Why Memorize?

The reasons for memorizing are so compelling that it is surprising that so many people have been unaware of them. Advanced pianists must play from memory because of the high level of technical skill that is expected. For practically all students (including those who consider themselves to be non-memorizers) the most difficult passages are played from memory. Non-memorizers may need the sheet music in front of them for psychological support and for small cues here and there, but in fact, they are playing difficult passages almost entirely from "hand memory" (explained below). Because of this need to play from memory, memorizing has developed into a scientific procedure that is inseparably woven into every valid piano study process.

Memorizing is a way for learning new pieces quickly. In the long run, you learn technically significant pieces faster by memorizing than by using the score. Memorizing allows the pianist to start playing from anywhere in the middle of a piece, it is a method for recovering from blackouts or flubs, or even avoiding them altogether, and it develops a better understanding of the music. It enables "snippet playing" (playing small excerpts from a composition), a very useful ability for casual performances, teaching, and for learning to perform. When you have memorized 10 hours of repertoire, which is readily achievable, you realize the advantage of not having to carry all that music around and to search through them for your piece or snippet. If you want to jump from snippet to snippet, searching for them among a pile of sheet music would be impractical. For grand pianos, the music stand will interfere with the sound, so that you will not be able to hear yourself play if the music stand is up. This effect is especially dramatic in a concert hall or auditorium with good acoustics -- a raised music stand can make the piano practically inaudible. But above all, memorizing lets you concentrate 100% on the music. Piano is a performing art, and a memorized performance is more rewarding to the audience because they view the ability to memorize as a special talent. Yes, if you memorize, you become one of those genius artists that non-memorizers envy!

The rewards of this book accrue because it is a total package; i.e., the whole is much larger than the sum of its parts. Memorizing is a good example. In order to understand this, let's look at those students who do not memorize. Once a new piece is "learned", but not yet perfected, non-memorizers typically abandon the piece and go on to the next one, partly because it takes so long to learn new pieces and partly because reading the score is not conducive to performing difficult pieces. Statistically, students who do not memorize never learn any piece well, and this handicap limits technical development. Now if they were able to learn quickly and memorize at the same time, they will be making music with all their finished pieces the rest of their lives! We are not just talking about memorizing or not memorizing a piece -- we are talking about a lifetime of difference in your development as an artist, and whether you really have a chance to make music. It is the difference between a performing artist and a student who never has a performable piece. It is after you finish a piece technically that you can even start thinking of truly playing it musically. What a pity that students who are not properly informed miss out on the best part of what it means to be a pianist and miss out on the opportunity to develop as an artist.

Finally, memorizing benefits brain development in youth and decelerates its deterioration with age. Memorizing piano music will not only improve your memory in daily life but will also slow down memory loss with age and even improve the brain's capacity to memorize. You will learn methods used to improve memory and develop an understanding of the human memory function. You will become a "memory expert" which will give you confidence in your ability to remember; lack of confidence is a major cause of poor memory as well as many other problems, such as low self esteem. Memory greatly affects intelligence and good memory raises the effective IQ.

In my youth, life seemed so complicated that, in order to simplify it, I intuitively subscribed to the "principle of least knowledge" which posits that the less unnecessary information you stuff into your brain, the better. This theory is analogous to that for disk memory in a computer: the more clutter you delete, the more memory you have left for use. I now know that this approach breeds laziness and an inferiority complex that you are not a good memorizer, and is harmful to the brain because it is like saying that the less muscle you use, the stronger you will become because there is more energy left over. The brain has more memory capacity than anyone can jam into it in a lifetime but if you don't learn how to use it, you will never benefit from its full potential. I suffered a lot from my early mistake. I was afraid to go bowling because I could not keep score in my head like everyone else. Since I changed my philosophy so that I now try to memorize everything, life has improved dramatically. I even try to memorize the slope and break on every golf green I play. That can have a huge effect on the golf score. Needless to say, the corresponding benefits to my piano career have been beyond description.

Memory is an associative function of the brain. An associative function is one in which one object is associated with another by a relationship. Practically everything we experience is stored in our brains whether we like it or not, and once the brain transfers this information from temporary to permanent storage (an automatic process that usually takes 2 to 5 minutes), it is there practically for life. Therefore, when we memorize, storing the information is not the problem -- retrieving it is the problem because unlike the computer, in which all data have addresses, our memory is retrieved by a process that is not yet understood. The best understood retrieval process is the associative process: to recall John's telephone number, we first think of John, then recall that he has several phones and then remember that his cell phone number is 123-4567. That is, the number is associated with the cell phone, which is associated with John. Each digit in the phone number has a huge array of associations related to our life's experience with numbers, starting with the first time we learned numbers as a young child. Without these associations, we wouldn't have any idea what numbers are and would therefore not be able to recall them at all. "John" also has many associations (such as his house, family, etc.) and the brain must filter them all out and follow the "telephone" association in order to find the number. Because of the huge information processing power of the brain, the retrieval process is more efficient if there are more associations and these associations quickly increase in size as more items are memorized because they can be cross-associated. Therefore the human memory is almost diametrically opposite to the computer memory: the more you memorize, the easier it becomes to memorize because you can create more associations. Unfortunately, most of us do not take full advantage of this incredibly efficient method of memory; we only create a small number of associations and our brains don't always filter them successfully to arrive at a particular memorized item. Our memory capacity is so large that it is effectively infinite. Even good memorizers never "saturate" their memory until the ravages of age take their toll. As more material is put into memory, the number of associations increases geometrically. This geometrical increase partly explains the enormous difference in the memorizing capacity between good and poor memorizers. Thus everything we know about memory tells us that memorizing can only benefit us.