Establishing Permanent Memory and Mental Play

There are at least five basic methods of memorizing; they are: (1) hand memory (audio/tactile), (2) music memory (aural), (3) photographic memory (visual), (4) keyboard memory/mental play (visual/tactile, brain), and (5) theoretical memory (brain). Practically everybody uses a combination of most of them. Most people rely mainly on one and use the others as supplementary help. We already discussed hand memory above. It is acquired by simple repetition until the "music is in the hands". In the intuitive school of teaching, this was thought to be the best way to memorize, because they knew nothing about the better methods. What we want to do now is to replace it with the others in order to establish a more permanent and reliable memory.

Music memory is based on the music: the melody, rhythm, expression, emotion, etc. This approach works best for artistic and musical types of persons who have strong feelings associated with their music. Those with perfect pitch will also do well because they can find the notes on the piano just from the memory of the music. People who like to compose also tend to use this type of memory. Musicians do not automatically tend to have good musical memory. It depends on the type of brain they have, as discussed in section III.6.m below; this skill is somewhat trainable, as discussed in that section. For example, people with good music memory can also remember other things, such as the name of the composer and the name of the composition. They have good melody recall, so that they can hum the music if you tell them the title, for most compositions that they have heard a few times.

Photographic memory: You memorize the entire sheet music and actually picture it and read it in the mind. Even those who think that they do not have photographic memory, can achieve it if they practice photographic memory routinely as they practice the piece from the very beginning. Many people will find that, if they are diligent about this procedure from day one (of when they start the piece), there will be only an average of a few bars per page that are not photographically memorized by the time they can play the piece satisfactorily. One way to photographically memorize is to follow exactly the methods outlined here for technique and memory, but to also photographically memorize the sheet music at the same time, hand by hand, bar-by-bar, and segment by segment.

Another way to approach photographic memory is to start memorizing the general outline first, like how many lines there are in the page and how many bars per line; then the notes in each bar, then the expression markings, etc. That is, start with the gross features, and then gradually fill in the details. Start photographic memory by memorizing one hand at a time. You really need to take an accurate photograph of the page, complete with its defects and extraneous marks. If you have difficulty memorizing certain bars, draw something unusual there, such as a smiley face or your own markings that will jolt your memory. Then next time you want to recall this section, think of the smiley face first.

One advantage of photographic memorization is that you can work on it without the piano, anytime, anywhere. In fact, once acquired, you must read it in your mind, away from the piano, as often as you can until it is permanently memorized. Another advantage is that if you get stuck in the middle of playing a piece, you can easily restart by reading that section of the music in your mind. Photographic memory also allows you to read ahead as you play which helps you to think ahead. Another advantage is that it will help your sight reading.

The main disadvantage is that most people cannot retain photographic memory for long periods of time because maintenance of this type of memory usually requires more work than other methods. Photographic memory, unlike most of the others, does not self-maintain without additional effort. Another disadvantage is that picturing the music in the mind and reading it is a comparatively slow mental process that can interfere with the playing. Thus for the majority, photographic memory is not the most practical memory method. It is only for those who are already good at photographic memory and enjoy cultivating it.

I don't consciously work for photographic memory except for the first few bars to help me get started. I nevertheless end up with considerable photographic memory in the beginning, when I am learning a new piece, because of the need to refer to the music frequently. Even for those who do not plan to acquire photographic memory, it is a good idea to keep any photographic memory you acquire; i.e., maintain it, don't throw it away. You might be surprised at how long and well it will stay with you, especially if you keep cultivating it. I don't pressure myself to memorize photographically because I know that I will end up mostly with the keyboard memory discussed below and music memory. It is amazing how you can often do something much better if there is no pressure, and I naturally acquire quite a bit of photographic memory that I end up keeping for life. I certainly wish that I had done more earlier in life because I suspect that I would have become much better at it than I am now.

For those who think that they do not have photographic memory, you might try the following trick. First memorize a short piece of music, with as much photographic memory as you can readily achieve, but don’t worry if it is only partial. Once each section is memorized, map it back onto the score from which you learned the piece; that is, for each note you play, try to picture the corresponding note on the sheet music. Since you know each part, HS, mapping it back from the keyboard to the sheet music should be simple. Then the only thing you need to re-memorize is where the notes go on the page. You will need to look at the score from time to time to make sure that every note is in the correct position on the right page. Even the expression markings should be mapped back. Go back and forth, playing from photographic memory and mapping back from the keyboard to the sheet music until the photograph is complete. Then you can amaze your friends by writing down the score for the entire piece, starting from anywhere! Note that you will be able to write the whole music, forwards or backwards, or from anywhere in the middle, or even each hand separately. And they thought only Wolfgang could do it!

