50 Ways To Test Your Musical Memory

Musical memory can be a funny thing. When we’re in the practice room, or at home, we can play something absolutely perfectly. All the evidence shows that we’ve ingrained this piece of music and can feel comfortable playing it in any situation.  We are clearly solid, and it sounds great.

But then whenever we play it for other people, something happens. All of a sudden we find bumps in the road that were never there before. There are places where we may “space out” and completely forget the music.

The general response to this is, “I don’t know what happened! I thought I had it nailed.”

The reason is this: We have multiple storage areas in our brain where we can store music (more on this below).  If our music is stored primarily in just one of these, and something happens to distract our recall from there, we are doomed.  It’s a classic case of “all the eggs in one basket”.

The 4 Different Types of Memory

There are four main areas of memorization. These are:

Visual – Our visual memory consists of our mental pictures of the music on the page, our fingers on the fretboard, and any other pictures or images that we associate with the music (real or imagined)

Auditory – Our auditory memory is our internal representation of what the piece sounds like. It could also be vocal cues, lyrics, descriptive words, solfege (“Do Re Mi etc.), or anything else that is based upon sound.  It is also triggered if we practice “hearing” certain instruments playing particular parts (such as a violin playing the melody), or if we ascribe character voices to musical lines (sounds of laughing, sobbing, fussing, flirting, etc.).  Anything to do with real or imagined sound.

Kinesthetic – Kinesthetic memory is also called “muscle memory”.  As we get a piece up to speed, our muscular habits are able to take over and perform with minimal micromanaging from our conscious mind (just like tying our shoes).  This is necessary and great, but has its shadow side (more on this later).  Muscle memory happens not only in the hands, but in the entire body.

Theoretical – Theoretical memory asks the question, “What is it?”  Theoretical memory is our memory of the theoretical analysis of the piece. This could be the chord names, scales, intervals, structural elements, interpretive concepts, and anything else that is related to our intellectual understanding of the piece. Please note, this also includes left and right hand fingerings and the knowledge surrounding physical demands.

How We Practice is How We Play

Our minds and bodies are extremely efficient at memorizing. They will memorize anything that happens repeatedly, or is input in a systematic way. This can be a wonderful tool, but it also deserves a word of caution.

Whatever we do in the practice room will inform our performances. Every moment we are with the music, we are practicing. Our minds do not distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. The brain only knows what it receives as input.  

That means:  Every time we make a mistake, we are practicing that mistake. If we play something 10 times wrong and then one time correctly, we have effectively practiced being wrong.


We could think of this in the following ways:

1. Every time we play a wrong note or fingering, it is like adding a drop of food coloring to a pitcher of clear water. We must dilute that food coloring back out by adding more clear water.

2. Every time we play a note or passage, it is like a voice in a crowd. If we play it differently each time, it will just be a noisy crowd. If we play it half wrong and half right, it will be two different groups shouting at each other. If we play at 90% either wrong or right, that 90% will be probably be the one that is heard and played (whether we mean to or not).  So every time we play something correctly, it’s like adding a voice to the right side.

3. Every correct note is like sandpaper, smoothing a piece of wood. And every wrong note is like a sharp object that comes along and gouges that wood. If we want a smooth performance, we can practice so that there is maximum sanding and minimal gouging.

Limitations of Muscle-Memory (Kinesthetic Memory)

What happens for many players, is that they rely too much on their kinesthetic memory to learn music.  Muscle memory is incredibly seductive, because it allows us to play well in our practice, and fools us into thinking all is well.

Kinesthetic memory is the least reliable of these four memory centers. The reason is this: When we perform, we are likely to get a little nervous. This changes our entire physiology. Our muscles are in a different state, so in fact we have just completely changed the playing field for ourselves.  The result is that our muscle memory often fails us.

Limitations of Auditory Memory

Auditory memory only goes so far as well. It is of little use to know that we have played a wrong note after we’ve played it.  We want to play the right notes to begin with.

Also, if we have been internally talking to ourselves constantly in practice (monkey-mind), this becomes part of the auditory memory as well, and can be very distracting in performance. It can even seem like there is someone standing next to us whispering horrible things into our ears.  That is why it is so important to stay focused in practice.

Our Mission as Practicing Musicians

Ideally, we have a firm grasp on each of these four areas of memorization. Most of us favor one or two more than the others. This is normal.

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to ensure that we have our music memorized in all of these four different areas.

Practice Tip:

If you already know that you plan on memorizing a piece of music when you are just learning it, then strive to incorporate some of the challenges below right from the beginning. You will not only memorize your music faster, but will eliminate many of the technical issues that occur when getting a piece all the way up to performance level.

50 Ways to Test Your Musical Memory

50 ways to test your musical memoryBelow is a list of ways to challenge yourself using (or distracting) different areas of your memory. Some of these will come easier than others. Some may seem absolutely impossible. We all have our strengths, and can welcome opportunities to build new ones.

