Intelligent practice Performance preparation Practising piano

How to memorise music away from the piano

Learn to effectively analyse and memorise your piano pieces for secure memory and a better performance

Something that I have found to be a good development for me as a musician is exactly what the title reads; reading, analysing and memorising scores without touching the piano.

Last year, when starting tuition under one of my teachers, Nelly Ben-Or, she made me take Bach’s 13th Two-Part Invention in A minor and learn it from memory completely without once touching the keyboard. It was only in my next few lessons, after memorising it, that I tried to play it for the first time. However, as she emphasised later, these tasks weren’t so much just to memorise a bunch of different notes for the sake of it, but rather to develop a way of reading music and looking at it in a way that makes it simpler to memorise and actually play.

For example, a large part of the memorisation was looking for patterns and recurring ideas that permutate and arrange themselves differently throughout – this being especially the case in Bach.

Above can be seen an example of the sort of way of thinking this music that can be trained in time to become intuitive upon reading a score, so that when you not only learn a piece away from the instrument but also play it for the first time, you can play it easier, more convincingly and musically as a result of understanding the way in which the notes and phrases are organised.

It is a good practice to memorise your pieces as early on as possible or even before playing them so that, for one, you have longer for the memory of the piece to really become secure and ‘matured’ into yourself, and for another, so that you can play it intelligently with an understanding of what is going on, to help form a convincing interpretation. While I didn’t used to do this with my pieces quite so much, I now tend to quickly find patterns etc. in the music to help get it memorised early on.

As an example of analysis/memorisation work that can be done, here’s a short extract from the last page of Brahms’ Rhapsody in Eb Major (known for being quite tricky with it’s big leaps):

You can see that there is a lot of different things you can in just these 4 bars to help in knowing the notes. Here I would suggest starting looking at the hands separately, so with the left hand you can notice that, to start with, there is an Eb tonic pedal note all the way through. The first two bars of the LH are exactly the same and the notes generally ascend through the 4 bars. Thinking about fingering can also strongly help; in the 3rd and 4th bars you should keep the same fingering as I have written in, and just think that in the 4th bar the 2nd finger is in slightly different places, that’s all.

In the right hand you can think similarly. For the first two bars, realise that the first beat is in the tonic (actually tonic minor in the context of the whole piece) with the 2nd beats being dominant 7th harmony. This should help your phrasing as well, because it means that the first beat is stronger and more important and that the second beat is less accentuated as it is less important. Alternatively the 2nd beat could perhaps be played stronger because it is ‘trying to break out’. Thinking in the realm of harmony, the dominant 7th on the offbeats can be thought of as trying to escape away from the strong tonic, only succeeding on the second try when the LH buckles under the pressure and changes, though still with the Eb pedal note, to Cb dominant 7th harmony while the notes above get to canter upwards, free from their restraints in the first two bars. The shifting to a diminished 7th chord in the 4th bar creates even more tension, needing to be resolved with a solid, crotchet chord (which it does afterwards without any disrupting semiquavers trying to mess things up).

In the RH I have also highlighted two other ways of thinking it; there is a clear interval between the Bb to F (4th) and Gb to Eb (3rd) notes, which you should try to feel in your mind almost physically like those intervals are set in stone to be played. Bars 3 and 4 can be thought of as simple intervals as well – in each beat, the first single note and the lower note of the octave (just before the next beat) are an octave apart, and when you get to the lower note from the octave you just add another of the same note an octave above simultaneously, well within the reach of the hand.

After then doing something like this, which is much quicker to do mentally on your own with some practice, engage your clear-cut and efficient part of your mind to simply bring these two different parts together to play with each other in creating this brilliant music.

It is vital, however, that all this is not just done for the sake of memorising, but rather for creating a musical and informed response to whatever piece you are playing. For example, remember elements such as accents, phrase markings and dynamics, combined with your knowledge of how the notes move in certain patterns in the piece to create particular significances in the shaping of the music. Obviously not everyone will be looking at music in the style of how I have described above, because they will have different ways that suit them better – they might not be analysing at all like this, but my point is about learning to look at music in a more simple and imaginative way, rather than autopilot cruising through.

Back to memorising, it is advisable to do a small amount each day (for trying to learn a score away from the instrument), as if you have an appointment booked every day to get some memorising done. What I would usually do is play back as much as I can in my head until I completely forget something and need the score, then I continue the work on learning more. When you are doing it, be in a state of ease and allowance in letting the notes almost soak into your mind.

Though the method I have described for analysing and memorising may sound really complicated, long-winded and odd at times, it helps a lot in making your life the exact opposite of complicated while practising pieces. Provided you can make it a habit, or rather your new, intelligent state of mind when practising, it can reward you in heaps for musicality, sensitivity, simplicity and ease of technicality.

I hope you find value in this and pursue it properly.

Please comment below if you have any thoughts on this topic!

2 replies on “How to memorise music away from the piano”

F. M. Alexander would have loved your approach of memorising, i. e. practicing to use your clear-cut and efficient part of your mind which is the humane choice rather than autopilot cruising through music and life. But, alas, most of us miss this natural invitation and probably only realise at the point of dying what they “should” have lived/done/enjoyed, unfortunately a little late then. Just reading your article woke my efficient parts of my mind towards a joyful, clear-cut, dynamic. beginning of the day. Heartfelt thanks for this grand work, James!!!

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