How to Memorize Music

by thememorypage

1.7 • Instrumental Music

Music can sometimes be very easy to memorize; sometimes it can be very hard. It depends on what you’re trying to memorize. When presented with the concept of “music,” for many of you the first thought that comes to mind are some of the most popular pop/rock hits. Usually there’s no problem memorizing these: Since they are of special interest to us, we take a special interest in remembering them. The tunes are usually simple so they’re easy to memorize — in fact, often we’ll end up with the song going around in our head all day! And before long we’ve memorized the words to the song, and once that is done, we’ve also memorized the title to the song because usually the title of the song is somewhere in the lyrics.

Now… instrumental music is more difficult. Since there are no words, the tune takes longer to remember, though usually we do after listening to the composition a few times. The most common challenge is trying to remember thename of the composition. The key is to use creativity and some of the techniques you’ve learned on this web site. I’ve decided to present a few examples with increasing order of difficulty to give you some helpful ideas. If you don’t know the examples personally, just read the text anyway, try to understand the concept and try to apply it to a similar composition you know.

March to the Scaffold by Hector Beriloz. This is a famous classical piece you might hear in an introductory music class. The victim is marched towards a scaffold, makes a final gasp for life, then is hung. If you imagine all of this while you listen, it’s a very powerful piece. In this case, it’s very easy to associate the title with the music. If you forget the composer, you could associate the composer’s name with the scene: For example, perhaps the prisoner is going to be hung because he has broken the “Bear Laws” (Beriloz)! He marches between two lines of angry bears which are all looking at him. Wow, this picture is getting more vivid by the minute. Probably even you will remember this for years even if you never actually hear the composition!

Rondo Alla Turka by Amadeus Mozart. Here’s a tough one. Unlike Bariloz’s special story, this is just a generic march. Not only that, but the title isn’t even in English. Here’s a clever idea: We know that music is easy to remember if they have words… and difficult otherwise. Well, why not make up our own words? That’s right… let’s invent our own words to give to the composition. We don’t need to do this for the entire musical piece, just the most prominent melody — the most memorable part. For this composition I’ve thought of, “It’s for Ron! It’s for All! It’s for Rondo Alla Turka! It’s for Ron, it’s for all, it’s for Rondo Alla Turk.” Silly, eh? Who cares… you don’t have to tell anyone what your silly words are, you’re only using it for memorizing the title.

Symphony Number 5, Second Movement by Tchaikovsky. Another tough one… this time it’s all numbers! I have a 5 and a 2. To solve this problem, I turned to one of the techniques for memorizing numbers: peg words. I put the 5 and 2 together to get 52, then I thought of a picture word for 52: Lion. Then, as with Rondo Alla Turka, I invented my own words to composition. When I hear the main theme, I think to myself, “It is a li-on, Tchaikovsky’s li-on!” Isn’t that amazing? I not only memorized a very difficult numerical title, but I turned it into something quite interesting! To get the original title back, I convert Lion back into 52, then I assume the first number is the symphony and the second number is the movement number. There are a lot of symphonies that follow this pattern.

Oxygene 7 by Jean-Michel Jarre. I love Jarre’s music, but most of his compositions he’s given insane names like Equinoxe 5, Chants Magnetiques 2 and Oxygene 7. One album I have is titled Oxygene 7-13 and contains the compositions Oxygene 7, Oxygene 8, Oxygene 9, Oxygene 10, Oxygene 11, Oxygene 12 and Oxygene 13. Yikes! To solve this problem, I again turned to peg words. I then decided to use these rules: I’ll assign 7 to Oxygene (because the peg word for 7 is cow and a cow breathes oxygen), 9 to Chants Magnetiques (I think of a metallic bee — 9 — being affected by a magnetic field) and 6 to Equinoxe (I think of a shoe — 6 — having a matching shoe that is “equal”). Then I put the digit together with the other digit: so Equinoxe 5 is 65, Chants Magnetiques 2 is 92 and Oxygene 7 is 77. For Oxygene 10 to 13 I just use 10 to 13.

