Tips on Memorizing Piano Songs

Updated on November 20, 2012
JohnMello profile image

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Learn how to memorize a piece of music
Learn how to memorize a piece of music | Source

Over the years I've probably memorized thousands of piano songs. It helps if you have a good ear for music, but it's not essential. As long as you work in an orderly fashion and follow a few basic but sensible techniques, you should be able to memorize any piece of piano music. Naturally, the longer and more complicated the music is, the longer this will take you.

Why memorize a piano song? Once you feel comfortable playing the song from memory you're able to truly play it, without having to worry about what page you're on. You'll also be able to focus on what your hands and fingers are doing without having to keep looking up at the sheet music.

Memorizing a piano song involves dedication and commitment. It's not going to happen overnight, so you have to accept that fact right away. Follow the steps outlined below, though, and you will succeed in the end.

Learn the Song First

Whatever you do, you won’t be able to memorize a piece of piano music unless you know it well. That means you have to learn it correctly from day one. Here are a few things you can do to make sure that happens.

  • Learn the fingering – use suggested fingerings or devise your own, but make sure you use the same fingering every time you play. The muscles in your fingers will learn the movements as they get repeated over and over, making memorization much simpler in the long run.
  • Include performance instructions – are some parts of the piano music staccato and some parts legato? Are there frequent changes of tempo or of dynamic levels? You should begin to include these in your playing as soon as possible, so that every time you play through the piece you’re playing it accurately. This will also mean you won’t have to go back and add things later, which can make memorizing the piece a very long and drawn out affair.
  • Practise hands separately and together – work on any difficult bits and be sure to give each of your hands equal focus. Right-handed people often find it harder to learn the left hand, and vice versa. Whichever hand is your weakest, try to make up for that by devoting extra time to it.

Find out the key, tempo, dynamics and articulation by looking at the score even before you play a note.
Find out the key, tempo, dynamics and articulation by looking at the score even before you play a note. | Source
Keep a note of when you practise!
Keep a note of when you practise! | Source

Practise the Song Regularly

The quickest way to memorize anything is by repeating it over and over. It’s a bit like making your own pizza dough: once you’ve done it a dozen times, you no longer need to rely on the recipe. You just do it. When it comes to learning a piano piece off by heart, nothing beats regular practice.

Some people think that once they’ve learned the piece they can relax. But if too many days or weeks go by without some practice, your fingers will forget what to do. Much of the information will still be in your brain somewhere, but there’s no guarantee that all of it will be. So try to practise – even when you think it’s no longer necessary – at least once a day to keep things under control.

If it helps, set a reminder on your phone or laptop. Make a tick on a calendar so you can see your progress and will know you've done some practice. But don't mark the tick on the calendar until after you've practised.

Break the Song into Manageable Pieces

Once you know the song reasonably well, you can start getting down to the nitty-gritty. Do this by breaking the piece up into manageable chunks. You might choose to work on the first 8 bars, for example, or the coda at the end, or the middle 8. Use one of your practice sessions to focus on a small part of the piece and try to memorize it in isolation. Here’s how to go about it:

  1. Start by playing through the piece as you would normally. Then decide on the section you want to work on in isolation.
  2. Play through the section over and over, going slowly, gradually increasing the speed, making sure all the fingering, articulation and dynamics are accurate.
  3. When you think you’ve got it, take the music off the stand and try playing without it. If you’re able to do it, give yourself a round of applause. If you’re not able to, put the music back and try again.
  4. Finish up with the music on the stand and play through the whole piece once again.

You might have to repeat this procedure for a few days, depending on the complexity of the music. But if you keep doing it you will eventually succeed.

Practise the tricky bits in isolation.
Practise the tricky bits in isolation. | Source

Analyze the Song’s Structure or Form

Most piano pieces or songs will follow a given structure. If it’s a classical piece there might be an ABA structure, or it could be a minuet and trio. Perhaps it’s a rondo or a movement from a sonata. Whatever the structure, you should be able to identify it.

If it’s a popular song there might be chord symbols written at the top of the score. These symbols are used by guitar and keyboard players. Popular pieces usually follow a pattern of verses and choruses, with a middle section also known as the bridge. If there are lyrics, they will help to identify the various sections as well, particularly the chorus.

