Memorizing a Piece: Building Muscle Memory

We’ve talked about four different types of memory on this channel before: tactile, aural, visual, and analytical. Today, I wanted to hone in on a specific discussion of tactile memory, which we also typically refer to as “muscle memory”.

When I think of muscle memory and music, I think of my mom. As a teenager, she completed the RCM Grade 8 exam. There are a few pieces from her childhood lessons that she can still play today. I remember a particular Bach prelude when I was growing up. Even if she goes a year or two without playing these pieces, she can still remember them (mostly), even after decades. It’s not a matter of remembering the music (she plays these pieces from memory), it’s a matter of muscle memory: her hands have memorized the shapes and patterns of keys, and that memory remains remarkably stable over the years.

I want to thank Andrew for bringing this discussion to my attention, and want to mention that some of what I’m describing is from a thoughtful forum post which you can find here. I find thinking of two different types of musical fragments (which we’ll talk about momentarily) to be particularly insightful, and I wanted to share it with you.

Two types of musical fragments

The basic idea is: Whenever you try to memorize a musical fragment, it will fall in one of two broad categories:

  • standard pattern
  • melodic shape

A standard pattern is anything common that you see crop up in music a lot: solid or broken chords, scale patterns, arpeggios, particular chord patterns – that kind of thing. The reason I like teaching chord patterns in pieces early on is because the sooner you get started with standard patterns, the better. They’re so common, and not just in pop music – for example, Mozart (and other Classical composers) use a ton of Alberti bass, arpeggios, and I-IV-V7 chord patterns.

Melodies, and melodic shape, is highly individual. Unlike chords, which are common among many pieces (think of how many pieces use some variation of C chord), melodies change from piece to piece. Differing melodies gives a piece its character.

It’s easier to memorize standard patterns than melodic shapes. Maybe one of the reasons my mom remembers the Bach piece so well is that it is filled with all kinds of standard patterns – even in the right hand.

The path to muscle memory

At the beginning of the video, I mentioned four different types of memory: tactile, aural, visual, and analytical. When learning a standard pattern, like a simple chord pattern, your analytical memory is at work. Think about how tough it would be to read a page of music if all you saw was an endless smattering of notes, if you were unable to recognize any shapes or patterns in the music. As soon as you start to recognize, say, chord patterns, your analytical memory is activated. Suddenly the entire piece develops more shape.

With memorizing melodic shapes, you’re not relying on analyzing. The most important thing here, from what I’ve observed, is your ear. Can you hear an echo of the tune in your head? Would you be able to deliver an a capella version of the tune? If the answer is no, or if it’s very difficult to do this, you’re going to have a hard time translating the melody into your muscle memory.

Visual memory, or sight memory, which we haven’t mentioned yet, is the top of the tower. For many learning a piece of music, it’s the starting point. From there, you begin to recognize shapes, and your ear begins to develop as you learn the piece. The further you get into the piece, the less and less you rely on sight. Sight reading is the gateway to learning the piece, but at some point you want to pass through the gate.

The final destination is muscle memory. My mom is a fan of the brute force approach when it comes to building muscle memory – just practicing something over, and over, and over. In the instance of her consistent memory of the Bach piece, this approach clearly works for her.

Understanding structures in a piece you’re learning, and developing your ear for melodic passages, will help you attain muscle memory. Accurate repetition is certainly a key ingredient (especially repetition of tiny 1-measure segments).

Memorizing a piece

If sight reading is over on one side of the scale (the door, so to speak), and muscle memory is way over on the other side (the destination), then to achieve muscle memory, at some point we have to loosen our grip on sheet music. The less reliant you are on the sheet, the better your muscle memory will be.

So how do you reduce your reliance of the sheet music of a particular piece you’re learning?

First let me iterate how important sight-reading skills are. Like I said before, sight reading is the door. If you can’t read the notes on a page, you’re never going to get into the house, rendering our whole discussion on muscle memory meaningless.

Ear skills can get you far, but I’ve never met anyone who could learn a Chopin Ballade by ear.

Let’s say you’re learning a short, one-page piece at a Grade 1 level. The piece is not in your muscle memory, and each playthrough feels insecure and shaky. You can read the notes, but slowly (you’d be hopeless without the sheet music). You could probably partially whistle the melody. How do you get this piece into your muscle memory?

First, narrow your range. It might seem impossible to memorize an entire piece, but memorizing two measures is doable for everyone. In the opening two measures, what kind of patterns do you see?

In the first measure, I see an A minor chord, in both hands. The right hand is outlining a root-position triad. If I spent two minutes playing measure 1, with this knowledge, I would memorize the first measure easily.

In the second measure, and leading into the third, what kind of pattern can be found here? Well, first I note the shape of that right-hand movement. Outlining a triad in measure one, to extending up, in measure two. I might play that four-note melody several times, building my aural memory by getting the tune in my head, but also getting a feel for the physical motion. Then I’d notice a neat little pattern in my left hand – a walking scale fragment. It just goes from D to G. By reading the music (visual memory), noticing patterns/shapes (analytical memory), and getting the melody “in my head” (aural memory), I’ve set myself up for the final step – tactile memory.

Most of you who have been playing piano at least a year would be able to memorize this short passage in 5-10 minutes, by following these steps. And once you memorize a short passage, you’re removing your reliance on the sheet, and upgrading your reliance on your muscle memory.

That’s not to say you should put the sheet away – by all means, leave it in front of you! People who tend to have very competent performances can have the sheet in front of them simply serving as a reference, or a memory jogger. They aren’t using the sheet to read each note; rather, they’re using it to serve as a muscle memory cue.

Still, even if you keep your sheet up for most of your practice session, it’s useful to put it away for at least a few minutes each day to test your muscle memory. If you’re practicing and building your muscle memory, then you’ll want to go through this process daily.

Hey, even if you only memorize two measures a day (very doable!), you’ll still have more than half of the entire piece memorized in a week – which really isn’t so long.

Let’s have a quick look at the rest of the line:

Now this really isn’t so bad at all. Learning and memorizing measures 3-4 is much easier if you’ve already memorized 1-2. You’ll notice, if you’re using your analytical skills, that all the notes and hand shapes are identical – except your hands move down one step. Even the fingering is the same! I’m confident most people could memorize this passage within a couple of practice sessions, even those who feel insecure about their memorization skills.

As a final note, I want to share a salient passage from the forum post referenced at the beginning of this video:

The key is to think as little in terms of individual notes to be played as possible. Every time you can “dump” a group of notes into a collective shape, pattern or progression you are saving mental overhead for memorising the rest of the piece. Naturally, your ability to do this will depend on your knowledge of standard patterns, so it’s a good idea to devote some time to studying theory, harmony and fundamental techniques. This will further your understanding of what you are playing and thus make memorisation easier. You’ll also probably find it easier to concentrate on one hand at a time so you are consciously aware of what each hand is supposed to be doing at any point.


I couldn’t have said it better myself! The only note I’d make to this is to not spend too long practicing hands-separately. Hands-separate practice is way easier and is often used as a crutch.

Happy practicing,