Pianists have different ways of memorising and remembering all the notes in piece of music. What is so fascinating about music is that each one of us understands and relates to it differently. In this respect we have many different ways of understanding and learning music. Having said that there are fundamental steps that need to be taken, in order to memorise piano music. Here are 5 important steps:
The first step as mentioned above is to learn the basic structures of a piece of music or this case a piece written for piano. Every piece of music is formed of structures known as the form. Depending on the different genres that a piano piece is written based on, it can be formed of 2 to 3 major parts.
Musical periods are major parts of a piece of music. Each musical period can take from less than a minute in a short piece to 15 minutes in gigantic opuses such as symphonies or other major orchestral works. Usually the musical periods are separated in music sheet by double bar lines. However this isn’t a rule especially in music written after the 18th century.
Let’s assume we are talking about a piece that is formed of three major parts or three musical periods, each connected via a short bridge or commonly known as transitions. Once the pianist figured this out then he/she knows how this piece is written. This is important because it helps the brain to understand the overall structure of the piece, which will eventually help the pianist to memorise the piece.
If you have seen music sheet you know that music is formed of bars. Each bar is a group of notes separated from the others by a bar line. Bars in other words, are small unites of notes. A five minutes pieces for piano depending on tempo (speed of the music), is typically formed of around 200-300 bars. The bars and bar lines have no significance in how the music sounds. In other words an untrained ear won’t hear the bar lines or end of each bar. The music and notes flow between bars without any noticeable gaps. A trained ear however, will be able to differentiate the beginning and end of each bar by analysing the difference between stronger and weaker beats.
Just like text, music is formed of phrases. The definition of a musical phrase is meaningful group of notes that can be heard as a melody or a distinctive rhythm. Each major part in piano music is formed of a couple of phrases. Learning the phrases is another step towards learning the piano piece and ultimately to play it from the memory.
We often remember music by its phrases. If someone ask us to hum it we hum the phrases, which shows their fundamental role in remembering the music we hear.
Pianists typically start memorising a piece by learning the musical periods and then breaking down the major parts to the number of bars that they are formed of. This process should happen consciously and in most professional cases by just sight reading the notes. A trained musician will be able to break down a piece of music into the units that it’s formed of, thus reducing its complexity and paving the way to understand and memorise the piece and all the notes in it. Untrained musicians often go through this process by listening to the piece again and again and then playing it for a while until these structures unconsciously form on their brain.
Now that we went through units and structures in a piece of music, we know that every piece is formed of smaller sections. We learn and remember a piano piece by learning bigger sections first, and then we go through smaller parts of each section adding more details to it. Once you learnt a major part then you go through phrases in that musical period and once musical period was learnt, you go through gaining muscle memory in playing bars and notes.
Gaining the muscle memory is a major part of practising piano.
In practise the pianist learns to remember all phrases, bars and notes. Then they start to gain the muscle memory. Without having the muscle memory the brain will be simply overloaded with a lot to think of, at each bar which results in lack of fluency in performance. As a result a major stage in learning a piano piece is to gain the muscle memory on all the notes and bars, which will be achieved by repetition.
Surprisingly enough some of the structures of forms of phrases are the similar or the same in pieces that are written in a specific genre and during the same period of time. This means gaining the muscle memory in one piece will slightly help you in learning a different piece that is written by the same composer and around the same time. This will eventually count towards improvement on your musicianship.
The more pieces that you learn in your piano lessons or practise sessions, the more similar structures you discover and thus remembering all the notes will become less complex and demanding.
As we discussed there are at least a couple of hundred bars in a piece of music. Therefore it’s very difficult to actively and consciously memorise all the bars and notes in a piece of music. Pianists use their muscle memory to remember all the notes while playing.
When a pianist plays a piece their muscle memory helps them to play the notes without necessarily having to remember every single note. The fingers go through the notes while their brain is thinking about the phrases and bars that are coming next. This way they stay ahead of the music with their minds remembering what’s coming next and their muscles taking care of what is being played now.
Now that you know how pianists remember all the notes, listen to piece written for piano and see if you can differentiate its musical periods. Remember most pieces are formed of just 2 or 3 major parts. The rest of them are just different phrases within a musical period. Once you figured out the periods then go through each part again memorising its phrases.