Now that I have 77 for Oxygene 7, it’s time to do the memorizing. The peg word for 77 is Coke. As I listen to the composition, certain portions remind me of the fizz in a glass of Coke. Have you ever looked at the little fizz bubbles? They appear out of nowhere, then slowly get bigger, and bigger, then finally get so light they take off to the top of the glass with a slight zig-zag movement. Some of the composition reminds me of a bubble making that zig-zag trip to the top. So if I hear the composition and want to know the title, I listen, then I remember the bubbles, then I remember Coke, then I remember 77, then I remember Oxygene 7. By the way, for Oxygene 10, there’s more of a melody, so I can use the method where I make my own words: “Please, sir, don’t tick-le my toes” … and toes the peg word for 10.

This may seem like a lot of work, but imagine trying to memorize compositions like “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, 1st Movement” or “Etude in C Minor, Opus 10, Number 12” without it! Use some creativity. Don’t be discouraged if you try something and it doesn’t work and you forget it… keep trying, and with practice, you’ll do well!

Here’s an even more sophisticated method based on something I read in a book once about a piano player who wanted to keep track of hundreds of different instrumental tunes in his head. The idea was to convert musical notesto numbers, then from there to words. So you might convert “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to 11556654433221, where C=1, D=2, E=3, etc. Then you could memorize Dot Lilly Judge Hill for the first seven notes, something like a pink DOT falls on the middle of a LILLY pad, then a JUDGE (fully robed) comes by and stomps on the lilly pad, then goes up a HILL. Then associate that with the tune, like you’re looking up at stars in the sky, then a pink star, as a dot, falls down to a lilly pad, etc. So now if you are a hired piano player for a fancy restaurant, and someone calls out for you to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, then you remember the story and keywords and come up with 1155665, then hit those notes on the piano, and after playing the seven notes your memory is refreshed and you remember how to play the rest of the composition!

Of course, that convention above doesn’t take into account sharps and flats. But the idea is simply to get creative and work out a system that works well for you. What I might do is come up with peg words for all 12 notes. It would take a while to memorize the 12 words, but once that is done, then you have a very flexible system. You could do something like this:

C  = Sea (by sound)    C# = Seed (modification of “sea”)    D  = Die (either the verb or the singular of “dice”)    D# = Dime (modification of “die”)    E  = Eel    F  = Foe    F# = Phone (modification of “foe”, by sound)    G  = Guy    G# = Guide (think of a female guide to avoid confusion with “guy”)    (etc.)

Actually, you can use any word you want to go with a letter — it doesn’t have to be “logical” — but I chose the words above simply because they’d be faster to memorize.

To be even more elaborate, you could come up with words for “D flat”, “E flat”, etc. You could even come up with a second set of 12 words just so you have more words to work with and thus avoid some confusion by not having to use the same words so frequently. The ultimate would be to come up with 144 words for every two-note combination… which would take a LOT of time, but it would be extremely powerful once mastered.

Anyway, suppose you want to memorize the major C chord, which is C, E and G. Then you’d have to memorize Sea, Eel and Guy. Imagine a big, raging sea. There is an eel (out of water) on the beach, and a big wave comes in and sweeps it back into the sea. Then there is a guy on a beach, and an even bigger wave comes in and takes him in!

Note that when you memorize all 12 chords, you’ll be using the same words multiple times, and you might get them confused. It is important to remember the correct starting word and the correct order. You could think of a “big” version of the starting object and “small” or “normal” versions of the other two. Also, notice that I put the eel OUT of the water to start out with rather than in the sea where it’s supposed to be. This is because the sea has to come first, and if the eel is already in the sea, you might get confused as to which comes first. This is the sort of thing you learn with practice. The challenge is to come up with a very flexible system that works the best and reduces the possibility of confusion.

If you had 144 words, you could memorize C, then E-G as a single word, which would be quicker, and you probably wouldn’t have to re-use that word. Of course, it would take a long time to memorize the 144 words, perhaps the same amount of time it would take to learn all 12 chords by “brute force.” However, once the 144 words are memorized, it can be used for MANY things in the future. It depends on just how much stuff you want to memorize.

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