How to improve musical memory: Successful memorisation techniques to boost memory

Repeating things over and over is not the most successful way to memorise music. Improving musical memory is essential for effective learning and progress in music.

In this post, we will explore various memorisation techniques that can help you enhance your musical memory. By focusing on encoding, storage, and retrieval, you can develop your ability to retain musical information for longer periods and enhance your overall musical performance

There are lots of memorisation techniques out there and not everyone will work for you, so if you’ve found memorising music challenging in the past, it’s probable that you’ve not found the best method for you so keep reading.

Click here to watch rather than read

So many adults tell themselves that they can’t memorise things, But for most, that’s not true.  I mean you remember the names of your family members, you remember places that you’ve visited especially when they were associated with special events such as anniversaries, holidays etc.

The best tip that I can share with you about how to improve your musical memory is “Don’t let your self-limiting beliefs about memory prevent you from making progress.

Your brain is an incredible machine that has the equivalent of 2.5 million gigabytes of digital memory.  To put that in perspective Yahoo’s 2.0 petabyte computational centre can process 24 billion events  a day.  The human brain has around 5x more capacity than this.

The human brain can store more than a quintillion pieces of information which equates to more musical scores than you could ever play in a lifetime.

The likely explanation for your lack of music memory is due to how your practice and what you do in your practice sessions.

How to Improve Your Musical Memory

Before I share my tips on how to improve musical memory, I want to point out that there are 3 main parts to memorisation.

The 3 parts of memorisation

  1. Encoding
  2. Storage and
  3. Retrieval

So make sure you read this post to the end, as you need to work on all three areas to improve your musical memory.

Encoding: The First Step in Memorisation

When we start a new piece of music the journey begins with encoding.  That’s the inputting of information and it’s the part of the memorisation process that learners focus on the most.

Just like a computer our brains need to encode information before storing and retrieving it effectively. So, how can we encode musical information in a way that sticks?

Encoding refers to the process of acquiring and processing information into a form that can be stored in memory. It’s the process of turning what we see, hear, and feel into information that we can retrieve later.

There are multiple ways that we can encode information these include using language, visual and audio cues, and kinaesthetic practice.

How you encode the music that you want to learn will determine how well the information can be stored and retrieved later.  Simply having a go at the music and repeating it to improve it, isn’t the best method of encoding, you have to make deeper connections with the music.

Techniques to enhance the encoding process:

Chunking

One of the most effective techniques for improving the encoding of music is chunking.  I usually refer to this as learning in bite-size.  So rather than trying to practice the whole piece of music, break it down into smaller more manageable chunks. 

An image of sheet music separated into small bite size phrases

This way, you give your brain a chance to process and encode the information more efficiently.

You should also look for patterns in the music before you begin. Pattern recognition is one of the most helpful ways that you can use for chunking.  It’s something you already do when you read words on a page.

The brain chunks the sentence, “The cat sat on the mat” into 3 parts.

1. The cat

2. sat on

3. the mat

If I space the letters differently in that phrase, it becomes more challenging to read.

It’s the same in music. If you can see the patterns, you’ll be able to play them more easily.

By identifying the patterns within your music before you begin learning the music you’re already strengthening your memory as you are making connections with things you already know.

Learn more about patterns in music here

Scales are a great example of this.  If you can identify scales and chord patterns that you’ve previously learnt, this speeds up the learning.

Test yourself with Flashcards

Another helpful tip is to create flashcards and quiz yourself on the musical elements like the notes, chords or rhythms.  This active recall technique reinforces your encoding process.

Here are a few ideas for flashcards, you could start with simple questions such as

What key does the piece begin in?

What is the first chord of the piece or what arpeggio is used in bar 2

The more advanced you become the more challenging you can make the questions.

What is the chord sequence used for the first 4 bars?

What melodic device is used in the second phrase?

Obviously, this takes time in the preparation stage of learning a piece, but it’s well worth the effort.

Performance Cues:

You can also create performance cues, this is particularly helpful in learning lengthier pieces of music.

Performance cues can be structural- so identify the overall structure of a piece, such as the length of the first and second themes in the exposition section of a sonata.  Or the modulations and motives used in a development section.

You could use expressive cues which are based on the character or mood. For example is the opening section sad, happy, playful, is there a dialogue between two voices, or characters?

Cues can also be interpretative such as changes in tempo, dynamics, phrase length.

Learn more about communicating dynamics in music here

And performance cues can also be technique-related, such as a passage that uses a particular type of articulation, fingering or bow stroke.

Performance cues are additional layers of information that serve as kind of landmarks. You can use them to make a mental script of the piece that you want to learn.

