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How to Memorize Classical Guitar Music

With all the information on a page of music, it can seem daunting (if not impossible!) to memorize everything.

Or, we may find ourselves memorizing a tune after practicing it many times. But is this memory reliable? And are we missing or forgetting anything?

Memorizing music is a special skill. And when we approach it with a method and routine, we get better at it.

Why Should We Memorize Music?

Before we create the habit of memorizing music, it can seem like unnecessary work. After all, we’re probably not professionals. Most of us are amateur music-lovers practicing in our living rooms.

But playing from memory comes with many benefits, even for those of us who don’t “need” to memorize.

Play anytime

When we memorize a tune, we don’t need a music stand or the sheet music. We can sit on the back porch and serenade our sweeties. We can pick up a guitar wherever we find one and have something “on tap” to play.

There’s a difference between practicing and playing. And memorized tunes are better for “playing” (in the true sense of the word).

Form a deeper relationship with the music

When we memorize, we become more intimately familiar with the music. We notice things we otherwise wouldn’t. We uncover hidden relationships and similarities between different parts of a tune. We see new shapes in our left hands, and different patterns in our right.

As we memorize, we give more focused attention to each note than we otherwise would.

Learn more quickly

When we memorize, we learn the music more quickly. Even if we don’t memorize completely, the mere act of trying to memorize will speed up our learning. We use our brains differently when memorizing. And as a result we pull in more information and draw better connections. Memorizing helps us connect the dots.

Have a different experience playing guitar

One of the top benefits of memorizing is that it gives us a different musical experience.

As we play from memory, we hear more and feel more, because our vision is no longer the dominant sense. When we stop looking at the sheet music, we have the luxury of “looking” somewhere else. And when we do, we find new and interesting things.

When we practice and play from memory, we use more of our full range of senses. We use more brain-power and mental energy. And more, we use our minds in different ways. We go from analytical, linear thinking (“left-brain”), to more holistic, image-based, contextual thinking (“right-brained”).

Our eyes soften and our muscular changes. In many ways, we become different people when playing from memory. And this adds to the joy and fulfillment of quality guitar practice.

Memory is Easy, Recall Takes Work

The act of memorizing is simple and easy. We memorize thousands of small things each day.

However, the brain is very efficient at only storing what is truly important and needed. It discards anything else.

And how does the brain know what to remember and what to discard? We tell the brain some information is important when we try to remember it.

When we recall something from memory, we search our minds for the information. We recreate the visual image in our minds. We recreate the sound. We recall where we were and what we were doing (in other words, the context).

The challenging work of memorizing music is recall. And therein lies the practice. As we memorize a piece of music, our job is to recall it from memory as often as possible. This way, the brain knows it’s important and creates a permanent record in our minds.

How we input information also makes a difference. We can set ourselves up for success by learn material (the tune we mean to memorize) in ways the brain can work with.

Use the 7-Step Process to Memorize Classical Guitar Music

One way to memorize music is to use the 7-Step Process for learning classical guitar music. This is explained in detail and with examples in the article, “Learn Any Piece in 7 Easy Steps”.

To summarize, these steps are:

  1. Make small sections
  2. Identify all the notes and musical markings
  3. Clap and count the rhythm aloud
  4. Play the right hand alone
  5. Play the left hand alone
  6. Play hands together, taking corrective pauses (no mistakes)
  7. Play hands together in rhythm, with slow metronome

This process takes the job of learning a new piece of music and breaks it into small bites.

For each of the steps above, we can pause and recall from memory that one step. And because we work in small chunks (not the whole piece at once), it feels easy. For instance, after step three, we can look away from the music and clap and count the rhythm from memory. Then, after we learn the right hand fingering alone, we can do that step from memory. And so on.

By the time we go through these steps for the many small sections in our music, we’ve created several perspectives on the same material. (More on this below).

Take Small Bites to Memorize Music

Whether or not we use the 7-step process above, we can take small bites when memorizing music. We are more likely to recall a small chunk of music than a large one, especially when first starting out.

When we set realistic goals we’re more likely to follow through. We get more successful completions. We enjoy more small victories. This creates enthusiasm and momentum, and we progress and improve.

And even if we memorize just one measure a day, we will build a vast repertoire in a short amount of time.

The Key Ingredient: Frequent Recall Tests

As said above, the real goal of memory is recall. And the only way to gain a reliable recall is to practice it.

So when first learning a new bit of music (a measure or small section), we can return to it often. This will ingrain it faster.

Once we memorize it, we can immediately look away from the music and play it from memory. Then, after doing some other part of our practice (such as scales[tk]), we can return and play it once more from memory. Then move on to another area of practice, and then touch on it again.

