When Should You Start Memorizing Classical Guitar Music?

It’s a great feeling to put a page of music on the stand and play it straight through with confidence and expression.

With the music in front of us, we feel at home. The score’s got our pencil marks all over it. There may be big circles around all the dynamics, and little pictures warning us of the tricky parts. It’s all evidence of our progress along this rewarding journey.

But we suspect deep down that to give our performance that extra polish, we should memorize our music.

So When Do We Need to Start Memorizing Our Pieces?

For some, it’s quite a scary leap. It’s comfortable playing from the ‘dots’, and it’s a risk if we prise our eyes away from that music stand.

Yet the professionals play whole concerts without a piece of sheet music in sight. They make it seem effortless.

When do they start to commit all those notes to memory? Did it happen through repetition, or did they make a conscious effort?

When should we start to memorize a piece?

  • When we reach a certain level of technical competence?
  • When we can play the piece?
  • Once we’ve mastered the difficult parts?
  • Or when we first begin to learn the piece?

Why Memorize?

We can assume it helps our performance if we memorize our music. But why?

Memorization Builds Our Ability to Visualize

Memorizing increases our ability to visualize the music.

If we want to go to the store, we picture the route in our heads. If we want to play a note on our guitar, we form a mental picture of what we need to do, and then we do it.

That’s a form of visualization. It’s a powerful tool and it’s used in various ways by different people.

We could use it to:

  • See the notation like a photograph – even when it’s not in front of us
  • ‘See’ the sound of the music as an image, or a series of images, in our mind’s eye. (Perhaps the music reminds us of a river or a stormy night. Or of people dancing.)
  • See ourselves playing in a performance with confidence, grace, and poise.

Memorization Builds Our Aural Ability

Memorization helps us to build an in-depth knowledge of how the music sounds.

  • Hearing how the tune goes (in our heads)
  • Listening out for patterns in the melody (like echoes, or repetitions)
  • Listening to the harmonies in the chords (expected or unexpected?)
  • Noticing the structure of a piece and where the phrases begin and end

Memorization Builds Our Tactile Memory

Memorization helps us become familiar with the way the music feels under our fingers.

  • The finger ballet of preparing and stretching toward the next note
  • Necklaces of notes (fingers play one note at a time)
  • Notes chunked together as blocks or chords (fingers move as a group)

It’s All part of Growing as a Musician

As we get better at this, we can visualize playing entire pieces. We can think about the shapes and the patterns. The chords, the volume, and the expression. It all happens mentally. And that’s all part of growing as a musician.

These things also happen automatically when we read a piece of music. As we work through it, we use our visual, aural, and tactile memories to guide us.

So we may as well start memorizing it right away.

Memorize New Music Right Away

We will achieve faster results if we start memorizing as soon as possible.

The best time to start is as soon as we first set eyes on the music. We can learn a tiny chunk. A “C” chord. A couple of bars.

If we memorize it, then we can use visualization to recall it. Anywhere, at any time. We can recall it in the line at the grocery store. Or when we can’t sleep at night.

And when we visualize music from memory, it counts as practice.

The Sooner You Do It, the Faster You Learn

In the same way as we practice playing music, we can practice memorizing music too. By practicing memorization, we achieve more focus and become more aware of what’s going on in our heads.

When we play from memory, it’s very clear when our mind wanders off on its own agenda. (Did we send that email/do that load of laundry?)

This shows us that our minds are busy, and could lead us to think about ways we might improve our concentration. (Mindfulness is the go-to word here.)

Memory lapses also show how solid our understanding is of that particular passage. We can use that input to go back and use another technique on the same passage. The more ways we think about it, the stronger our memory.

Decide To Memorize Your Next Piece

Go into your next piece with the determination to memorize it right from the start.  (Here’s the first step.)

It doesn’t mean we’ll never look at the music again. There’s still a huge amount we can do with the ‘dots’ in front of us.

But by having memorized it already, we can do more detailed work with expression and musicality.

So it doesn’t matter whether we’re a beginner or more advanced. We will all learn our pieces faster and more thoroughly when we memorize the notes as soon as possible.

Fair warning: It might take extra time in the beginning, and it might pull us out of our comfort zone to start off with. It does take mental effort, after all.  But the benefits are well worth the effort.

If you’d like to master the process of memorizing and playing classical guitar pieces, consider The Woodshed® Classical Guitar Program.  You’ll go step by step to a better musical understanding, so you see how the music works and know how to practice it.

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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