The Secret to Memorizing Music

Memorizing Music on a piano or other instrument

One of the questions I receive quite often from viewers of my weekly television series goes something like this: “Scott, how do you and your guests play that stuff without any music? There’s no way I could ever memorize as much. What’s your secret?”

Although I never thought about it much before I started getting those types of questions, it seems that the ability (or lack thereof) to memorize music for piano presents quite a perceived roadblock to many people who want to play nonclassical piano recreationally.

Well, let’s make one thing abundantly clear right from the start, it does not take a high IQ or some great intellect to be able to memorize tunes on a piano. If it did, I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it!

The secret (if you can even call it one) that my guests, and for that matter most all working piano players, use to make memorizing nonclassical tunes simple is learning tunes from lead sheets, not traditional piano notation. That’s really all there is to it. The very process of learning tunes from lead sheets instead of a traditional piece of sheet music makes memorizing music fantastically simpler. Let’s look at why …

Let me begin by explaining to those of you who may not already be aware what lead sheet notation is, and what it looks like. A tune notated in lead sheet format has only one staff (usually the treble clef for piano players) instead of both a bass and treble clef (the grand staff) as is the case with traditional sheet music for piano.

On that one staff you will find a one-note-at-a-time melody line of the tune. No notated chords, no multiple notes at once, just a single melody line. Up above the melody line you will find chord symbols (the same things guitar players read) telling you what chords go with the melody line below.

That’s it! No traditional bass clef/left hand part, no multiple notes at once, just a melody line with the chord symbols up above. Simple.

Now contrast that with a traditional arrangement of a pop tune with a full grand staff. From a sheer “number of things to look at” standpoint, a lead sheet may contain 10% of the total number of notes and other marks that the same tune would have in traditional notation. That in itself is a huge help mentally when eventually memorizing a tune. There is simply significantly less to remember!

Secondly, by its very nature a lead sheet forces you to focus on what you truly should be focusing on. That’s the very heart of the tune—its melody and chord changes. Once you cut out all the frills and fluff of someone else’s arrangement of a tune, you are left with just the pure “DNA” of the song, which is the melody and chords. That is what you need to memorize to truly know a tune.

Alternatively, in an effort to memorize a traditional piece of sheet music you go through a difficult rote memorization process where you are not learning the tune, but someone’s arrangement of the tune.

That difference between memorizing the lead sheet to a tune vs. memorizing a traditional sheet music arrangement of the tune has another huge musical benefit beyond the topic of memorizing. By learning the lead sheet to the tune, you gain the freedom to play the tune in any style you want! That is what allows professionals to make up their own arrangements of a tune “on the fly.”

Why spend the effort trying to memorize one particular arrangement of a tune in traditional notation that just allows you to regurgitate someone else’s arrangement? Instead, take the easier route and memorize the tune’s lead sheet to give yourself the freedom to become a music maker.

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It wouls be helpful if you had included a sample of music with both the Grand Staff and the Lead Sheet. I have no idea what a lead sheet is.

“Once you cut out all the frills and fluff of someone else’s arrangement of a tune, you are left with just the pure “DNA” of the song, which is the melody and chords.”

That’s a good blow-by-blow analysis of something that comes easily to some and not so easily to others. I insist knowing chords is the key to effective memorizing; as it lays out the structure of the melody that interlaces within and during chord changes.

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