Tips on Memorizing Piano Songs
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.
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:
- Start by playing through the piece as you would normally. Then decide on the section you want to work on in isolation.
- Play through the section over and over, going slowly, gradually increasing the speed, making sure all the fingering, articulation and dynamics are accurate.
- 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.
- 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.
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
The same theme keeps recurring
Formal structure with exposition (introducing themes), development (where themes are expanded), recapitulation (main theme returns) sections and possibly a coda (ending)
A song in two parts, as in AB, often used in simpler piano pieces
Having three distinct sections, as in ABA, used for minuet and trio, also known as song form
The basis of most popular music
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.
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.