_smile:

I heard about a prisoner of war, who was a golfer, played a round everyday as a captive, but it was all in his imagination. After his release, he shot in the 70’s his first round.

That sound promising for the mental performance idea… :slight_smile:

I believe the evidence for developing absolute pitch through training is very dubious. If there are cases the phenomenon would almost certainly be much shakier, less reliable, and easier to fool than that of someone who has experienced absolute pitch since childhood.
I think tabsolute pitch is a very useful mnemonic tool, in that it allows for one extra set of powerful associations that most of us can’t make, a bit like an extra sense, especially when the person with absolute pitch can identify every single note in a complex chord.
Those with absolute pitch must also work at their relative pitch–since relative pitch is another powerful mnemonic tool and a fundamental esthetic quality in music; relative pitch can be easily trained in everyone, but those with absolute pitch may not always train their relative pitch as diligently.

I would like to learn techniques to memorize music more easily, to be able to perform with greater confidence, and also to learn pieces quickly by ear, and by looking at printed music away from an instrument.

I think this requires lots of intensive practice with ear training…

Then, I wonder about a mnemonic system such as a loci system, like a familiar path, with chunked music figures stored along the way, with rising figures having a certain height, chords being stacks of boxes each with a familiar shape, trills etc. being decorations in the trees, specific fixed pitches having a particular fixed image (e.g. A different over learned color or object for each of the 12 pitches, maybe with some other attachment to the image for higher or lower octaves). Maybe there could be specific images for other frequent melodic fragments (most of us could remember dozens of these, such as children’s tunes) easily. The more music theory one learns the more you could use that to chunk your memory more efficiently, and understand the music more deeply at the same time. E.g. Having imagery associated with modulation, typical harmonic progressions etc.

I have been doing a lot of work with music. A couple of thoughts occur to me.

Think carefully about the opportunity cost of trying to develop perfect pitch. Most great musicians do not have perfect pitch. If you play an instrument, your time is probably better spent practicing your instrument.

Regarding memorizing musical pieces, remember that music is mnemonic by nature. That’s why we get earworms. Do you need another mnemonic to attach to a melodic phrase? Maybe for some modern, atonal music…

One way to memorize a piece is to create overlapping items in a spaced repetition program, like Anki:

Q: Twinkle twinkle litte star.
A: How I wonder what you are.

Q: How I wonder what you are.
A: Up above the clouds so high.

Here I have used lyrics, but you could use the melody. You could create sound clips using the record function in Anki, or use a program like The Amazing Slow Downer to cut a large piece into many small pieces. The only problem is that this can be a cumbersome process. The quick and dirty way would be to just make a recording of yourself humming the melody prompt, and then record yourself humming the melody answer.

By the way, the method above is a great way to memorize lyrics. I combine this type of spaced repetition with mnemonic images. It works good.

Finally, question your guitar teacher. If he cannot adequately explain the superiority of “fixed do”, you need to make up your own mind. A lot of great musicians get to be great by brute force–just putting in a lot of hours. Then they teach students who do the same thing. They may not actually know much about learning efficiently.

I have been thinking about this same thing in a couple ways.

I have recently memorized some melodies using a free associative technique, where each note expression is the syllable of a word. Thus the melody also has a meta-story that reflects somewhat the mood of the piece. I find this to work really well for me, but I tend to make short repetitive songs out of almost anything I study. This is that same process in reverse.

I have been thinking about expanding this into a type of “Major” system, by utilizing the current note letters as the first letters in words. ie, a melody of C - E - D could become Cat Eats Dog and sung that way. I expanded this so that C# could be words like CaSH or CaCHE or CaTCH, etc. D# would be DiTCH or DaSH. Bb would be BaFFLe. The obvious problem with this is the limitation of words for notes with accidentals.

So what I’ve been thinking is just assigning different phonemes for the accidentals and memorizing those in order to more effectively freestyle a meaningful song. That would also allow for making good multi-syllable words to span multiple notes in a melody. This method is linear, which is fine for me as the melody often implies the chords through harmonic rules and preference and I’m not working for rote memorization of classical works. Below is what I’ve got so far: It follows a similar logic to Gregg shorthand in it’s association of the letters F and V, B and P and other structurally similar phonemes, with the exception of K as it seems easier to associate with the note C.

