The 3 Types of Musical Memory

Sheet MusicWhat exactly happens when we memorize music? What are the processes involved? Why do some people memorize music easily while others have to work at it? Why do we sometimes forget music that we used to know by heart? Do we understand music better when we memorize it?

I’ve been interested in these questions for a long time, both as a performer and as a piano teacher. I’ve spent a lot of time memorizing everything from classical sonatas to jazz standards, and have helped my students do the same. During my college years, I realized that there are 3 main types of musical memory. Studying these 3 types of memory, and knowing which to use at any given time, can help us become better, more confident musicians.

The 3 types of musical memory are:

1. Muscle memory (physical)

2. Aural memory (ear/hearing)

3. Analytic memory (based on an intellectual musical analysis)

Let’s take a look at each:

1. Muscle memory:  This is exactly what it sounds like: your muscles remember where to move. Piano teachers use this when they have their students practice each hand separately. Their hope is that each hand will “remember” it’s movements well enough to retain some of it when the 2 hands are combined. Beginning guitar chords, woodwind and brass fingerings, and scales on all instruments are all commonly learned by muscle memory. Of course the musician has to think of it at first, but with enough repetition, the fingers soon remember the patterns on their own. The brain doesn’t have to direct every individual movement any more; the body remembers them.

Classical musicians need to develop extensive muscle memory for each difficult piece they learn. It may take 6-10 hours of daily practice for months to learn Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata, for example. The music is so complex that it would be impossible for most of us to learn it by ear (although yes, a few prodigies probably could!).

2. Aural memory: This is “playing by ear.” You sit down at the piano and play the melody to “Happy Birthday” correctly, the first time. Or perhaps you make a mistake but are able to instantly fix it, because you hear that your note was a little high or low. Or a guitarist can “hear” a song’s chords and strum them correctly while a friend sings a well-known song.

Aural memory is also used when learning written music. Even though a Chopin Etude or complicated jazz piece may be too difficult to learn merely by listening to it, our ear will start to recall how the music goes, as we practice it over and over. Later, when we perform the piece from memory, our ear and fingers will (ideally) work together as the music unfolds.

The combination of muscle and aural memory is often enough to memorize music. But there are instances when it’s not reliable enough. Often, and “ear” musician will run into trouble when they can’t “hear” a certain passage clearly enough with their inner ear. Or a classical pianist has played a Bach piece so often that it’s in their fingers, but they draw a blank mid-performance when they start to think “what’s next?”. I’ve seen both these scenarios many times. This is when the 3rd type of memory, what I call “analytic memory,” can come into play.

3. Analytic memory: This is simply thinking about the music. It can be as basic as remembering “Oh yeah, I need to go up the keyboard here,” or as specific as “The left hand texture changes to 2-octave arpeggios at the point in the development section where the tonality modulates to the key of Ab major, which is the submediant.” Or “The chords to ‘Giant Steps’ go back to Eb once more before the end of the form.” (This one has saved me many times while playing that tune!)

When you’re practicing, experiment with all 3 types of musical memory. Sing the melody to get it in your ear better. Listen to just the chords alone, and become fascinated in how they progress from one to the next. Go back and forth between 2 measures, over and over, until your fingers can play the passage by themselves. (There’s usually at least one spot in each piece that could benefit from this type of repetition.) Play your Mozart sonata, or improvise over a jazz tune, while having a conversation with someone. See how much your fingers can play without mental involvement. Then, go back and analyze the chord progressions and key relationships, musical form, and everything else from a theoretical point of view.

Practicing in a way that involves all 3 types of musical memory will help you experience music in a more complete way and give you more confidence as a performer, since you’ll know the music inside and out. Whether intuitively or intentionally, most successful musical performances involve a continuous shifting from one type of memory to another, individually or in combination.

I’ll end with a story: In the 1990s I was privileged to work with Peter Howard, who was both a legendary Broadway dance-arranger and a classical piano virtuoso. We were in rehearsal for Swinging On A Star, a Tony-award nominated Broadway show which I helped create. During a rehearsal break, Peter sat down at the piano to play a Chopin Etude for me. After effortlessly flying through about 30 seconds of fast, passionate piano music, he suddenly stopped and said, “that’s funny, I can’t remember the next chord.” He started again from the beginning, but abruptly stopped at the exact same spot, incredulous that he could have forgotten a chord that he had known for 50 years. Then I watched in amazement as a “light bulb” went off in his mind and he said, “Oh! I’m playing it in the wrong key!” He then whipped through the entire etude flawlessly in the proper key. Just think: most of us would take months to learn a Chopin Etude in the right key, much less a wrong one, and Peter Howard did it accidentally, by mistake! But even though his ear was that good, it had it’s limits. He had to intellectually remember which key the piece was in, and then his fingers took over again.

Good luck with your music!

You might also like:
An Effective Way To Learn Piano (Or Anything Else You Like)
Piano Practice Routines: Different Strokes For Different Folks
What Did Glenn Gould Know That We Don’t?

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