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Musings and Methodology for Instrumentalists

by Tedd Griepentrog

In 1770, young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father, Leopold, visited the Sistine Chapel. There they heard Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, a composition whose fame had spread throughout the world. Papal decree had forbidden copying from this original manuscript to guarantee its exclusive use in Rome. Mozart, however, returned to his room following the performance and copied the entire composition from memory. He returned to the chapel two days after which he made only minor corrections.[1]

Renowned 20th century conductor Dimitri Mitropoulis was reported to have memorized the entire 108 manuscript pages of John Verrall’s First Symphony on his initial fifteen-minute perusal of the score. He then conducted the first rehearsal from memory, noting measure numbers, correcting individual pitches of specific instruments, and adjusting the composer’s printed dynamics.[2]

Only a rare genius is fortunate enough to have the superb memory possessed by Mozart or Mitropoulis; yet most instrumental musicians regularly memorize for a variety of reasons. Beginning students must immediately learn the musical notation system, as well as a variety of fingerings and scales. Instrumentalists are often required to memorize compositions for solo and ensemble festivals, concerto competitions, and marching bands. In difficult music, complex passages which are unreadable at fast tempi must be memorized. For pianists and keyboard percussionists, memorization is often necessitated by page turns. Conductors commit scores to memory to establish better communication with performers. Interaction and rapport between soloists and their audiences also improve without the barrier of a music stand. 

Dimitri Mitropoulis once explained his desire to memorize everything he performed: “I feel the need to liberate myself from the printed score just as an actor does from the script. You would not expect someone to play Hamlet in front of a paying audience with the script in his hands—it’s the same thing with me and music.”[3]

Though frequently required to memorize, most musicians rarely give any thought to the actual process of memorization. Many simply begin the highly repetitive practice of rote learning. However, with a better understanding of how the brain processes information, everyone can improve their memory skills and make more efficient use of practice time. 




Memory is commonly divided into two types: short-term and long-term. In short-term memory, information is only retained for a brief period of time. For example, a telephone number that we look up, then repeat over and over while dialing, is soon forgotten after the call is placed. 

Long-term memory involves storing information so that it can be consciously reused over extended periods of time.[4] We are able to recall a phone number that we review regularly. That number has made the transition from short-term to long-term memory. It is this process of encoding information for later recall that we call memorization. 




The process of memorization includes three stages: registration, retention, and retrieval. Registration involves recording information for transfer from short-term to long-term memory. Retention is an active review process aimed at keeping that information available for potential recall.


Retrieval is accomplished in one of two ways: recall or recognition. Remembering exactly what was initially registered is termed recall. Noticing only the familiarity of material—without linking it to past retention—is called recognition. Most of normal memory involves recognition; we often recognize a familiar face without recalling the person’s name. 

Unfortunately, musicians must deal with immediate recall to perform from memory. We may recognize a pattern when sightreading, but we must recall exact passages instantly when performing without music. Musicians register information as we first learn a piece of music. We retain it through regular review or practice and we retrieve it through recall during performance. 























Registering information to be recalled later is accomplished through various senses. Dr. Joan Minninger uses the word “synthesia” as “the ability to code information in several sensory ways.”[5] Studies show that those who successfully merge various methods of sensory input tend to remember more. Therefore, instrumental musicians should attempt to use three different senses to most efficiently memorize music: sight, hearing, and touch. 

In visual memory, we record a picture of the printed page, so we can “read” from it during performance. This is most often accomplished through the repetitive practice of reading a portion of the music, looking away or turning the page over, and attempting to play from memory. We literally work to create a photograph of the part in our brain. This can also be done without the instrument by simply studying the page. Although this is one of the most accurate means of memorizing exactly what is printed, its weakness becomes evident when the memory lapses and the “page” disappears. 

Memorization by hearing is called auditory or aural memory. While this is a key aspect of memorization for those with “perfect” or “relative” pitch, many musicians are unable to transfer what they hear directly to their instruments. Yet, we all use aural memory in varying degrees. After reading a passage for a period of time, we can immediately identify when we play a wrong note. Our auditory sense has been trained to detect a problem note or rhythm and to then correct our visual and physical memory. We also use aural cues to help remember when to come in following extended rests (i.e., the trumpet plays a high note just before my entrance). 