C: s, k, nk (if in a syllable transition)
C#/Db: ch, j, sh
D: d, t
D#/Eb: th
E: e, u
F: f, v
G: g, ng (if in a syllable transition)
G#/Ab: n, m
A: a, o
A#/Bb: h
B: b, p

So the way that I’m using this is by ignoring whether the melody rises or falls and only worrying about the first letter of a word being representative of a pitch unless another pitch yields a next syllable that fits easily in a word. That way the melody can change with a syllable. This could also be used in reverse to automatically mnemonize phrases and sentences, though it would be somewhat atonal.

the C Harmonic Minor scale could be this:
C D Eb F G Ab B C
CeDar THieVing GeNie Burns Cat

Another method I’ve used is a solfege version of gregg shorthand to make steganographic representations of parts of songs. This can be sequential and represent harmony very easily and can be expanded to include a form of rhythm notation. I can send you an image example of this, just let me know. I don’t find it to be as effective for my form of memory, but it does allow me to sit with an image in my head that represents a lot of info.

I know you wrote this last year, but I’m wondering if you became operational with the system you described. (I am just becoming semi-operational with a simple major system for numbers, so I’m pretty much a beginner with these kinds of systems).

I have been struggling to figure out what I can employ for the Irish Traditional music I play, where I have to cover a repertoire of thousands of tunes. I just have to cover about 3 octives, a minimal number of sharps/flats, and single tone melody. What I am looking for is a very simple system for remembering mostly the starts of A and B parts. I’ve tried using sentence mnenomics, as you suggest, but they seem too hard?

I was thinking of a PAO system, along, perhaps, with some shorthand things for rolls or arpeggios. Have you or anyone else seen or investigated PAO-type systems for music melody? I am imagining a PAO system set upon mini journies over the staff lines that kind of contains a landscape that fits the tune (for Mist Covered Mountain, for example, I might envision a staff that is kind of misty and mountainous, that contains the PAO stories).

So I’ve used a slight variation of this system since writing this. If I need to remember a melody, I will use similar system to the one model above, but instead of trying to make the words strictly conform to a melody, I will have a one note to one word assignment that only affects the beginning of the word.

For example: C C# E could be “So CHeck Up” where only the first syllable is important in each word.

I find this is much easier to build meaningful sentences. If you try this out, let me know how it works for you. It tends to work really well for me, but there is a certain time commitment to it, for sure, in that you have to process a melody. If I record myself singing the “song” I wrote then listen to it a few times, it’s no problem for me to recall it anytime.

If you’d like the newer model I wrote, let me know and I’ll post it here. It’s more strictly based on the mnemonic major system.

> If you’d like the newer model I wrote, let me know and I’ll post it here. It’s more strictly based on the mnemonic major system.

Yes, please.

I’ve been experementing with a PAO system varient. Remembering that I’m essentially working within some simplifying constraints of irish tunes on the flute (tunes tend to be in D or A, not too many accidentals, mainly kept to two octives, and, for my purposes, it’s only meant to be a rough reminder, not a notation system):


This develops kind of a fixed vocabulary to quickly form stories from notes. I’ve tried to make the lower register distinguished from the upper. So I would use this as PAAO to form little stories for the first couple of measures of the A and maybe B parts, for reels and hornpipes (with 4/4 time signatures). I would use it as a PAO (dropping the adjective) for 6/8 jigs and the like. So, for the Munster Grass hornpipe, I might simply remember:

Guy Boils Dark Goat
Barry Boils Amarinth Bear

Which would be enough to kick off my auditory and and muscle memory.

The downside of this is I’m not sure these “stories” are uniquely memorable enough. I’d also like to figure out a way to tie these note stories to the visual mnenomics for the tune titles. So, I have a memory palace in which I store tunes. For Munster Grass I have a visual of Herman Munster (from the TV show) with chia grass growing on his head. Ideally I’d like to be able to launch from that image to the note mnenomics, but I haven’t succeeded in figuring out how to fit that complex story of people boiling animals around that.

What I’m thinking is that I could use a ‘quick’ vocabulary per my table, and then alter it to have more complex or compact representations as I worked on making the mnemonic more memorable.

I’ve also thought about using the strict major system with integer representations re the first column of my table, which are based on That would be essentially just memorising numbers, and would entail making the leap from number to note. With enough practice, this might be ok, and would mean that all I would have to use is my regular PAO system (perhaps with a PAAO varient0. It would have the added advantage of being complete in terms of sharps/flats and octives, and would be relativily easy to use to change key.