Basic Musical Forms

 
 
Rondo
The same theme keeps recurring
Sonata
Formal structure with exposition (introducing themes), development (where themes are expanded), recapitulation (main theme returns) sections and possibly a coda (ending)
Binary
A song in two parts, as in AB, often used in simpler piano pieces
Ternary
Having three distinct sections, as in ABA, used for minuet and trio, also known as song form
Verse-chorus
The basis of most popular music
The Pianist's Problems
The Pianist's Problems

How can memorizing be made easier and more secure? How can the fourth and fifth fingers be strengthened? Find out the answers to these and other typical piano-related questions!

 
Practise away from the piano to challenge yourself
Practise away from the piano to challenge yourself | Source

Vary your Practice Techniques

The more often you play the piece, the faster you’ll be able to memorize it. But just sitting down at the piano and playing can be boring, especially when you’ve played the piece dozens and dozens of times. So try to vary your approach to practice and make your life a bit more interesting.

  • Mental practice – try reading the score away from the piano. See if you can hear what it sounds like in your head without actually playing it.
  • One-handed practice – try playing the song through with just one of your hands, imagining or humming the part the other hand should play. Do the same thing another day but switch the hands around.
  • Test yourself – sit in a different room without the piano or the music. Visualize yourself playing it through in your mind, to see how much of the piece you’ve already memorized.
  • Get feedback – perform a small section – without the music – for a friend or family member. It doesn’t have to be the whole piece or even a whole page; simply play some of it from memory. This will help prove to you that you can memorize the music in small bits to start with.

Play the piano song over and over to "burn" it into your memory
Play the piano song over and over to "burn" it into your memory | Source

Memorizing a piano song takes time and patience, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Whenever you’re required to play in public, it helps if you’ve got the music memorized. You can still take the music with you as a backup plan, but chances are you won’t need it anyway.

When your piano song is memorized, then you can really start to play it. The notes, the fingering, the dynamics and articulation are all part of what makes the piece work, but they’re all technical aspects. It’s only when you’ve got these technical points mastered that you can really relax and play the piece without worrying about that crescendo at bar 27 or the left hand trill that leads into the coda.

Finally, once your piano song is memorized to perfection, play it as often as you can. The more you play it, the easier it will be for you to remember it intact. It’s also a good idea to get the music out and follow it every once in a while, just to make sure you haven’t developed any bad habits or started leaving out bits here and there.

Questions & Answers

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      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        7 weeks ago from England

        Hi Thien

        Sometimes the fingering is written in for beginners, and sometimes it isn't. Even when it is written in, it's just a suggestion. The best way might be perhaps to work out the fingering for a phrase and then practice it a few times to make sure it feels right. It's often a question of using the fingering that feels the most comfortable since everyone has hands that are a different size and shape. Your teacher should be able to help you add fingering that suits you. Hope that helps.

      • profile image

        Thien Harrah 

        7 weeks ago

        When playing a new piece? How do you know which fingers to play what? Should I analyze the highest notes to the lowest notes on the entire phrase? Or measures by measures? Thanks.

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        3 years ago from England

        Thanks Christina. I guess if you do nothing but play all day long you can memorize as many pieces as you want, and keep them under your fingers. But not everyone has that luxury. That's when sheet music can be a useful reminder ))

      • profile image

        Christina 

        3 years ago

        These are excellent tips and I applaud you for basically stating all of the best memorizing tips I've learnt from 10 years of playing, in just one article. One of my stronger points has always been memorization, but recently I've found that I struggle with long term memorization when I learn a lot of pieces in a short amount of time. I'll learn four pieces in 9 months, and then I won't be able to play the first piece. The tip about playing hands separate to make sure you really "know" the piece has proved very beneficial.

        On a random note, being from the US I literally had no idea that there were two ways of writing "practice" depending on whether it's a verb or a a noun. So this article not only improved my playing, it improved my English lol. Thank you, and congrats on another great article.

      • Archit Goyal profile image

        Archit Goyal 

        5 years ago from New Delhi

        pleasure is mine..