Professional musicians will work out the musical and technical details of a piece before they begin practising.  I’ll make clear, concise and deliberate decisions about the musical structure, character, phrasing, fingerings, and what I’ll need to focus on within each phrase of the music.

Think of it this way. If I were to give you some directions to help you get to my house, you would like to points along the way to look out for.

So rather than me say “ follow the road for a mile or so and then turn left at the junction” which is a little vague for someone whose never travelled along that road.

I could provide visual cues to make it easier, follow the road for a mile or so, you’ll pass a farm shop on the right, and then there’s a pub on the left called the Wilton.  It’s just before the junction.  When you turn left at the junction you’ll see a sign for Turton tower, so you’ll know you’re heading the right way.

Having more detail makes the navigation easier and less stressful.  It’s the same with learning a new piece, the more detail you can layout before you begin the easier it is to learn and memorise that music.

Storage: Retaining Information Over Time

Storage involves the retention of encoded information over time. It is the process of maintaining and organising information in the memory system.

There are two parts to our storage system, short-term memory and long-term memory.

Initially, when our brain sees or hears a new piece of information it goes into our short term memory. Research has shown that you can only hold around seven items of information for no more than 20 to 30 seconds in your brain. So the brain quickly decides whether to discard that information or keep it.

Why repetition alone doesn’t work

If you keep repeating something, you can keep looping it in the short term memory. So it’s a bit like when somebody gives you a phone number. In the old days when we used to have to remember them, you would kind of like repeat it to yourself, until you could get a piece of paper and write it down.

Once written down you’d then you let go of trying to form a memory. That’s kind of what you are doing if you merely repeat things when practising.

Most things that we do in a day, we, we don’t remember. In many ways we go through the day on autopilot, and that can often be the case in your music practice.

For example, how many times have you handled a £10 note or the equivalent in your currency?

Lots right, but if I ask you now to draw that £10 note could you do so?  Can you remember what person or building is on there?  Where about is the hologram, what writing is the on the note, the colours etc?

Most people struggle, yet they’ve handled that note hundreds of times, but because they didn’t do anything to encode the information regarding what a £10 note looks like they can’t draw it.

So if you apply this to music, just because you’ve played something lots of times it doesn’t mean that you can remember it.

Massed repetition often leads to boredom or frustration which usually disengages the brain. And this matters because our memories are tied to our emotions.

When we are bored, overwhelmed, frustrated etc we lose connection with the music.  We slip into unconscious awareness and that’s a way of telling the brain, “this music isn’t important so there’s no need to remember it.  That information can be disregarded.

Studies have shown that humans forget around 50% of new information we’ve learnt within one hour.  Unless of course you change the way you encode, connect and retrieve.

So what can we do to improve storage, and make sure we form a long term memory of the music we are learning?

Here are some tips to improve storage and ensure long-term memory formation:

Write things down

One of the best tips is to write things down.  Write out the musical patterns that you want to remember.  You can do this exercise by literally writing out the notes on manuscript paper, or try creating a short code or mind map.

You could write out a description of the section that you are practising and at the end of your practice session write down how you got on.  What went well, what didn’t work so well, what mistakes were you making, and what was the cause of those mistakes.

By taking the time to do this you are telling the brain, that this is information is important, so it strengthens the memory, and makes it much more likely that your brain will keep it rather than disregard it.

Keep practice sessions short

Another great way to prevent information just being looped in the short term memory, is to keep practice sessions short, and change task regularly.  This helps the brain process the information better and gives it the opportunity to move it to safer storage.

Ideally, you want to take a break after 20 minutes no matter whether you are a beginner or an advanced player.

Actively listen

My third tip is to actively listen. Make sure you turn off all distractions, so put focus mode on your mobile if you use any apps, and try if possible practice when at a quiet time in your home. As you play be highly alert, focused an aware.

Play a short section of your music and actively listen to the melody, rhythm, dynamics articulation etc. What did you notice? Perhaps you hesitated when you had to shift the hand to a new position, or maybe your tone was uneven across the notes- This active approach will strengthen your ability to recall musical details later on.

Build a Memory Castle

Another powerful method to improve storage is to create a memory castle.  This technique is often referred to as the Loci technique and has been proven to be highly successful.

This method is a strategy that is based on visualising familiar places – loci is the latin term meaning places or locations.

Write down a few different places which will become your memory palaces, so you have a collection for different information groups or courses. Think of places that you know so well you can walk/move with closed eyes through these spaces, and by following the same route or path, name exactly what you see.

Draw a floor plan for each place.

Create a linear journey that does not have a dead end. Number each item along your journey, such as an object or piece of furniture so that you can remember the journey as you plan out your memory palace.  Make sure that you number the items in chronological order along your path.

