So you want to memorise a fugue?

Some reflections on music and memory

Alexander Hanysz

This article was originally published in "The Music Stand", the newsletter of the The Music Teachers' Association of South Australia, September/October 2010

One of Glenn Gould’s few musical compositions was entitled So you want to write a fugue? Of course it was a rhetorical question. Most of his audience would have been much happier listening to fugues than writing them, but he was nevertheless going to tell them how it was done.

Am I playing the same game in this article with my readers? Giving a musical performance is already quite difficult enough: why would you want to make it more difficult by memorising the piece? Whether it’s a keyboard fugue by Bach, a folk song, or an item from Suzuki book 1 of your chosen instrument, for many students memorising only adds to the stress of performance. Even seasoned professionals sometimes feel the strain. Artur Rubinstein is said to have complained “Fear before every performance is the price I must pay for the marvellous life I lead.” Sviatoslav Richter, towards the end of his life, abandoned performing from memory and gave concerts with the score. If it’s good enough for Richter, surely it’s good enough for the rest of us?

Personally, I don’t exactly know why I memorise music. I know why I started: it wasn’t difficult at the time (when I used to have a fast youthful brain), and it seemed to impress people. People quote all sorts of other arguments in favour. For instance, playing without the score should give you more freedom; it will make your performances more expressive. You don’t really know a piece until you can hold it all inside you. But I don’t believe these things as much as I used to. I’ve heard enough string quartets giving concerts, with the music in front of them, every bit as expressive and passionate as any soloist.

As for impressing people, I hope that my playing itself will do that. There shouldn’t be any need for circus tricks (not that we should underestimate what we can learn from the circus, but that’s another story).

I suppose the habit has stuck because of the sheer exhilaration. Whether or not it enhances my performances is something I can’t tell, but I hope it at least doesn’t spoil things. It certainly makes it more enjoyable for me, and motivates me to practice more. While not as big a task as climbing Everest, it’s still something that seems worth doing because it’s there.

Enjoyable? Didn’t I start out by saying how frightening it was? Actually it can be either (or even both at once), depending on how you go about it. In my own experience I can identify three stages. I think most musicians will recognise the first two, and I hope that some can discover the third.

First, there is “accidental memorisation”. Ideally, children should start out learning music the same way they learn their native language. Things just sink in with no conscious effort. If a student has been playing a piece for a couple of months, sometimes the teacher can just snatch away the music while the student is playing, and they will continue on, not even realising they’re doing anything special. They’ve memorised the piece simply by playing it enough times, and it didn’t feel like an effort.

Then there is the stage where things start getting difficult. As we get older, the way our brains work will start to change. We organise information differently. Learning to speak and find our way around the world involves remembering thousands of words, and tens of thousands of little facts and patterns. As we get older, the number of new words we discover each week will get smaller. But the amount of new music we encounter is just going to get bigger and bigger. Music starts to feel less like a language and more like a complicated science.

At some stage (anywhere between the age of twelve and twenty, depending on the individual), we’ll suddenly find that playing a piece of music over and over again isn’t enough to memorise it. It just doesn’t “stick” the way it used to. Unfortunately, we all too often discover this during a performance, when the mind suddenly goes blank and we’re left staring into a black hole where there used to be music.

There are a few different ways to handle this. Some people simply decide that they have to work harder. If they used to memorise a piece just by playing it twenty times, now they’ll play it a hundred times instead. Some people decide it’s not worth the hard work, and never play from memory again. And indeed there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s possible to enjoy music without going thrill-seeking too.

But some people manage to learn a few tricks of the trade and break through to a third stage, where memorising a piece of music is almost as easy, and just as secure, as in the first stage, even though the process is very different.

So suppose you want to try this crazy thing. What tricks do you need to know?

First of all, you have several different sorts of memory. Psychologists disagree on exactly how many, or what to call them, but we can identify some of the most important ones for musicians. If you play something over and over again without thinking too hard, then most of all you’re building up muscular memory. You’re creating conditioned reflexes, so that your body “knows” what to do almost without your brain participating. This is an essential part of practising, because it’s fundamentally how we solve technical problems and make complex things look and feel easy.

In your first stage of memorising, you’re almost exclusively relying on muscle memory. The great thing is that it involves almost no conscious effort. When you’re ready to perform you just take hold of your instrument, let your mind go loose, and the music pours out. The problem is though that when it fails, it fails absolutely. You need a safety net.

Next, you have an aural memory of the piece. You should know what it sounds like! If you can think of a piece of music that you’ve listened to many times but never played yourself, then you have a good model of what aural memory is about. When listening and playing get mixed up together though, things are less clear cut. Unfortunately it’s possible for pianists to read the music, “press the buttons”, and play a piece of music without actually listening to the sounds. It’s harder to do the same on other instruments, but people vary a great deal in how strong their aural memory is.

Some people have a good visual memory of the score. In a few cases it’s literally a photographic memory: a small number of people can carry a detailed picture of the score inside their head. But that’s unusual, and there is another form of visual memory that’s helpful for most people. That is, remembering the layout of the score. See if you can listen to a familiar piece of music without the score and remember: “This starts on a right hand this tune comes in the middle of the’s where the page turn is, now we’re on the top of page two...” This gives you a series of signposts on which to hang the structure of the music.