Many published methods and courses are available for ear training. These can be invaluable tools in improving our aural memory as well. Listening to recordings of a work to be memorized is also highly recommended; hearing a piece without the distraction of simultaneously playing an instrument can help identify auditory cues and reinforce note accuracy for later. 

Memorizing through the sense of touch is referred to as physical memory, tactile memory, motor memory, or kinesthetic memory. Most people remember these muscle skills longer and better than auditory or visual memories. One can easily recall the physical skills of riding a bike after years of neglect, though few can remember their first bike’s color or their bike lock’s combination. As musicians, we learn the finger patterns of scales early in our development and are then able to play them in fast succession without picturing what we are playing. Our fingers simply remember which keys or valves to depress. Most passages that are too quick to be read accurately are learned through physical memory. We may use a visual or auditory cue to remember on which note to begin, but our fingers take over in executing the passage. 

Physical memory can be one of the musician’s most reliable assets in memorized performance. Regular study (registration and retention) of scales, chords, thirds, finger patterns, etc., is vital to improving our recall process. The more “music vocabulary” we know, the more efficient our reading and recall will be. 


















Dr. Barry Gordon investigated the consolidation of these different sensory aspects of individual memories. His surgical examinations at Johns Hopkins Hospital show that each sense is recorded in a different portion of the brain. Auditory memories are stored in the left temporal lobe, found on the left side above and behind the ear. Visual information is recorded in the occipital lobes at the back of the head. Tactile, or physical memory, is located in the parietal lobes, which extend from the top of each ear to the top of the head. Each of these areas is controlled by the hippocampus and thalamus, found deep inside the brain. These two command centers indicate which memories should be “locked in” to the other sensory areas.[6]

Each sense thus serves a unique purpose in memorization and can reinforce the recall of the other senses. The advantage of using multiple senses enables the performer to draw from another are of registration to overcome recall problems. For example, when we forget what the music looks like, we can call upon our finger patters or auditory cues to carry us through. Those who rely on only one sense for memorization and recall are the first to have major memory lapses. 

The interesting case of an amnesia victim helps illustrate the wonders of the brain’s various memory areas. Musicologist Clive Wearing suffered a debilitating case of encephalitis, erasing most of his memory of past events and acquaintances. He was unable to register any new information in long-term memory and could not even recognize his wife! Yet he was frequently found playing complete works on harpsichord and was able to sight-read new works with remarkable skill. Unfortunately, he maintained no memory of these incidents and lived constantly in the world of the present.[7]  The musical skills and compositions consolidated in the various sensory areas of his brain were the few past memories he could recall. 

Just as each sense inputs and records information in a unique manner, so the two halves of the brain work in different ways. Sperry and Ornstein discovered that the two sides of the brain, linked by a complex network of nerve fibers called the Corpus Collosum, deal with different types of mental activity. They summarized their studies by proposing: “In most people the left side of the brain deals with logic, language, reasoning, numbers, linearity, and analysis, the so-called ‘academic’ activities. The right side of the brain deals with rhythm, music, images and imagination, color, parallel processing, daydreaming, face recognition, and pattern or map recognition.”[8]

The right brain deals with most interpretive aspects of music. Creativity, improvisation, and the emotionalism we convey through music are controlled by this hemisphere. As we concentrate on expression and interpretation when we rehearse, we register information in the right side of the brain. 

Memorizing through detailed structural and harmonic analysis logs the composition on the opposite side of the brain from other musical functions. Noted conducting teacher Brock McElheran discusses conducting from memory in his method entitled Conducting Techniques. He recommends completely analyzing every detail, emphasizing sections which are similar but different.[9] Rehearsing, extracting, and analyzing technical passages helps the left hemisphere of the brain retain information. 

According to the 1972 studies of Craik and Lockhard, “Processing incoming information according to meaning appears to leave a stronger memory trace than processing on the basis of sight or sound.”[10] While performing in a sterile, unemotional manner can be considered unmusical, practicing this way will allow the brain to memorize many aspects of music that the right brain cannot comprehend as easily. 




