Structural Memorization Techniques: Memorizing Music, Part Three

Talented Girl Playing Guitar With Structural Memorization Techniques

Part Three: Structural Memorization Techniques

BY MEGHAN VANCE • March 4, 2024

Memorization techniques abound. In the next few parts of this series, we’ll be grouping techniques by learning styles, starting with the structural or logical style. Though some styles may feel more comfortable than others, it’s helpful to incorporate at least one technique from each style into your process. This will ensure you’re using multiple parts of your brain to encode and store the information, making your memory more dependable.


When incorporating the structural learning style into your memorization process, a great starting point is to identify the song’s phrases. Identify phrases by sight based on phrase marks in the music, rests, or punctuation. Identify phrases by sound based on where you would breathe if you were singing the melody, or based on cadence points. Mark each phrase in your music with a different color.

writing notes on sheet music to identify structural phrases

After you’ve marked your phrases, look for patterns. Do phrases repeat within the song? Exactly or with variations? Make sure your phrase markings reflect your observations. You may use the same blue for similar phrases, for example, but mark one variation with a five-point star, and one with a six-point star.

Look for simple structural patterns of rhythms, scales, arpeggios, intervals, sequences, and cadences or other chord progressions. Look for more complex patterns. How do the simple patterns correlate to the downbeats of each measure? To strong and weak beats? Are there any patterns occurring between voices, or between the lyrics and the music?

Finally, look for oddities. When does the composer break a pattern they’ve previously established? When does something unique happen within the song? Looking for patterns and oddities not only helps you remember the information, but can help you play your song more musically: these are structural tools the composer chose. Paying attention to these will help you recognize and emphasize composers’ choices and styles.


Your song may be very short and comprised of only a few phrases, or longer, formed of sections each comprised of multiple phrases. Identify larger sections by sight, based on written key changes, meter or tempo changes, repeats, or movements. Identify sections by sound, based on changes in articulation, dynamics, or types of chords used. Mark the beginning of each section. Musicians often do this with boxed numbers or boxed letters.

Consider whether the sections in your song are specific enough to be named. For example, in a pop song you may label sections “verse,” “chorus,” and “bridge;” in a classical song you may label sections “exposition,” “development,” and “recapitulation.” Try to identify both the shape and climax of each section. You can mark these in your music as well, or create a separate song map.

Boy Reading Sheet Music During Lesson To Identify Structural Form

Marking the structure will prompt you to think about it as you practice. If you’ve followed the techniques above, you’ve already practiced chunking: combining information into small, manageable and easily-recognizable bits. Laurie Niles, in her article for, gives an example: “…the beginner learning ‘May Song’ in Suzuki Book 1 may be learning it note-by-note, but a more advanced student or player would recognize its opening as a simple arpeggio.” Niles notes that remembering information in chunks is both faster and easier than remembering the pieces of information individually.

As you begin practicing, memorizing a single phrase. Cover that phrase on your music, and play the song. Once you’ve accomplished this for each phrase, cover a whole section. One warning: though we say “one phrase,” it’s best to overlap phrases while practicing. Start slightly before the phrase and end slightly after the phrase, overlapping the phrases by a measure. By practicing in overlapping phrases, you’ll avoid having to pause between phrases during a performance.

In an article for AMLE, Rick Wormeli recommends another good structural practice habit: “Make an outline of the lines or concepts, and memorize just that.” Again, if you’ve followed the techniques above, you’ve already started this process. Try saying the colors of your phrases by memory. Next, combine this with your sections and song map – can you say each section, the climax and shape of each section, and how each phrase fits within the section?

Finally, begin at the end. Memorize your song’s phrases in reverse order. As points out, when we play a song, we play it from beginning to end. This means that our brains are always fresh to take in the beginning of the piece, but “It is the end of a piece of music that tends to be the most challenging.” By memorizing the phrases in reverse order, you’ll balance out this process so that you remember both the beginning and end of your piece well.