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thank you Archit Goyal. Glad you liked it!

      • Archit Goyal profile image

        Archit Goyal 

        5 years ago from New Delhi

        Amazing post, nicely summarised

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks Relationshipc, QudsiaP1, rebeccamealey and the girls! Great feedback, much appreciated.

      • the girls profile image

        Theresa Ventu 

        5 years ago from Los Angeles, California

        I have studied piano lessons for more than fifteen years and my classes are already in advance level (the classics). I haven't heard of memorizing the piece first and then play the piano afterwards. You must be with the few exceptions - the gifted ones.

        I constantly pound the keyboard to be able to maser a piece. Practice makes perfect.

      • rebeccamealey profile image

        Rebecca Mealey 

        5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

        I can't play the piano. I wish I could. Your Hub looks absolutely wonderful. Congrats!

      • QudsiaP1 profile image

        QudsiaP1 

        5 years ago

        I have always wished to own a grand piano upon which my fingers flow into the night in a fashion where the night turns to day and time stops altogether. I will remember this hub for the day I get the piano and practise it just as you have suggested it. Thank you.

      • Relationshipc profile image

        Kari 

        5 years ago from Alberta, Canada

        Wow, this is a great, unique article. I agree that you have to practice regularly. I thought that the ability to play was like riding a bike, because I have always been able to sit down and play my favorite songs.

        However, the other day I sat down to play a song that I used to play when I was younger all the time and it didn`t work out to well. I haven't played in years, and my fingers were either going to fast or too slow, and it was very frustrating. I found that I had to read music in order to play; whereas, I used to be able to just play.

        The funny thing was that I couldn't get my fingers to remember a favorite song that I used to play, but at one point, after about 20 minutes of reading music and playing, I attempted the song again and played the first quarter of it. Then, as quickly as it had come it was gone again. I couldn't duplicate what I had just played! It was frustrating and neat at the same time. It is so interesting how your fingers naturally head to the keys (kind of similar to typing) but then forget where they were!

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks bodylevive. They say it's just like riding a bicycle - you never forget. Of course you don't have to pedal a piano quite so hard either...

      • bodylevive profile image

        BODYLEVIVE 

        5 years ago from Alabama, USA

        First I'd like to congratulate you on hub of the day! Thank you for sharing. As we get older the memory gets rusty. Your article is good tips to memorize other things. I had piano lessons as a child but I don't remember any of it.

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks photographybyar and Music-and-Art-45!

      • Music-and-Art-45 profile image

        Music-and-Art-45 

        5 years ago from USA, Illinois

        This could be a useful teaching device. Memorizing a piece is one of those things that can be difficult but its also easy. A lot of it comes back to discipline though. Great article. Sharing and voting up.

      • photographybyar profile image

        Addie's Momma 

        5 years ago from Bakersfield, California

        I have always had difficulty memorizing piano songs! This hub makes me want to dust off my piano and start trying to play again. Thanks for your efforts on this hub. It is greatly appreciated! Great tips John! :-)

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks laurenmurphy1!

      • laurenmurphy1 profile image

        Lauren Murphy 

        5 years ago from Maine

        What a great hub. These are really great strategies for memorization.

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks alifeofdesign! It was a photo manipulation...

      • alifeofdesign profile image

        Graham Gifford 

        5 years ago from New Hamphire

        I don't play the piano, however, I had to click onto your hub because of the wonderful structure of it. I enjoyed reading your article and the way in which you included your photos and graphics was fabulous! Was the last image an instagram or a photo manipulation? I liked that. I'll certainly read your other hubs. Best Regards,

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks very much ktrapp!

      • ktrapp profile image

        Kristin Trapp 

        5 years ago from Illinois

        You offer some really good and effective tips for memorizing music. I like the various practice techniques you suggest, including the mental ones. My daughter took piano lessons for years and her teacher preferred that they not use their sheet music at recitals. I was always amazed that even the young children were capable of performing all from memory in front of an audience. Not glancing at the music, or having to turn pages certainly allows for more passion and feeling to come through while playing. Years later, my daughter still can play many of these same songs from memory.

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