Many musicians persist in rote learning or mechanical memorization, believing that if something is repeated often enough, it will be remembered. However, a number of experiments have suggested that rote repetition, with no attempt by the learner to organize the material, may not lead to learning.[11] Dr Joan Minninger states, “The simplest way to remember anything is to understand it…Adding meaning to memorization helps lock the information in place.”[12] Rote learning is best reserved for simple tasks, as it often leads to mislearning and has a limited recall period. According to Dr. Barry Gordon, “Cramming facts into your head without a frame of reference creates a tangled mess, from which it is very hard to extract anything useful.” [13]

Linking registered information is vital to fast recall. The more associations you create between the elements of your music, the better your memory works.[14] Different types of input are logged in different portions of the brain and by different senses. Not only recording that information, but linking its relevance to other memorized material enables the brain to better understand and recall on demand. 

Dr. Gordon summarizes: “When you really know a lot about a single subject, you know not only facts, but the relationship between those facts…What creates an extraordinary memory in otherwise ordinary people are strategies and connections.”[15]




Before accurate memorization and recall can occur, a composition must be correctly learned and performed. Beginning to memorize before mastering a work will only lock in errors. The correct notes or interpretation may be even more difficult to learn later! 

During the learning process, one should practice what brain researchers term “chunking.” Studies have shown that the brain is unable to register large strings of information. Evidence suggests that the short-term memory’s limit is seven chunks, the normal length of American telephone numbers. Assembling “chunks of chunks” can help increase the amount of material retained; however, the material must be carefully processed in a logical and related series of chunks to be retained for later recall.[16]

Just as we no longer read words letter by letter or sentences word by word, musicians should not read music note by note. Percussionist Doug Walter emphasizes that “note grouping should be stressed as a basic music reading skill.”[17] If we begin learning a composition using chunks or note groupings, later memorizing of more material at a faster rate is possible. Chunking of beats, measures, phrases, sections, etc., allows us to recall groups of groups in an established hierarchy. This helps maintain order while retrieving the thousands of individual pieces of information contained in a memorized composition. 





Three Blind Mice








INITIAL OBSERVATION: All pitches are within a one octave scale in the key of G major



Chunk A   Opening two measures consist of a descending three-note motive beginning on the third

Chunk B   Initial motive is transposed up a third, now beginning on the dominant, but adding a repeat of the second pitch

Chunk C   A dominant to tonic pickup precedes a three-note motive that moves down, then returns to the tonic before repeating the dominant 



Repetitive passages are combined into one “form chunk” when memorizing the complete structure

Chunk 1    Play Chunk A twice

Chunk 2    Play Chunk B twice

Chunk 3    Play Chunk C twice

Chunk 1    Play Chunk A twice






Because of the primacy, recency, and oddity effects, public speakers preface and review information in presentations. This makes it easier for their audiences to retain the main points. The same factors influence memorization of any kind. Studies indicate that we recall:


  • more from the beginning and ends of a learning period,

  • more of items that are associated by repetition, sense, rhyming, etc., 

  • more of things which are outstanding or unique,

  • considerably less of things from the middle of learning periods.[18]


Selecting the correct length for each memorization period or practice session is very important. Researcher Tony Buzan’s studies indicate that 20–40-minute periods are optimum. Shorter periods do not allow the brain time to recognize the organization of the complete material. Long periods result in a severe decline in the amount of music recalled. The physical fatigue of embouchure and tongue may also limit the productive duration of memorization sessions. 

