Memorizing Piano Sheet Music

When I searched I found there is some interest in memorizing music here. There seemed to be a lot of ideas not put to the test. Has anyone figured out more? I’m specifically interested in sheet music for piano.

I have a big goal of learning and memorizing Chopin’s Ballade No. 1:

Here are examples of the sheet music:

And a more complex one

My first idea was turning each of the 88 piano keys into numbers. After learning this you would have them to reflex level, so you instantly know where all the numbers are located. Then you turn all the notes into numbers and memorize them in a loci in sequence, for each separate hands.

This would be quite many numbers. A rough estimation gives me 400-600 digits for both hands for one page. So for this piece around 5000 digits. This approach would not take into account what value the notes have. You would also need a way of separating notes that should be played simultaneously or not.

What you could do to make it more manageable is to learn a page at a time. So you have a 400-500 digit number in your head to represent the notes on the first page. Just practice it again and again until it goes from short term memory to long term (muscle memory basically), then scrap the loci’s clean and move on to the next page/section. Maybe?

You point to the fact that this will take up a lot of loci space. I’m not sure if I like the idea of wiping clean once mastered. I have had dozens of pieces memorized with just repetition, and they are all forgotten if not practiced regularly. Will probably stick better if memorized and then wiped, but not wiped at all sounds better. I do have a system that gives me a lot of storage space.

About distinguishing between a chord (multiple notes at the same time) and a single note it would be possible if you do like this:
single notes = three digit number system
chords = two digit number system (not three to allow only two notes also)

But this is a very tedious way of doing it (memorizing every single note).

Josh and others, you will probably find this interesting:

I don’t really see the difference. If you memorize a piece by rote repetition, you need to practice it often or else you’ll lose it. Same with if you use some memory technique, you’ll still need to review the mnemonic device so you don’t lose it as well. So actually NOT wiping the loci clean is kind of a waste of memory space.

Anyways, memorizing note for note is probably slow as hell and not worth it at all. An idea I had once was instead, to focus on images for either the movement or shape of your fingers for certain chords or runs. I did this when learning Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2, some of the chords are huge and contort your hand a bit, so I would just remember the chords that way.

Another idea might be to, at least for the right hand melodies, capture the sound of certain phrases as an image. If it’s a long chromatic run upwards say, maybe picture someone climbing a staircase - you can link an image for the letter of the note so you know where it begins.

Dunno, just talking aloud. I’ve been asked so many times how to memorize music and it’s pretty embarrassing because it’s probably the ONLY type of information that I am horrendous at memorizing. I never have a good answer.

Maybe you are right, maybe not. Maybe the wiping deletes connections that would otherwise function to improve long term memory even if not reviewed (and if your gonna play it again you have them there for you). But another advantage with not wiping would be the fact that you could more thoroughly train the piece mentally (when you are on the bus or whatever). Playing mentally is something I haven’t done yet but gonna try.

How about memorizing only the first (few) note(s ) or chord(s ) of each bar (maybe even line?)? Then you would have kind of anchors throughout the whole piece.

I’m thinking there is some ingenious way of doing this that we just haven’t figured out.

I was probably the person who started the discussion about memorising music.

When I talk about “memorising Piano music” I mean that I can play the piece
of music without needing the sheet music. The previous discussion about assigning
notes to numbers and using a loci doesnt seem to make sense. How do concert
pianists remember the music? I am sure they don’t use those techniques.

Memorising a piece of music involves several skills. I discussed these ideas
with my piano teacher, who can certainly play pieces from memory.
There is muscle memory - once you can play the music, your muscles - hand, arm,
shoulder memorise part of the performance. Your brain should remember the melody,
as well as the harmonic structure of the piece. For example, if there is an arpeggio
you remember which chord, not the individual notes.

At the moment I am practicing remembering short easy pieces just to see what the main
memory issues are.