Each recall need only take a few seconds. There’s no need to spend much time practicing the section. We need only one accurate recall, then we can move on.

When something is freshly memorized, we benefit most from very frequent recall tests. Every few minutes is ideal. As time goes on, we can space our recall tests further and further apart.

Spaced recall is the basis for many of the most successful memory techniques and methods, including the Leitner Box and Anki flashcard methods.

Theoretical Memory

There are four main types of memory we use in music. They are:

  • Visual – what the notes look like on the page and our fingers look like on the guitar
  • Aural – what the music sounds like
  • Kinesthetic – (“muscle memory”) what our body feels like playing the notes
  • Theoretical – the music theory analysis of how the music is composed.

When we first start out learning guitar, we probably don’t know much music theory. As time goes on, we learn more and more.

We can memorize and play music with no theoretical knowledge. Music theory is NOT required.

That said, music theory is helpful. When we understand how the notes and chords relate to each other, we can more easily memorize the music.

We learn best in “chunks” of information. For instance, instead of memorizing 16 notes in a measure, we’ll learn faster if we recognize the notes as a “C” chord with a repeating right-hand pattern. A “C” chord is a chunk of information, as is a right-hand pattern.

Even if we don’t know the music theory behind a section of music, we can still notice how the music is constructed. For example, we can think of “that weird-sounding chord” followed by “the open E string”.

We can call it anything, so long as we identify it as something.

Any information we can glean about how the music is put together makes up theoretical memory.

The More Perspectives, the Better

As we memorize music, the more angles from which we examine the music, the better.

In daily life, it’s easier to remember someone’s name if we meet them in many different situations. When we’ve share several experiences with someone new, we feel we know them better and more deeply. The same holds true with music.

When we use the 7-step process above, play the parts separately, or decode the music theory, we’ll remember it more easily.

We can also decide on the dynamics (swells and fades, louds and softs), and other forms of expression. We could go even further and create a narrative or storyline for the music, or act as if we’ll need to teach it to someone. This will bring in more visual imagery and personal meaning, making it easier to remember.

And as we give each perspective our full attention before moving to the next, we build a strong neural net of information. This embeds the music deep in our memory.

When we memorize music this way, we can often come back to a tune years later and still know every note. It creates a reliable and trustworthy musical memory. And this lets us enjoy more music, and enjoy the music longer.

Memory Gets Easier With Practice

At first, memory and recall can be difficult. But as we memorize more music, music becomes easier to memorize. We build associations and connections between tunes we’ve worked on in the past. We notice problems we’ve solved before. We get better at visualizing the notes and guitar in our minds.

This is how musicians come to memorize music without touching an instrument. And it’s how we build large repertoires we can play on cue.

But the first step is to choose a song to memorize. Then, follow the 7-step process or do the “look-away” method (play once looking, then look away and play from memory, then repeat). Whatever method, we can then practice frequent recall.

Day by day, we get stronger at memorizing music. We enjoy playing new and old pieces from memory. We find new aspects of music we never knew existed. We feel our bodies in different ways and notice new things. And as we celebrate small successes each day, we get excited to challenge ourselves even more.

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4 Responses to How to Memorize Classical Guitar Music

  1. Keith Warner November 3, 2018 at 7:36 am #

    Excellent tutorial! I ALWAYS get something out f your frequent blogs Allen

    • Allen November 3, 2018 at 8:40 am #

      Thanks, Keith!
      Cheers,
      Allen

  2. Marc November 3, 2018 at 5:31 am #

    The topic of memory with regard to guitar is fascinating. What is happening when I can’t play a tune I’m trying hard to remember, but when I daydream about something else, I find I’ve gotten to the end and played it pretty well? It’s like the mental connections I used to memorize the piece in the first place have gotten rusty, but my hands less so—my hands remember it better than my mind!

    On the other hand, I can’t commit a piece to memory–can’t learn it–unless I tell myself elaborate stories about each note. Music theory is like the glue in the construction of memory. It’s much better to realize the arpeggio you’re playing is just, for example, an E shape major chord, instead of an intimidating jumble of notes in a shape you don’t like. Which is the V chord in the key you’re in. Which I guess would be A.

    I think my point is you have to train the brain as much as your hands. It is possible to overwrite adequate memories with inadequate ones, and you get worse. So only practice problem areas!

    Thank you Allen

    • Allen November 3, 2018 at 8:42 am #

      Thanks, Marc,
      “I think my point is you have to train the brain as much as your hands.” Absolutely. Muscle memory alone will fail us if we perform, because our musculature is different when we’re a little nervous.

      Thanks again,
      Allen

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