Why Memorize Music? – Memorizing Music, Part 9

A young musician who is confidently ready to perform as they chose to memorize their saxophone music.

Part Nine: Why Memorize Music?

BY MEGHAN VANCE • May 20, 2024

In this series we’ve focused on how we memorize music (LINK to part 1) and techniques to use while practicing. But the rise of the personal computer has given rise to questions. “Why bother to memorize information if we can just look it up?” “Isn’t it now more beneficial to teach research skills and critical thinking skills than memorization skills?” And for musicians with digital music and page-turning pedals, performing with music is suddenly much easier than in the past. Is performing by memory really worth all the work?


Before we get into all the reasons why memorizing music can be good, let’s talk about some reasons you might choose not to perform by memory:

Too Little Time

A deadline note is pictured with an hourglass to represent too little time to memorize the music.

If you’re booked for a last minute gig or you’re too busy to practice, you may have no choice but to perform with the music.

Too Much Stress

A stressed student is pictured holding their head to represent too much stress to memorize the music.

You may want to allow yourself the freedom to perform with the music to increase your own ability to relax and enjoy the music.

Too Difficult

A difficult piece of sheet music is pictured to represent music that may be too difficult to memorize.

If the material you’re preparing is really beyond your skill level, you’ll likely play it worse by memory: you’ll need all your brain-power just to play that song.

    Of course, even if you don’t plan to perform by memory, you can still use memory techniques as you practice to help you learn your song well and to keep your memory skills sharp.


      Educators have found that students who were required to memorize from an early age often go on to have more capacity to focus on educational tasks as high school and college students,” writes Dr. Enamul Hoque, in his article on memorization. You’ve probably heard it before like this: the brain is a muscle too, and needs to be exercised. Similarly, Monica Savage, for ELearning Industry, and William R. Klemm, for The Journal Of Effective Teaching, both agree that students learn by associating new ideas with old ideas. As you move musical ideas into your long-term memory, you have information to build on and new connections to make. Not only can memorizing your music improve your ability to learn new music, it can also deepen your appreciation of music.


      Natalie Wexler, for Forbes, writes that “Memorizing facts is generally seen as less important than developing skills like critical thinking. In fact, though, having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.” She goes on to cite a study which showed expert chess players chose better moves not because they were better at analytical thinking, but because they had memorized a vast knowledge of chess positions, which left more room in their working memory to absorb and analyze new information. Likewise, Dr. Enamul Hoque writes, “If foundational concepts and information are grasped, students can move on to bigger and better things, rather than spending time looking up words or doing simple math in a calculator.”

      Of course, musicians performing with the music aren’t stopping to look up terms, but for musicians it can be easy to focus on the printed visual instructions rather than the finished audial product. Donovan Stokes, for No Treble makes this clear: “No longer chained to reading the printed page, the performer can put their attention to aspects of tone, technique, musicality, and nuance more completely. This is helpful not just in performance, but also in the practice room. Great strides in tone production and intonational accuracy more easily occur with memorized music than when we are print-reliant.”

      Piano teacher giving a music lesson to her student. The student is frustrated and could benefit from playing her piece by memory as she is very "print-reliant."

      Stokes also suggests that performers can be better band-mates when they play by memory: “Additionally, when rehearsing or performing with others we may find we are more acutely aware of what they are doing, and are thus more able to respond musically.” Even solo performers can use this idea by extending their attention to the audience. Good public speaker don’t read their speech without looking up once from the page; they work to connect with their audience through eye contact, movement, and body language. You can too.


      In the music world, memorized performances are still often required for auditions, contests, and professional performances. The night before a contest or scholarship audition isn’t the best time to figure out what memory techniques work best for you. Plus, there’s always going to be that friend who says, “Oh, you play? Let’s hear it!” Be prepared to give an off-the-cuff memorized performance: always keep a few songs at the ready!