One of the reasons I encourage my students to memorize recital pieces is that the ability to memorize is one of life’s most important skills.
Memory is a bit like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. To build your musical memory, try memorizing at least one passage every day. This works for memory in any other subject, as well.
The memorization process requires
2) Understanding the underlying pattern
The first point, attention, is often overlooked. If you can’t focus completely on the piece of music that you want to memorize, then none of the rest of the process will work.
Looking for an underlying pattern helps organize your memory for easier recall. For a musical passage, make a mental note of the key, the starting and ending notes. Examine all of the intervals. Note any difficult fingerings or string-crossings. If there are any accidentals, try to figure out what key the composer has temporarily shifted to. For longer passages, you can break the patterns into groups and construct a larger pattern from those groups.
Recall is like giving yourself a mini-quiz. It reinforces the memory. You should do this “mini-quiz” immediately after you have identified whatever patterns there are in the passage. At this step, you simply try to play as much of the passage from memory as you can, then go back and examine any errors you made. This will begin the process of transferring the new information you have just learned from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.
You will have to repeat the process several times, especially when you are just starting on a piece. There is an optimization trick available for this. Your first repetition should be immediately after you have given yourself your first “mini-quiz” (recall). Go back through the first three steps of the process right away. The next repetition should be after a pause.
For the most efficient memorization, the length of that pause will get longer as the process is repeated. This is called the Spacing Effect, and there has been some very interesting research into just how to most efficiently space out this research. The general principle is to review the material you are trying to learn just before you forget it. This pause may initially be only a few minutes, but by the 3rd or 4th repetition, may be several days. With practice, you will discover that you can fairly accurately predict about how long each pause should be. You will also be able to accurately predict how long it will take you to memorize a longer piece just by knowing its length and complexity.
If you make the effort to memorize something every day, you will find that it gets easier and faster to memorize almost anything.
If you are interested in maximizing the efficiency of the spaced repetition process more than is possible by just guessing how long the next pause should be, check out The Mnemosyne Project (an open source software project) at