I found my notes on memorising piano music:

Here are various ways we learn to memorize music. The four principal
ones are:

  • motor (the fingers learn the pattern) - this is the one that sitting
    practising for hours on end develops

  • aural - being able to “hear” what the music should sound like in our
    head and then play it on the keyboard

  • visual - remembering the way the music looks on the page

  • analytical - understanding the theory, harmony and construction of
    the melodic phrases as recalling these patterns and building blocks
    during performance.

In reality, we rely on a combination of all of these to successfully
memorize music, but understand that some of them can be worked on (or
practiced) away from the keyboard

1 Like

I wonder if memorizing every note might be overkill – kind of like having a separate image for every word in a speech. Humans have enough of a natural memory for speech and music that prompts should be enough in many cases.

Having one number for each of the 88 keys would memorize the notes, but might eliminate the structure of the music from the images.

I think that music theory and looking at forms within the piece could simplify everything (“analytical”, mentioned by ozcaveman above).

In popular music, if you know that a song in the key of G major is mostly G major, C major, and D7, with some A minor and E minor thrown in… and that the only regular enharmonic note is F#… and that when you see a E7 appear, the next chord is probably going to be a A, it simplifies memorization.

Music theory is a vocabulary – if you see a run of notes and can label it with “E phrygian”, you could probably just hold “E phrygian” in memory and use aural and kinesthetic memory for the rest.

I’ve always wanted to learn Schenkerian Analysis:

I wonder if this kind of musical analysis could give more for the memory to latch onto.

Here a section of notes is broken down into I V7 I:

More examples here:

I don’t know – just brainstorming. :slight_smile:

Thanks… That is great. :slight_smile:

1 Like

How do you review the content if you’ve wiped your loci clean, though? Sorry if this is a silly question, just curious.

On the whole, western tonal music breaks down fairly smoothly, but you’ve got to use an appropriate system to what you’re trying to learn. Schenker’s would be a good starting-point: you reduce the score to a layer of chord progressions with a fundamental line, as I recall it. That should be easy enough to memorize.

To do it, I’d set up a system whereby you memorize chords by standard transcription: V7, III6/4, and all that. For a given (reduced) work, you line up the chords in sequence and use them as anchors to memorize the fundamental line.

The tricky bit is that this just gives you a sort of substrate, what’s “really happening” in the piece, but not what’s doing at the surface.

My own experience memorizing music (as a musician, not a mnemonist, insofar as I am either) fits with your teacher’s: muscle memory, aural memory, that stuff. My question is whether you could just depend on those existent systems and kind of riff off them using these formally-memorized anchors. To memorize formally, you’ve got to conceptualize and intellectualize. That’s great, but it may be too slow here. But analytical reduction is of real value, in that it will let you learn about a work in a different way and at a different level from playing it.

So my advice would be to perform the reduction and memorize the underlying layer as you practice the piece normally. Once you have the piece pretty well in your hands and ears, try walking through your images as you go, perhaps playing slowly. In time, I would bet that the connections will become smooth and fairly rapid, and you’ll find it remarkably easy to memorize music.

Now an orchestral score post-Mozart, well, that’s another story…

Using numeric encoding for memorizing music seems like a misapplication of effort to me. The amount of information involved (i.e. not just notes, but durations, tempo markings, dynamics, etc) seems impractical for all but the simplest pieces (people’s suggestions of encoding higher level information like harmonic progressions seems like a good idea, though).

Since muscle memory is what is ultimately used in playing, the question is how best to get the music off the page and into the fingers. The most useful method I’ve seen is in Chuan Chang’s book on piano practice (available for free on his site: The gist of it is what he calls ‘mental play’ - playing the piece in your mind, away from the instrument, using the score (and later without the score).


Thanks for the comments on memorising music and the link to the book on Piano Practice. I have a goal to memorise three piano pieces in the next six months.