Brief breaks should be taken following study periods to improve recall. The brain continues to learn material for up to ten minutes after the learning period has ended. This is due to the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory, as the brain processes and links the new material. One is more rested following a break, which makes both recall and understanding easier during the next learning period. Buzan state: “The person who has not taken such breaks, in addition to growing fatigued, will be recalling less of what he has learned before, and therefore will be able to make continually fewer and fewer connections between the dwindling amount of information he has learned and the increasingly formidable and non-understandable information that threatens him.”[19]

Choosing an appropriate time of day for memorizing can also improve recall. According to Dr. Minninger, “The less that happens between learning and recall, the better.”[20] For some, the ideal time to memorize may very well be just prior to going to bed. By attempting to recall as much as possible the following morning, the brain reviews where the information has been logged. It can then recall it easier and build on what it has memorized to learn more material. Avi Karni’s studies on the impact of sleep phases also suggest that the mind uses REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep to “set” memories.[21]

Ideally, musicians should memorize when they are relaxed, but not fatigued. If the musician is too tired in the evening, schedule an appropriate period of non-learning and limited activity following any study session. Keep in mind that certain types of registration, such as analysis and visual memorization, can be accomplished without actually playing an instrument. Quiet times throughout the day can be effectively used for alternative registration methods. 

Just as last-minute cramming for exams is not an efficient study habit, so attempting to memorize music in a short time can be less productive. Plan ahead for memorization requirements and allow adequate time for registration and review. Baddely’s extensive research on British Post Office employees shows the befits of distributed practice. “A little every day is the optimal way of learning…distributed practice is more efficient (than concentrated learning periods), but it may not always be practical or convenient.”[22]




Without planned review sessions, memorizing is highly inefficient. Taking time to review and recall previously learned music will permanently imprint it in our minds for future performances. One who reviews regularly will find it is easier to process additional information, as well as to remember what has been previously memorized. 

According to Tony Buzan, studies indicate that at least 80% of detailed information is lost within 24 hours of a one-hour learning period.[23] Recall can be kept at a much higher rate if the material is reviewed at a time just prior to when recall normally drops. Therefore, the first review should occur about ten minutes after a forty-minute learning period. Repeat the review of information approximately 10 hours later and again within a 24-hour period. Additional review as often as necessary will help lock the material in long-term memory. Occasional review periods every week may be necessary, with gradual tapering to one-month intervals. 

Provide intentional distractions during review and avoid memorizing in solitude. Rarely is a live performance situation perfect; coughing, sneezing, dropped items, and unexpected movements must be anticipated. Be prepared to be distracted and know how to recover. Musicians who frequently perform from memory often provide distractions for themselves, practicing recall in front of a television, around children, or before a makeshift audience. 

Keep in mind that human memory is a constantly changing medium. We do not function like digital recorders, which repeatedly replay music without alteration. Each time we recall a memory, the possibility exists that we will modify it with different information. Continue to refer to the original copy of your music in your review sessions to avoid incorrect recall and altering memorization. 




Ronald Shone’s studies recommend memorizing in a relaxed state Not only is the coding or registration more successful, but accurate recall is also more probable. Frequent relaxation will have the added advantage that your memory will improve both in terms of retention and recall.[24]

Playing from memory adds additional pressures to the stress of public performance. Unfortunately, the slightest memory failure will compound this anxiety. Failure to recall information breeds tension, which inhibits retrieval. In this cyclical challenge, the heart rate increases, muscles tense, the digestive tract knots, and recall becomes even more difficult. Many performers overcome these obstacles with relaxation techniques of biofeedback, meditation, yoga, visualization, and hypnosis. 

Superlearning techniques common in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union rely heavily on relaxation. Students are trained in relaxation methods to heighten their ability to hear accurately, enhance concentration, and improve group rapport. Using yoga breathing exercises and calming classical music selections, they slow heart rate and breathing prior to and during their learning process. Achieving a state of “relaxed alertness” through synchronization of breathing and heart rate and increased oxygen flow is a foundation for the high success rate and tremendous recall potential of these programs.[25]

While similar superlearning programs are now available in the United States, it is their relaxation principles that are most applicable to musicians. Relaxing is very beneficial, not only to reduce stress before and during performances, but to optimize practice sessions used for memorizing. 