Anyhow, experimenting and brainstorming. Interested in anyone’s thoughts.

I’m in the process of reassessing my methods, but I’ll post what I have below. It has some flaws, mainly that it would be nice if the note value B corresponded to the letter B, but oh well.

The application I’m writing is a memory kingdom with 121 palaces, each subdivided into 11 rooms and indexed up to the 11th power of each palace number. Each room of each palace is indexed and each palace represents an 11 verse “poem” built from the mnemonic major system. The mnemonic major music system below sets each palace poem to a short song. In this system, I don’t assign Bb or F#, mainly due to wanting to avoid being entirely atonal in the rendering of the song. The songs will hang the words out to be long enough to accommodate the melody and I imagine it will have a jazz-theory monk’s sensibilities. I put a couple of the melodies below to give a brief idea. I’m writing a program to output the melodies so I don’t make mistakes with it, as there’s a lot of chances to do that.

A friend criticized the difficulty of this palace, but I’m thinking of it more as mental minecraft and the making of a song form. I have this thought of an absorptive palace, where concepts become sync’d up with an emotional reaction to a verse and then become “absorbed in the walls” so to speak. Each palace has a resident set of “demons.” For example, palace #1 has 11 Spiders in various costumes and dispositions and they interact with the object or concept I’m holding there. I’m using these palaces to memorize programming language, math and physics things mostly, so the abstractness of it is pretty fun.

I know the use case is quite different from yours, but perhaps there’s an idea in the chart below that will help. That being said, I have found my best music memorization to come from just assigning words to the melody and singing a recording of it. It’s almost impossible for me to not remember it that way.

0 - C -s, z, soft c

  • C#
    1 - D -t, d, th
    2 - D# -n
    3 - E -m
    4 - F -r
  • F#
    5 - G -l
    6 - G# -j, sh, ch (as in cheese), soft g
    7 - A -k, c (as in cat), hard g, ch (as in loch), q
    8 - Bb -f, v
    9 - B -p, b

Palace # 96 The Palace of Aging

[96] Push
B -G#
[9216] Bend Age
B D# D G#
[884736] Favor Come Shy
[84934656] For Beam or Show Lush
[8153726976] Foetal Muck on Jib, Ache Hush
[782757789696] Coven, Cool Kick of Hope, Ship Joy
[75144747810816] Cold Rare Cure, Covet Safety Hush
[7213895789838336] Count Me Fable Cave by Fame of my image
[692533995824480256] Ash Being, Loamy Mob, Pale Fine Air, Ray Face on Leash
[66483263599150104576] Judge or Fume, No Shame, Leap Up to Last Surreal Queue, Eschew
[6382393305518410039296] Gem Fin Hem Be My Muse, Lull Tougher Tosses, my Puny Push

Oh wow! I really love the poem that came out of it! Though, I’m not sure I really understand the entirity of what you’re doing with your palace of 11… are the poems to memorize songs, or are the songs to “memorize programming language, math and physics things”.

Did you hand-craft that poem, or did the program you’re writing do that? Interesting idea to craft a program to output them from notes, if that’s what you did.

Anyway, thanks for the exposition. Really fascinating!

The poems are a way to have an implicit indexing system built out of the powers of 11. It makes a Peg system/Memory Palace in which to store compsci, math and physics stuff. I admit it’s much more work than necessary to house the information, but it’s an interesting process for me. The poem is hand-crafted, but the word choices are limited by the numbers, so there’s a built in limitation with composition. I could write something to generate “potential” words, but I want the opportunity to think outside what the script will immediately offer.

I wrote a couple scripts to output the number sets for the powers of 11 and to tie them to their associated letters in the mnemonic major system. I did that mostly so I wouldn’t make mistakes. After that, I double and triple check everything when I’m filling in the verses. I could write a script to check for that too, but I think I’m being meticulous enough.

I have a musical palace of the periodic table, as that is already a Peg System. It’s set to an erik satie piece.

I might want to build a writing program one day. The first automatic writing program I saw was in 1999, and it was pretty cool, even if the output was totally obtuse. There are a lot of interesting ones out there right now though. My current favorite is the artist statement generator. It is truly genius.

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