Quick Tips for Memorizing Long Piano Pieces

One piano, one musician, and…twenty pages of sheet music. Things can get a little heated when you’re expected to memorize all those notes in only a few weeks! Remember, though, they’re just black dots on a page—they can’t hurt you if you don’t let them. Here are a few quick tips to help your memorization go a bit smoother:

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1. Know the Right Notes

This may seem a bit obvious, but if you’re playing wrong notes all over the place, there’s no way you’ll be able to memorize the piece to the best of your ability. Same goes for rhythms, articulation, and dynamics. You don’t want to memorize something only to find out that it’s wrong and you have to redo it. If you’re able to memorize it right the first time, you won’t have to ever memorize it again (most of the time).

This flower stands out and looks pretty, but wrong notes stand out and sound terrible.

2. Identify and Obliterate Trouble Spots

No matter what piece you’re playing, you will always have spots that you can’t nail on the first try. That’s fine when you’re still on the practicing stage, but once you’re memorizing, you need to get rid of them so they won’t interfere with anything else. If you can’t identify trouble spots, grab a friend or a mentor and have them take a listen.

3. Repetition is Key

When you’re sure you have the basics down and you can play the piece fluently with the music, it’s time to…play the piece again. And again. Preferably with the music. This is to establish basic muscle memory so that when note memory fails you, you have something to lean back to. I wouldn’t recommend only memorizing like this, though; you should also take a look at your notes and memorize the basic chord structure (if applicable) and runs by the note.

4. Think Small

Well, not that small, but small enough that you can memorize each section with ease given a few repetitions. We’ve talked about those repetitions, right?

If you want to memorize a long piece fast, you’re going to have to break the piece down into musical phrases instead of trying to memorize the whole thing in one go. This may sound counterintuitive, but think about it: Is it easier to memorize the period table section by section or just repeating the elements in order? Similarly, split your piece into phrases (3-8 measures long depending on your piece, though it may vary) and focus on memorizing them in order. Once you have phrase one down, do phrase two and then play phrases one and two by memory. Then do phrase three and play phrases one, two, and three by memory, etc.

5. Think Smahler*

Do you have a piece with irregular left hand notes or is it just hard to memorize one hand in particular? Then you should isolate the hand that’s giving you trouble and repeat it a good ten times. If a particular run is making you sweat, play that run hands apart ten times, slowly with both hands ten times, and then at full tempo ten times. Do you see a pattern here?

6. Look For Patterns

It’d be great if music was just like this…well, nah, since that would be boring to play and hear. It’s for the best that music has so much variation!

When it comes to memorizing long pieces, patterns are your friend. Anything that explicitly repeats is less work for you to do, obviously, but you should also look for scales, inversions, and other technical easter eggs that might make your life just a little bit easier. For example, the left hand of many Chopin nocturnes (the second one included) can seem quite random if you quickly skim over it, but if you take a closer look, it actually makes musical sense. Look at this fascinating visualization of a Bach prelude, for example.

7. Repeat Everything, Seriously

Repeat those phrases! Get those notes so fully structured in your head that nothing less than an earthquake could shake them out. One test of if you really know how to play a piece is to play in time with a professional’s video. And, by the way, if you haven’t gotten the message by now, you should really repeat everything that you play!

8. Put the Music Away and Play

The only way to progress after you’ve memorized your piece to play without the music once, taking note of the sections that aren’t perfect and then practicing them over and over again until they are. Then replay the piece. If the sections you practiced are mastered, then good for you. If they aren’t, stop thinking and keep practicing until they are.

This is the face of a little girl who has never had to memorize anything vaguely piano-related her entire life. Oh the unfairness of it all.
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If I could summarize all of this advice into one sentence, it’d be, “Just practice, mate!” Your mentors weren’t lying when they said that the more you practice, the better you become. Sometimes, you won’t even have to consciously memorize anything if you do something that much, like that time I spent half the day on a Haydn concerto and memorized the whole thing without even trying. Granted, it was only five pages, but…*sighs dreamily*…those were the days….

*If you get this pun, you get a free taco from me.

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