Have fun!

The Usual Suspects:

1. The Dead Crawl – Play excruciatingly slow.  Play so slowly that you have absolutely no muscle memory left. You’ll be forced to know the music intellectually.  If you only do one of these, this would be a good one.

2. Over Tempo –  Play 20 percent (or more!) over performance tempo.  This is great for your hands, but also allows a “birds-eye perspective”, which is especially informative in slow music.  (Depending on the piece, you may have to inch up to this incrementally.  It is well worth the effort.)

3. Aim Directed Movement – Play through your music extremely slowly, taking corrective pauses as often as needed.  Here’s the thing: Absolutely no mistakes allowed.  You can stop and look at your music if you need to, but each note is played only once, in order, securely and confidently.  The point of this is not about playing beautifully or in time, it is about playing the notes cleanly and technically secure from memory.  This is great especially while first memorizing a piece of music, as you practice fewer mistakes into the piece (quickening the overall time it takes to get to performance level).  {Warning: this is inherently unmusical, so make sure to balance this with other, more expressive practice.}

4. Quiet and Sizzling – Play the piece with all expressive devices and contrasts, just like you plan to perform it, but two dynamic levels lower overall than usual.   This will demand all of your conceptual work and intention, but change your physiology.  Make sure to maintain performance tempo, with high energy, focused sound, and crisp articulation.

Become A Deconstructionist:

5. Hands Separately – Can you keep this in time, up to tempo?  You’d better really know your fingerings.

6. Melody – Play just the melody, No bass or harmony. Play it as beautifully and expressively as you can, as if it were all there was to the entire piece.

7. Bass – Play just the bass line, no melody, no harmony.  Play as if it were a solo piece unto itself, and make it as musical as possible.

8. Interior Voices – Play just the harmony. Play only the interior voices with no bass or melody. These are often quite syncopated, so make sure that you keep everything rhythmically placed.

9. Mama and Papa – Play melody and bass with no interior voices.

10. Legos – Identify the patterns or “shapes” within your music and extract them, and improvise with them.  These could be arpeggio patterns, scale directions, chord/scale contrasts, or anything you notice.  Maintain the core pattern, and change other elements (such as harmony, key, major-minor tonality, rhythm, articulation, etc.)


Mixing It Up:

11. Not in Kansas Anymore – Pick a random bar number and play from that spot.  (Bonus points for not looking at the score!)

12. Throwing Darts – Have someone else choose a random note, or lay your music flat and throw a coin onto it, and play from that note (that exact note, not the beginning of the bar, beat, or phrase).  Be sure to come in at tempo, as if you’ve just turned on a radio.

13. Reverse – Play from the end to the beginning bar by bar.  Play each bar as a separate entity, in reverse order. (This does not mean to play the piece backwards. It means play the last bar, then the penultimate bar, et cetera.)  This is also a good learning method, because you will then be constantly entering more familiar territory as you play your piece.

14. Reverse Phrases – Play from the end to the beginning, phrase by phrase.  You really have to know where your phrases begin and end for this one. Wonderful on many levels. Again, as above, the last phrase of the piece, then the penultimate phrase, et cetera.

15. The Contortionist – Play the piece in a different bodily position, such as standing up, laying down, or hanging upside down (for those of you with your own trapeze).  Completely change your physiology to test your versatility.


Dab Your Quill:

16. The Ultimate – Write your music out in entirety.  Grab a sheet of manuscript paper and go at it.  Top to bottom, no peeking! If you must, jump to a different spot and start writing from there, connect the pieces as you can.  (Tip: You can do this anywhere.  It’s great for flights or waiting rooms.)

17. The Skin – Write it out the melody only. Make sure you notate the rhythm correctly.

18. The Bones – Write out the bass line only. Again write this as if it were its own piece of music.

19. The Guts – Write out the interior voices only. Same as above.

20. The Campfire – Write out the harmony, as if it were a folk song. Only use chord symbols.  (For fun, play accompaniment patterns or improvise with the chords)

21. The Jazz Chart – Write out the melody as notation, with the harmony written as chord symbols above it, as if it were a jazz chord chart

22. The Superbrain – Write it out in reverse, from the end to the beginning, note by note. You have to have a pretty secure visual memory of the score to pull this one off.

23. The Cartographer – Draw or diagram a musical “map”, that tells the reader each step of the piece, bar by bar.  For example, “An E major scale descends to the A chord”  could be written “E~ \  A”   Use colors if you like (color-code themes or identical rhythms or patterns), get creative, draw shapes and squiggles, and become a musical cartographer.

24. Transposition – Transpose the melody, bass, harmony, or entire piece into a different key (or all 12 keys!)  This used to be a common practice exercise 100 years ago (especially piano) but has fallen out of popularity (either unfortunately or luckily!).