Next, there is your analytic memory of the piece. This is a set of signposts akin to visual memory, but more abstract. If you’ve analysed a piece of music, you should know whether it’s in binary form, ternary, sonata, variations, or something else. There should be logical sections, and divisions between one part and another. If your theoretical knowledge is good enough, you’ll also know what key each part is in, and you’ll be aware of things like pedal points and unusual harmonies.

One of the worst traps when trying to memorise is to lose your way in a classical sonata. The beginning of the recapitulation is often identical to the beginning of the exposition. So if you let your mind wander, you might find, three quarters of the way through the piece, that you’ve “wrapped around” and you’re playing the exposition yet again. This is where a good analytical memory will really save you. One of your signposts should be the exact moment where the recapitulation goes a different way from the exposition.

Last but not least, you should consider your emotional memory of a piece. You’re doing this because it means something to you, right? For some people this is immediate and vivid. You might be able to tell a story that goes with the piece, or draw a picture. The music might evoke particular colours for you, or other sensations. For other people the “meaning” of music is far more abstract. But it can still affect how you remember something. There might be parts of the piece that are particularly exciting or intense. These are the moments where you risk “losing it” in performance, so those sections will need some extra work. Or, worse, there might even be parts of the music that you find boring, where your mind will tend to wander. This is a sign that you need to work some more on your interpretation: if you can make the music come to life, you’ll remember it more easily.

So much for the theory. On a practical level, how do you go about engaging all these different memory systems? The very first thing is to push the muscular memory out of the way. It will always be there whether you like it or not. But you have to make sure it doesn’t completely dominate: you can’t afford to spend too much of your practice time on autopilot. The quickest way to push your mind onto a different track is to practice starting in the middle of a piece. You want to be able to mentally “scan” through the piece, choose any spot, and start playing right there.

You can do this systematically. Often it’s easier to work backwards: start with the last line, or the last phrase, and see if you can play from there to the end. Then pick an earlier place, and play from that spot up to the first place you started. If you can’t do it without peeking at the music, then play the passage from the score, close the book and play it again. Then take another step back, working in short sections. Stop every few seconds and choose another starting point—the more often you stop and start, the less your muscle memory will take over and the more you force yourself to use your analytical or visual knowledge of the piece.

You can also practice randomly. Split the piece into short sections and choose a memorable name for each section (it might be “the middle of the second page” or “where it goes into G major” or “that tricky bit where I changed the fingering last week”—whatever works for you). Then get some blank cards, write the name of a section on each card, shuffle the cards, and play through the sections in a random order. Challenge yourself: if you can play the piece in this difficult and strange way, then playing it from beginning to end in the right order should be easy!

You can also try practising at the wrong speed on purpose. Slow pieces are often harder to remember than fast pieces (because the slower you go, the less strong your muscular memory will be). So if you’re learning something fast, play a short section at half speed for extra challenge. Or if you’re struggling to remember a slow movement, build up your confidence first by playing it at double speed.

You can reinforce the various memory systems by working away from your instrument. It should go without saying that you reinforce your analytical memory by analysing the piece! See if you can recognise the modulations, pick out the first and second themes, identify cadence points—find as many different ways as possible to name what’s happening in the music.

Aural memory can come from listening to a piece, if you can find a suitable recording. And you can tie your aural memory together with other memories. Listen while following a score: you’re matching up the aural and visual memories together. Then link your aural and muscular memories: listen without the score and imagine the physical movements that you’d make in order to play the piece. Then put away the recording and look at the score on its own: see how vividly you can imagine the sounds of the piece just from looking at the score.

The next step to practice completely in your own mind, without instrument, score or recording. Sit in a comfy chair and imagine yourself playing the piece. Do this from several perspectives. One time you might focus on muscular memory, one time on the sounds, and once on what you think it might feel like to perform in front of an audience.

(The hardest part about this sort of practice is to convince anyone who lives with you that you’re actually working hard, not just having a nap! You might find that you can work better if you go out for a walk, or if you do this sort of practice while you’re on the bus or train.)

As you start to understand how different ways of practising can engage different parts of your brain, you’ll no doubt start to invent your own methods. You might end up with a system that’s very different from what I describe here, and you might come up with something that seems eccentric or even totally crazy, but ultimately you have to figure out what works for you.

Finally, remember that no matter how thoroughly you learn a piece, there will be moments when things go wrong. This is where all the different layers of memory will prove their worth. If you know what the next bit of the piece sounds like, or what key it’s in, then you’ll be able to improvise something that fits until you find your way again. Of if your visual memory is working well, you might be able to skip over a few bars and pick it up at the start of the next line. If you sit tall and confident while you’re doing this, you’ll be surprised at how many mistakes you can make without anyone noticing.

Of course it’s best if you don’t make mistakes, but we have to be realistic. Aim for perfection, but make sure there is still a safety net.

As I said earlier, memorisation isn’t for everyone. But the attempt to memorise a piece of music, whether successful or not, will surely teach you something about how your mind processes music. It’s something every musician should try at least once, in the safety of their own home. As for whether you want to be more adventurous and give performances from memory, I hope this article will help you reach a decision based on knowledge rather than fear.

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This page last updated on 29th December, 2010