Keyboard memory and mental play: In this method, you remember the sequence of keys and hand motions, with the music, as you play. It is as if you have a piano in your mind, and can play it. Start the keyboard memory by memorizing HS, then HT. Then when you are away from the piano, play the piece in your mind, again HS first. Playing in your mind, without the piano, is a critical part of keyboard memory. Playing HT in your mind is not necessary at first, especially if you find it to be too difficult, because when you are actually playing, you can usually see only one hand at a time. When playing in your mind, away from the piano, take note of which sections you forgot, then re-memorize them the next time, or go to the music/piano and refresh your memory. You might try photographic memory on parts that you tend to forget using keyboard memory because you need to look at the score anyway in order to re-memorize. Note that playing away from the piano is difficult not only because you have to have it memorized, but also because you don't have hand memory or the piano sound to help.

Keyboard memory has most of the advantages of photographic memory but has the added advantage that the memorized notes are piano keys instead of tadpoles on a sheet of paper; therefore, you do not have to translate from tadpoles to the keys. This allows you to play with less effort compared to photographic memory, since there is no need to go through the extra process of reading the music score. The expression markings are not markings on paper, but mental concepts of the music (music memory). Every time you practice, the keyboard memory automatically maintains itself (including the hand motions), another advantage over photographic memory. You can rehearse it without a piano, and you can play ahead, just as with photographic memory.

The most curious observation I noticed when I began consciously using keyboard memory was that I tended to make the same mistakes, and get stuck at the same places, as when I was actually at the piano! Upon reflection, this made perfect sense because all mistakes originate in the brain, whether there is a piano or not. The piano never makes the mistake, I do. I mention this because it suggests that we may be able to practice and improve certain aspects of piano playing by practicing in our minds, without a piano. That would be a truly unique advantage of keyboard memory! Most of the suggestions for memorizing given in this book apply best to keyboard memory, which is another one of its advantages.

For those who wish to learn sight singing and acquire absolute (or perfect) pitch (sections 11 and 12 below), playing in the mind automatically develops those skills. The keyboard method visualizes the keyboard, which also helps in finding the right key for absolute pitch, a skill you will need when composing at the piano. Therefore, those interested in learning keyboard memory should also practice sight singing and absolute pitch, since they are already partly there. You must learn relative pitch before absolute pitch because relative pitch is easier to learn, is at least as useful as absolute pitch, and learning absolute pitch is almost impossible if you don't know relative pitch. By practicing playing in your mind, you automatically learn relative pitch because you can easily associate the intervals with the keys you are playing. As you search for that note in your mind and check it on the piano, you will be learning relative pitch. Therefore, in order to practice relative pitch, all you have to do is to remind yourself of the intervals you are playing (half tone, full tone, minor 3rd, major 3rd, 4th, 5th, and octave) as you are playing the music in your mind. Then pick one of these notes (the 1st note of a composition, or middle C which is the most useful note to learn first) and check it for absolute pitch on the piano. This is a prime example of how learning one skill (memorizing) helps you to learn many others. Doubtless, this is one of the ways by which the musical geniuses got to be what they are/were. And it turns out that these feats are achievable by practically all of us if we follow the same methods that they used. We have now arrived at a most astounding conclusion: memory leads to keyboard/mental play, which leads to relative/absolute pitch! In other words, these are essential components of technique -- when you achieve all three, your ability to memorize and to perform will make a quantum jump.

As with any memory procedure, mental play, without the piano, must be practiced from the very beginning; otherwise, you will never succeed. Therefore, as soon as you memorize a segment, immediately play it in your mind. Then test yourself the next day. You should eventually be able to play the entire composition in your mind. You will think back in amazement and say to yourself, "Wow, that was easier than I thought!" The ability to play in your mind can greatly reduce nervousness during a performance. The reasons are complex. Firstly you gain confidence when you can do this and most nervousness originates from a fear of mistakes. Secondly, you can practice in your mind as often as you want, at any speed, even on the day of the recital, without deleterious effects. Note that on recital day, your practice routine is generally quite limited (section III.14). The restriction on practicing on recital day can cause nervousness and this can be alleviated by playing in your mind. It also keeps your mind occupied doing something that will improve the performance, thus giving your brain less time to get nervous.

