Memorizing Music, Part One: How Do They Remember All That Music?

Red roses and a violin after a concert where a violinist performed by memory.

Part One: How Do They Remember All That Music?

BY MEGHAN VANCE • February 19, 2024


If you’ve ever watched a virtuosic performer play a twenty-minute song by memory with an orchestra, or watched a rock band perform twenty songs in one memorized concert, you may have asked yourself that question. The task may seem daunting, even impossible, a feat only to be attempted by the most gifted musicians. But remembering a lot of music is a skill, and the skill can get easier simply by knowing how the brain does it. So how can you remember all that music?


Encoding means to absorb information in a way that the brain understands. If you listen to a lecture on an unfamiliar topic and that lecture includes lots of terms you don’t know, you’re unlikely to remember it, even later that same day. Even understanding the information is not enough. Musicians must make a conscious effort to absorb the information they’re practicing. Dr. Enamul Hoque, of the Education and Development Research Council, writes in his article on memorization: “Studies show that in order for you to retain information, you have to be focused and pay attention. If you are not, then the information will be disregarded within 30 seconds.”

A focused girl sitting on couch and playing guitar in living room. She will remember her music through encoding.

    Once the brain absorbs the information, it stores it. Musicians must learn their music in a way that makes it easy for the brain to store that information correctly. If you think about a musical idea as a physical file to be put in a file cabinet, it helps to label the file. The more detailed information you have about that idea – the song’s historical era (correct file cabinet), the title of the song (correct drawer), the location of the idea within the song (correct folder), etc. – the better that file can be stored.


    Many beginning musicians assume that if they play a song over and over with the music, they’ll eventually be able to remember it at some point in the future. But actually, one of the important steps to memorizing music is to practice the song by memory. If we stick with the physical file metaphor, the more you pull out that file, the more worn the folder will become, making it easy to spot against all the other neat folders. The brain, like a computer, works to store information efficiently, making information that is accessed regularly even easier to access again.

    Caucasian businessman pulling files from a traditional file cabinet. This symbolizes that we remember by storing and retrieving.

    Monica Savage, in her article on the role of memory in learning, writes that “The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to be retained in long-term memory….” This, of course, is the goal, but long-term memories aren’t formed in one practice session. “Getting information from short-term memory into long-term memory is called ‘consolidation,’ and sleep is critical to this process,” writes Molly Gebrain, in her article titled “How To Help Your Brain Memorize Music.”

    To consolidate music, it is helpful to repeat all three steps at regular spaced intervals. First, practice the piece with the music, paying attention to the information you used to remember it the first time. Second, practice the piece with the music, paying attention to some new information that can help you store the music in a different or more detailed way. Third, try playing the piece by memory. Repeat these steps every day for a couple of weeks.

    Once you’ve practiced done this, start experimenting. Try practicing the music every other day, then every three days, then every four. Eventually you may be able to play the music only once a month and still remember it. The process to remember music may be difficult initially, but in this way, it gets easier as you continue to work on it.

    Even better, Natalie Wexler, for Forbes, writes that long-term memory “is virtually unlimited.”

    So you can remember all the songs you want – as long as you make enough practice time to keep them in your repertoire.

    An endless road to symbolize the endless opportunity for us to remember and store songs in our brain.