For musicians dependent on immediate recall of memorized material, good health and fitness are valuable assets. Dr. Joan Minninger devotes an entire section of her book, Total Recall, to the effects of health, fitness, and medications have on recall. “Good health is a plus to memory. When you feel good, look good, and are bouncing with energy, your mind can process information faster and better, and remembering is easier.”[26] She quotes a Bowling Green State University study on lack of exercise. The results show that sedentary individuals may remember as much, but not as quickly as active people. However, if they become active, they improve their speed of recalling information.[27]

It appears there are two major factors that influence Minninger’s study. Increased oxygen levels improve the rate of recall, while low levels may actually lead to memory loss. Aerobic workouts along with breathing or relaxation exercises can significantly increase the speed and accuracy with which we recall information.[28] The flow of adrenalin associated with such activities can also be a key to locking in memory. Studies with lab rats indicate that adrenalin deprivation prevents any form of retention for maze patterns.[29]

Nearly all vitamins and minerals have an effect on brain processes and memory. Mayo Clinic research indicates that extended low calorie diets (less than 2100 calories per day) result in lowered brain functions, slower recall, and lessened memory skills.[30] The effect of B complex vitamins in stress reduction suggests that an increase in their intake may also improve recall. 

Some musicians profess that the use of alcohol and tobacco helps them relax prior to playing. Research trends to counter this belief, showing that these substances also inhibit thinking and memory ability. A Scottish psychologist conducted a study that concluded that “smoking may impair the blood supply carrying oxygen to the brain, and this lowered oxygen level results in decreased memory efficiency.”[31]




The need for musicians to memorize may always exist. A thorough knowledge of the brain’s memorization processes, methods of registering and recalling information, and the impact of outside influences can make this task less formidable. By studying how we memorize, we can effectively improve our learning skills in other subject areas as well. 

When asked about his phenomenal ability to commit complex scores to memory, Dimitri Mitropoulis always insisted that his was “not literally a photographic memory, but rather a memory that he had trained as an athlete would train his body.”[32] Research studies show that those who memorize regularly find it easier to process additional information. According to Buzan, “Learning, understanding, and recall assist one another, making the continuing process increasingly easy. Surprisingly, the more you learn, the easier it is for you to learn more.”[33]





[1] Robert L. Marshall, Mozart Speaks (New York: Schirmer Books, 1991), pp. 5-7.

[2] William R. Trotter, Priest of Music: The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulis (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995), p. 111.

[3] Ibid., p. 112. 

[4] Ronald Shone, Creative Visualizaion: How to Use Imagery and Imagination for Self-Improvement (New York: Thorsen Publishers, Ltd., 1984), p. 101.

[5] Joan Minninger, Total Recall: How to Boost Your Memory Power (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1984), p. 129.

[6] Barry Gordon, Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Everyday Life (New York: MasterMedia Limited, 1995), pp. 64-65. 

[7] Alan Baddeley, Your Memory: A User’s Guide (London: Prion, 1993), pp. 8-10.

[8] Tony Buzan, Use Both Sides of Your Brain (New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1983), p. 14. 

[9] Brock McElheran, Conducting Technique (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 123.

[10] Baddeley, p. 166.

[11] Ibid., p. 81.

[12] Minninger, p. 169.

[13] Gordon, p. 154. 

[14] Doug Walter, “Memory Techniques for Keyboard Percussionists” (Percussion Notes, February 1993), p. 17. 

[15] Gordon, pp. 151-152. 

[16] Shone, p. 101. 

[17] Walter, p. 17.

[18] Buzan, p. 54.

[19] Ibid., pp. 223-224.

[20] Minninger, p. 174.

[21] “To Sleep, Perhaps to Memorize,” Your Health (Baltimore, MD: St. Agnes Hospital, Vol. 6, Spring 1995), p. 3.

[22] Baddeley, p. 74.

[23] Buzan, p. 58.

[24] Shone, p. 104.

[25] Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, Superlearning (New York: Dell Publishing, 1979), p. 55.

[26] Minninger, p. 35.

[27] Ibid., p. 44.

[28] Ibid., p. 37. 

[29] Ibid., p. 76.

[30] Ibid., p. 34. 

[31] Ibid., p. 43.

[32] Trotter, p. 111.

[33] Buzan, p. 228. 

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Copyright © 1995 Tedd Griepentrog

All Rights Reserved. 

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