4 types of memory and how to improve them for performance

Preparing for recitals is difficult especially when they happen often. I push students to always work on their memory of some piece. I tend to think of memory as a muscle that has potential to falter, but if it’s trained properly, it’s unlikely to mess up.

The problems happen when students limit themselves to one or two forms of memory.

So what types of memory are there?

1. Muscle memory – The most commonly used form of memory, and the most likely to collapse in performance. Early on, young students use muscle memory exclusively and as a result, have trouble playing through a piece from anywhere else besides the beginning. This works up until they get to intermediate repertoire and usually begin to have problems performing consistently. One great way to improve muscle memory is to memorize both hands together and each hand separate. You can also improve muscle memory by closing your eyes. As a last thought, physical movement is also part of muscle memory – so consider how you move your arms, body and head while playing the piece from memory.

2. Aural memory – Music is something we listen to, but very often, young pianists don’t listen to what they play. They only focus on how it looks and feels. Aural memory can be one of the most dependable if your ears are trained well. Teach students to listen for melodies, to sing them and to hear secondary voices. For more advanced students, they should be able to sing one voice or hand while playing another. This type of memory also benefits from closing your eyes and practicing a section.

3. Visual memory – This form of memory is how our hands look when we play and how we remember how the score looks. Some of us who have a well-developed visual memory can learn to memorize chords and patterns by the way they look. To better this form of memory, work on sight-reading by looking briefly at a small amount of music, then close the book and play it. This is an awesome exercise in developing a “photographic memory”. If this is practiced enough, you can eventually look as though you can take a picture of music with your eyes and instantly memorize it. Of course, this is not what is happening – it’s your minds ability to read and memorize patterns at extremely fast rates.

4. Theoretical memory – music theory is one of the best ways to decode the patterns of music. As you progress through higher levels of theory, you look at music as a series of patterns which are interlocked, layered, and rearranged. For me, what ties all of the memories together is my theoretical understanding of form, chordal structures and melody. One of the major differences between concert musicians and advanced pianists is their deep understanding of the music: theoretically, historically and artistically. Bringing some music theory into every lesson is a habit of mine. I don’t see how students can perform from memory without it. The best way to improve this type of memory is to memorize away from the piano. My teacher often had me learn and memorize music without ever playing it on the piano. Would you perform a piece from memory that you never played? :)

If all of these forms are working at capacity, it is very unlikely that you will feel uncomfortable performing a piece. Memory and performance are never certain, but it’s difficult to have a problem if you’ve put a massive amount of effort into learning something properly. Hope this helps!


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