I was just reading Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia. There is an interesting discussion – don’t have the text to hand to give page numbers – about this kind of musical practice. Apparently with music, and in essence not with pretty much anything else (nobody quite knows why), when you run through a piece you know well, just in your mind, your brain triggers all kinds of flashes and systems that one would usually associate with motor activity, even though your fingers and such don’t actually move. In other words, memorizing music in terms of performance – that is, memorizing a piece to play it rather than just by listening to it – appears to get literally embedded in motor areas of the brain. This does not appear to happen to a significant degree, nor with this level of complexity, with other kinds of memorized systems. And it’s not just motor stuff either: music triggers weird systems and regions of the brain in ways that are wildly atypical and pretty much unlike anything else. Nobody knows why music should be this way, but it has lots of manifestations. For example, musicians afflicted with such neurological pathologies as parkinsonism and Tourette’s syndrome often completely drop the symptoms when they take up their instruments – Touretters don’t tic, parkinsonians regain full muscular control, Alzheimer’s-type dementia sometimes affects pretty much everything except memorized music (however complicated), and so on. Conversely, this means that it is possible (if rare) for someone to be completely incapable of comprehending music, at a deep neurological level – i.e. there are special musical defects in the brain – without this having any predictable effects (or possibly any effects whatever) in other areas of cognition, behavior, etc. (To put that very simply, compare to blindness. At least at a basic level, a blind person’s brain is capable of understanding visual stimuli; although those systems may be pretty much atrophied, they exist. A person with these kinds of amusia actually cannot understand music.

The result of this, in my opinion, is that the kinds of mnemotechnics we discuss here may be ineffective for music – that may genuinely be a different brain system. On the other hand, there is some reason to think that one ought to be able to use this sort of musical memory for other mnemotechnical means. In other words, those of us who have some experience of playing music and memorizing complex pieces should be able to attach other kinds of memories to musical sequences, which would be very powerfully embedded and difficult to dislodge or confuse. How precisely one would do this is an interesting question. I think I’ll start a thread about it…

I’m not sure whether this kind of practice is unique to music (seems to me it’s also used for sports, dance, and other things). In any case, your idea of using a known piece of music for memorizing other material is extremely interesting: kind of the sonorous equivalent of a memory palace… Will have to try that out - please post any experiences you have with it.

I feel like I could lend some insight, being a music teacher. A couple other musicians have piped in already, I see.

I do this before I even pick up a baton, horn, or sit at a bench.

When I memorize a piece I start by just defining certain attributes of the piece:

  1. Key
  2. Time Signature
  3. Style

Next I work from the largest musical features to the smallest:

  1. Form (Multi-movement works are broken down to individual parts). Rondo form, binary/tertiary forms, song form, what have you. For me it is easy to imagine form as if the piece was a pop song.

  2. Next I break down the different parts of the form into their component ideas but not down into themes yet. What is the general feeling of the A section? What image does the development make me think of? When the composer planned the piece this is what he was thinking so my ideas here are not likely to change after practice.

Some students of mine have had success with giving each section a title, like a movie.

3.Themes - Since these are the ideas that are specific to the piece and make it one of a kind (sometimes. Everybody steals themes) I pick these out and just rote memorize them. It’s not hard, they are meant to be memorable … unless you are doing some atonal stuff.

  1. Connecting material - This is why we practice scales and finger techniques. Themes are connected by pretty predictable patterns. A violin piece I play on my tuba (from memory) pretty regularly starts out with a lovely little theme then is essentially an F major scale with a few notes missing as it transforms into a different scales.

Music is meant to be memorable. The proposed method of using a peg for each note on the keyboard seems a bit unusable in my opinion. If you feel like continuing along a similar system, I would recommend an octave numbering sytem instead.

A few books that come to mind that touch on the topic are:
The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein: Memory isn’t a huge focus but he does cover it slightly. It is mostly just a great book about practice and developing a system for practicing music to a high degree.

Recommended: Guide to Score Study by Battisti/Garofalo: This is directed to band and orchestra directors and requires a little bit of music theory knowledge. It is a good read. Battisti gives good systems to building your mental definition of the piece and thereby memorizing it.

There is a music camp that was mentioned in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle that takes the exact opposite of my approach when first learning a piece in that memory plays little to no role. They cut the phrases up into unrecognizable collections of notes and play them randomly. Once that is mastered they move onto a system similar to this. This puts the finger memory ahead of the head memory.

1 Like