Now associate each term or bit of information that you need to memorise with each memory slot. Find something in the information and that memory slot that creates a connection, whether visually, or a sensory memory, chronologically, or any other way that speaks to you. The more creative in your visual representations that you can get the better.

If you want to learn more I’d recommend checking out Jim Kiwks Youtube video on the Loci method.

Retrieval: Accessing Memorised Information

Retrieval is an exciting and rewarding part of learning.  It’s the process of accessing and recalling the information that you’ve previously encoded and stored in your memory.  It does involve practice though, as you can’t assume that just because you’ve stored a memory you can retrieve it at the right time.

Retrieval can be influenced by various factors such as cues, context, and the strength of the original encoding. So how can we ensure smooth and accurate retrieval of musical information when we need it most?

Spaced Repetition

One powerful way is through spaced repetition. Instead of cramming all your practice into a single session, distribute it over time. By reviewing and practising at spaced intervals, you reinforce the neural connections related to the musical information, making it easier to retrieve later on.

You’ll recall I mentioned earlier that you should keep practice sessions short and switch tasks regularly.  This is challenging at first as most learners think that more practice and more repetitions is the way to improve.

As adults we like quick results hence this common, but unreliable way of practice is appealing as you notice improvements throughout your session.  However, it’s rare that you can start from where you left off in your next practice session.

I’m sure you’ve been there when you’ve had a great practice session, made progress, felt fantastic, only to find that the next day, those mistakes that you corrected yesterday have reappeared.

Keeping practice sessions short and switching tasks frequently is more of a long game, the results won’t appear as that great initially but over a few days the progress will be much greater.  It’s much harder to only practice something for a few minutes and then move on, but the harder we make the brain work, the more likely it is to store the information.

The brain also keeps working on the information in between our practice attempts.  By spacing out your intervals of repetition your allowing a process called long term potentiation to take place.  This strengthens the neural connections and makes doing an action easier when you return to it.

Initially you might practice a phrase at the start of a session, then swop tasks, and revisit it at the end of the session.  You would then recap it later in the day, and perhaps once the following day.

You would then leave it for a couple of days before practising it again.  If you are preparing for a performance you would gradually increase the intervals between revisiting the phrase.

For many of you reading this post right now, that might seem counterintuitive.  Often learners do more and more repetitive practice leading up to a big event, but spaced learning has been proven to work so take a leap of faith and give it a go.

Review the music you’ve learnt in different ways

It’s also beneficial to review the information in various ways.  So you could make a recording of yourself playing, and then write down a review of your performance.

Visualise the music you are learning

Visualisation is a fantastic way of improving musical memory. Before you play a phrase, visualise the notes and sounds vividly.  Make sure to recall all the details such as the articulation, phrasing and dynamics.

You should also visualise the way the muscles move and the sensation that that creates on your instrument.

Teach what you’ve learnt to others

Another great way of retrieving information is to share it with others. In the vip sessions of my recent Play Music Better masterclass, participants really benefited from putting this into action.

The task was to write down a short code for a phrase of music and then share it with someone else in the group so that they could play the phrase without ever having seen the music.

By teaching someone else you help solidify the memory and because the environment is different than what you are used to, there is a stronger connection with that memory.

The environment makes a big difference in our ability to form memories.  Think for a moment about what you had for dinner two weeks ago on Tuesday, you probably can’t remember.  But if I asked you to describe the last meal you ate in a restaurant, you’ll be able to recall the event in much more detail.

You’ll probably remember what you ate, and you’ll have a strong opinion on the quality of the food.  That’s because the environment was different than your everyday meal at home.

Through teaching others you are also more likely to make a stronger connection with the notes, rhythms and musical detail.  It’s often much easier to spot errors in someone else’s playing than it is in your own, but in doing so you make yourself more aware of some of the pitfalls that you want to avoid.

As you can see these three components—encoding, storage, and retrieval—work together to form the basis of human memory.

You can watch a video presentation of this post below.

So now that you understand how you can improve your musical memory, it’s time to take action.  It’s likely that you’ll need to change the way you practice going forwards, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

For more helpful practice tips make sure to download my free practice tips guide.

As I said right back at the start of this video learners tend to be good at the encoding, but rarely practice the retrieval of information.

Practising retrieval is best done initially away from your instrument.  The more you engage with the information that you are trying to learn with the thinking side of the brain the better.

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2 thoughts on “How to improve musical memory: Successful memorisation techniques to boost memory”

  1. Exceptionally helpful information

    Reply
    • Thank your sharing, and I’m delighted to hear that you found the article helpful.

      Reply

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