A Scientific Overview of Musical Memory

Updated: Jul 29

Tracing the musician’s path to playing without the score

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay


Ever wonder what exactly is going on in your head while memorizing new pieces? The following is a modified excerpt from my dissertation on memorization techniques of contemporary piano music written as part of fulfillment for the Master’s program at the Royal College of Music, London, UK. Here, it introduces us to a broad scientific framework of musical memorization. Familiarity with this can equip teachers and students with an objective understanding of processes at work during memorization of a composition from first sight to public performance.

A great deal of literature on music memorization has emerged since Matthay and Hughes (1915) elaborated on this topic. Playing without the score has become the status quo in public performances in piano music since Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt’s groundbreaking concerts.¹ Reasons for memorized performances include:

  1. greater freedom of expression due to a more profound musical insight from time spent memorizing the score

  2. and more favorable responses from the audience.²

The prospect of playing from memory can be anxiety-provoking for musicians, perhaps more so for pianists.

“Not only is there the initial challenge of retaining thousands of notes and complex musical structure, but there is also the equally formidable task of remembering and executing them in stressful performance situations.” - Rink, 2002 p.114

Aiello (1999, 2000a) states that in some cases, teachers might omit sharing memorization strategies. Thus, some students use a long process of trial and error to devise their own techniques.³ Memorization strategies used tend to adjust based on a piece’s level of complexity with aural, visual, and motor memory.⁴ ⁵ Advanced musicians rely on more analytical approaches by using musical structure and patterns to provide more secure memory, resulting in greater accuracy during performances.⁶ The overview below has synthesized a wide range of literature on memorization in music to standardize terminology and outline various stages of this complex process in a concise model.

Memory Model

Mishra (2005) synthesized concepts from a wide range of existing literature to present a comprehensive model with standardized terminology and set stages of learning. ⁷ ⁸ This model reveals how musicians memorize music from first viewing the score to public performances. See figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Model of how music is memorized for performance (Mishra, 2005 p.77)

Mishra uses the term enculturation to signify the adaptation of a musician’s previous knowledge to assist in memorizing new works. She asserts that the amount and type of prior knowledge and experience affect chosen styles of memorization and the efficiency with which musicians learn a given piece. Enculturation and experience precede three memorization phases of preview, practice, and over-learning.

Preview phase

The preview phase consists of three stages:

1. an aural overview, where one listens to existing recordings;

2. a notational overview, where musicians first explore the score;

3. and a performance overview in which musicians could play or sing through the score.

These three stages can be completed in isolation or combined to gain a general idea of various aspects of a given piece, such as harmonic texture, level of difficulty, and musical structure as a foundation for further learning. Incidental memorization, or memory that formed unconsciously, can start to develop at this phase.

There are four identified processing strategies musicians use in isolation or alternate between to optimize results in a given piece:⁹

1. Segmented- practicing in chunks, where parts are added to larger sections in no particular order.

2. Holistic- a piece is played repeatedly in its entirety while considering the composition as a whole.

3. Serial — the musician returns to the beginning after memory errors instead of continuing.

4. Additive- small segments are progressively lengthened by adding bar by bar.

Practice phase

This model asserts that analytic memory can be used within the practice phase and as early as the preview phase. It functions as a discrete learning style from sensory learning methods like aural, visual, and kinesthetic (muscle) memory. It is influenced by the training and ability of the performer. Harmonic structure, formal structure, and familiar patterns are examples of musical aspects that musicians can attend in the analytic learning style.

Over learning phase

This model posits that a successfully memorized performance marks the end of conscious memorization. Mishra defines this as:

“Near or at concert tempo, without reference to notational cues” (Mishra, 2005, p.84).

After that, the musician reaches the overlearning phase, consisting of all practice done after memorization to provide additional memory security for performances. This phase includes three stages:

1. Relearning –alternate learning strategies might be adopted to strengthen memory and establish new memory cues.

2. Automatization- repetition of motions and memory cues become automatic and out of the performer’s conscious control.

3. Maintenance- regular performances that maintain the ability to retrieve previously learned information over more extended periods.


These three phases apply to musicians of all skill levels. However, within the comprehensive framework of Mishra (2005), she discusses studies outlining critical differences between memorization in professional and novice musicians.¹⁰ ¹¹ We will explore these models and different approaches further in the following article. In the meantime, reflect on this information and how it applies to your experiences as a musical learner. How do you observe this workflow in your students throughout their piano lessons?


1.Schonberg, H. (1963,1987). The great pianists: From Mozart to the Present. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.

2. Williamon, A (1999), The value of performing from memory, Psychology of Music, 27, 84–95 [DOI].

3.Ginsborg, J.(2002) Classical singers memorizing a new song: an observational study. Psychology of Music, 30: 56–99.

4.Parry-Jones, G. (1999). Instrumental Teaching: a Practical Guide to Better Teaching and Learning by Susan Hallam. Oxford: Heinemann Educational, 1998. 350 pp.

5.Mishra, J., & Backlin, W. (2007). The effects of altering environmental and instrumental context on the performance of memorized music. Psychology of Music, 35(3), 453–472.

6. Chaffin, R., Imreh,G. &Crawford, M. (2002). Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance. Manwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

7.Mishra, J. (1999). The effects of altering environmental context on the performance of memorized music. Kent State University.

8.Chaffin, R., Imreh, G. (1997). “Pulling teeth and torture:” Musical memory and problem-solving. Thinking and Reasoning, Vol. 3, №4: 315–336.

9.Mishra, J. (2003). A qualitative analysis of strategies employed in efficient and inefficient memorization. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 132,74–86.

10.Hallam, Susan. (1995a). Professional musicians’ approaches to the learning and interpretation of music. Psychology of Music, 23:111–128.

11.Hallam, Susan (1997). The development of memorization strategies in musicians: Implications for education. British Journal of Music Education, 14(1), 87–97.

By Stefan Bernhard on July 29, 2021.

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Exported from Medium on July 29, 2021.

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