Once you can play the entire composition in your mind, you will find that you can now start at any place in the piece with ease, even in the middle of a segment or phrase. Even after practicing in segments, starting at the middle of a segment is usually quite difficult; playing in your mind will give you the ability to start anywhere within a segment -- something that is difficult to learn in any other way. You will also have a much clearer concept of the structure of the composition and the sequence of melodies. You can even "practice" at speeds that your fingers cannot manage. This will give you a new capability of seeing the music from a more macro-structure point of view. When you become good at it, playing in your mind does not have to take much time, because you can play it very fast, or in abbreviated fashion, skipping easy sections and concentrating only on places where you normally encounter difficulties. We may also have discovered the secret to how some people "naturally" picked up perfect pitch! Singing a melody, with its emotions and musical nuances, automatically brings the pitch close to the correct value. This does not happen if you practiced perfect pitch using a single note. At this stage, you are ready to compose your own music.

There is another advantage of playing in your mind -- the more pieces you memorize in your mind, the easier it becomes to memorize more! This happens because you are increasing the number of associations. Hand memory is the opposite -- it becomes harder to memorize as your repertoire increases because the possibility for confusion increases. Hand memory is not true mental memory -- it is just a series of reflexes and is not associative; in fact it tends to be mutually exclusive.

In summary, keyboard memory should be your primary method of memory. You must hear the music at the same time, so musical memory is a part of this process. Enlist the help of photographic memory whenever it comes easily, and add as much theoretical memory (below) as you can. You have not really memorized until you can play the piece in your mind -- this is the only way in which you can gain confidence to perform with no audible flubs (all concert pianists can do this). You can use it to reduce nervousness and it is the fastest and easiest way to learn relative/perfect pitch. In fact, "playing in your mind" is a powerful method in its own right that affects practically every musical thing you do at or away from the piano. This is not surprising because everything you do originates in your brain. It not only solidifies keyboard memory but also helps music memory, photographic memory, performances, pitch accuracy, playing cold, etc., and should be the first step in playing musically. Don't be passive and wait for the music to come out of the piano, but actively anticipate the music you want to produce. Playing in your mind is how the great geniuses accomplished much of what they did, yet few teachers have taught this method. It is little wonder that most students view the achievements of the great pianists as unattainable. We have shown here that "playing in your mind" is not only attainable, but is an integral part of learning piano.

If playing in your mind is infrequently taught, how did all the concert pianists learn it? At the level of a concert pianist, you are expected to know it, because it is absolutely necessary. A few lucky students were properly taught and experience no problems. For the rest, there is a mad scramble to learn this "new" skill that they are expected to have. Fortunately, it is not a difficult skill to master for the serious student because the rewards are so immediate and far-reaching. At the advanced level, learning it is easy because such students have studied a lot of theory. A good solfege course should teach this skill, but many solfege teachers do not teach memorizing skills. If you experienced an enlightenment as you learned the other methods of this book, wait till you master mental playing -- you will wonder how you ever had the courage to perform anything in public without being able to play it in your mind -- you have entered a totally new world.

Theoretical memory: We must all strive to use as much theoretical memory as possible. This includes such things as key signature, time signature, rhythm, chord structure, chord transitions, harmony, melodic structure, etc. True memory cannot be established without an understanding of the theoretical basis for that particular composition. Unfortunately, most piano students do not receive sufficient theory training to perform such an analysis. Start by learning the chromatic scale and the circle of fifths (Ch. 2, section 2). Anyone can perform simple structural analysis: Mozart's repetitions, simple parallel sets in Bach's technical pieces, concepts that resemble group theory in Beethoven's music, repeated use of the same chord progressions in Chopin's music, etc. The older compositions provide simpler examples of how theory is applied or violated to produce music. Although we may argue whether the quality of music has improved or deteriorated with the ages, there is little question that theory has advanced with time. It is in playing contemporary music, fake books, and practicing improvisations that you come face to face with theory and are forced to learn the practical basics. Therefore, learning to play modern music should be part of every piano learning process and will provide a sound foundation for memory.