A Little Help From My Friends:

25. “Uh, Excuse Me…” – Have someone come in and stop you suddenly, mid-piece.  Wait exactly five full minutes (set a timer) and pick up from that exact note at tempo.  (The pianist Lang Lang, in his autobiography, talks about using this method as a child when preparing for competitions in China.   Say what you will about his playing, but there is no denying that his memory is phenomenal.)

26. The Space Invader – Have someone sit next to you and sing a different song, or try and fail to sing along with you.  Very distracting.

Also see #12, above, “Throwing Darts”.


Using Your Mouth:

27. Solfege – Solfege every note of your music.  I have seen people doing this and it blows my mind. It works best with a “fixed do” system of solfege, which is, sadly, not very popular in the U.S.

28. Sing and Tap – Sing the piece while tapping on a metronome using the “tap tempo” feature. Watch your tempo to make sure that it stays steady.  (For extra points, solfege at tempo while tapping the metronome.)

29. Talk To Me – Recite the harmony aloud, using chord names or scale names.

30. The Whale – Play the melody and sing the bass-line. You can use a constant syllable, such as “Ah”, or use solfege or note names.

31. The Lead Singer – Play just the bass-line or bass-line and interior voices, while singing the melody.

32. Counting Measures – Play through the piece from memory while counting measures, aloud, with your voice.  (Your lips should be moving….)

33. Counting Measure Groups – A variation on counting measures is to count aloud the measures within phrases. (so if you have consistent 8-bar phrases, you would count to eight and then start over with the new phrase.)  This, like many of these, are great for really knowing your music.

For Fun and Versatility:

34. The Time Machine – Play the piece in a different time signature. If it is normally in 4/4, try it in  6/8.  Or play it as a waltz.  You may have some slight alterations, but you can make it work.  (Tito Puente, the King of the Mambo, often played Brubeck’s “Take Five” in four.)

35. Swing – Play the piece in swing time.  Play it as a slow swing, then play it as a fast swing, bebop style.

36. Dracula – Change the mood of the piece, making it dark and brooding.

37. Sunshine – Change the mood of the piece, making it upbeat and snappy.

38. Role Playing – Pretend you are watching your favorite musician performing your music with the volume turned down.  Enter his or her body and play from that place.  This is pure play.  You may learn a lot about how to use your body from this one.  Don’t worry so much about how it sounds, just try to create their physiology and body language.

39. The Soundtrack – Make up characters or scenarios and play the piece accordingly. What if it were the soundtrack to a cartoon? A horror movie? A funeral?  As if you just won the lottery!?  This is loads of fun!


40. The Iron Maiden – Play the piece with the radio playing loudly in the room.  For an added challenge, play it using heavy metal at high volume.  Chess master, Tai Chi champion, and general super-human Josh Waitzkin talks about this in his amazing book, “The Art of Learning”, when he was improving his ability to focus for chess tournaments (sorry Mom….).

41. Olé! – Stick a spoonful of hot sauce in your mouth, or eat a chili pepper and then play the piece.  This is a bit masochistic, but does demand focus.

42. A Different Language –  Tune your guitar to a different tuning, such as DADGAD, or simply way out of tune, and play the piece as usual. This will sound completely different and wrong, But you still have to keep going, beautifully, expressively, the whole 9 yards.

43. The Boggle Timer – Get a timer from any number of games, and play against the buzzer.  The best are the ones that click loudly and get faster as they near the finish.  Keep your tempo steady, and keep breathing!  This can be incredibly nerve-wracking.

Locked Eyes:

44. Eyes Right – Play the piece while keeping your eyes glued directly to the Right.  Our eye movements are connected to different areas of the brain involving recall. If you keep your eyes locked in one place, you will not be able to access other areas of your brain, which will throw a big wrench into your habitual methods of recall.

45. Eyes Left – Play the piece while keeping your eyes glued directly to the Left

46. Eyes Up – Play the piece while keeping your eyes glued constantly Up.  Also try up-left and up-right.

47. Eyes Down – Play the piece while keeping your eyes glued constantly Down.  Also try down-left and down-right.



48. The Pavoratti – Record the melody and play the bass along with it.

49. The Diva – Record the bass and the interior voices and play the melody along with it.

And Finally:   

50. Shadow Practice – Play the piece without the guitar in your hands, moving your fingers on both hands exactly as they normally would, while internally singing the music.  This is wonderful to do just before bed.


While there are infinitely more ways you can challenge yourself and your memory, these 50 are a start.

If you like, notice which of these gives you the most delight or trouble.  Does that lead to any conclusions about your strengths or weaknesses?

Do you have any others that really put your memorization skills to the test or want to share your experience with one of these?  Please share them in the comments!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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