Pre-Memorization Techniques: Memorizing Music, Part Two

Saxophone student happy at music lesson because he used pre-memorization techniques.

Part Two: Pre-Memorization Techniques

BY MEGHAN VANCE • February 26, 2024


In part one of this series, we examined how our brains memorize music by absorbing, storing, and recalling information. Starting in part three, we’ll focus on specific practice techniques to memorize music. But before you begin practicing, there are techniques you can use to prime your body and mind to receive that information. Make sure to use these pre-memorization techniques if you want to memorize your music efficiently, well, and without the need for stress.


Your brain is affected by how well the rest of your body is functioning. Rick Wormeli, in an article for AMLE (Association For Middle Level Education), writes that good nutrition and regular hydration are important for clear thinking and memory work. He also recommends exercise: “This gets oxygen and nutrients to the cognitive/memorization centers of the brain. Seriously, an hour of swimming, basketball, or working out is one of the best ways to boost memorization.” This pre-memorization technique means that however limited your practice time, you’ll want to make sure you warm up as a musician: the muscles you’ll use during practice should be warm, stretched, and working well.

Little boy drinking water. Hydration helps the body function so it is part of a pre-memorization technique.

    Like the other parts of the body, the brain needs to be ready for memorization. First, make sure you get enough sleep. Wormeli writes that “adequate sleep helps memory formation,” and “All-night cramming actually diminishes later recall of important facts.” Second, make sure you’re awake and ready to focus. Try to eliminate both internal and external distractions.

    Another key pre-memorization technique? Believe you can. William R. Klemm, in his article for The Journal Of Effective Teaching, writes that recall is helped “by having confidence in one’s memory ability and by the belief that the memory will be retrieved once self-pressure is removed.” Finally, warm up your brain by doing something mentally stimulating, then by playing through the song once. Use this warm-up to help you focus on the music.

    Child girl sleeping on bed. Proper sleep habits are part of a pre-memorization technique.

    “Experiments show that students routinely over-estimate how much they remember and underestimate the value of further study,” writes Dr. Enamul Hoque in his article on memorization. Since long-term memory is more stable than short-term memory, and because both sleep and regular spaced retrieval are crucial for moving information from short-term to long-term memory, if you wish to perform well under pressure by memory, you should plan to have the song memorized a couple of weeks before the performance date. This allows time for information to be consolidated into your long-term memory; it also allows you to be confident in your ability to perform by memory.

    This pre-memorization technique doesn’t apply only to long-term memory. Putting the information into your short-term memory will take time too. As you practice, ensure you have enough time to:

        • Play slowly enough to avoid inaccuracies. Your brain will absorb the information you give it, even wrong information.

        • Take time to correct mistakes. Allow yourself time to stop, analyze the cause of the mistake, decide how best to avoid making the same mistake the next time, and implement your plan. This may be as simple as writing in a finger number, or as complex as figuring out which part of your body is in the wrong position for you to play a note in tune.

        • Repeat the information multiple times. If you find repetition boring, gamify your practice. After every repetition, move an object (i.e. move a paperclip from the left side of the music stand to the right side every time you play the section correctly). This helps you see your progress.

        • Take time to think during each repetition. Remember, memorization takes focus. Don’t simply play the music. Make sure you’re thinking about what you’re playing.

        • Allow your brain enough processing room. Your brain can only absorb so much information at once. For beginners, a 2-4 measure section is a good amount to memorize within one 30-minute practice session. Even advanced students shouldn’t plan to memorize more than 16 measure in one day.

        • Take breaks. When working on memorization, don’t plan to work more than 20 minutes at a time. Ideally, try to work over a number of different practice sessions.
        Time management is a pre-memorization technique. A happy little boy with an alarm clock.

        Try planning your time backwards from the performance date. If you’ll perform a 32-measure song on July 1st, and you’re confident you can memorize four measures per day, plan to start memorizing the song around June 1st: two weeks to memorize the 32 measures (8 days of memory work), plus two weeks to move the song into your long-term memory. The more memory work you complete, the better you’ll get at this pre-memorization technique.