Playing from Memory


When there is no written music in front of us, we are more likely to play with spontaneity, imagination, and emotion, and we are less likely to just “read” the notes mechanically (see Music Reading Problems). But apart from the benefits to our spontaneity and interpretative depth, playing from memory is a real test of whether or not we really know the piece (or the passage), both musically and technically. In order to dominate a tricky passage, it helps enormously to memorise it. Normally, if we can play a passage from memory, then playing it with the written music in front of us will seem easy. And when we try and play a difficult passage from memory, the notes where we stumble will be those notes where we are also most likely to stumble when playing from the written part in performance (stressful) conditions. Put in other words, playing from memory shows us what we don’t know. Or to convert this same truth into a more convoluted and playful word game: “until we play something from memory, we don’t know what we don’t know”.

Only when we play from memory are our eyes free to observe ourselves. This is usually very instructive – especially in difficult passages – and now we can really start to teach ourselves. Imagine how handicapped an instrumental teacher would be if they could only listen to us, never see us playing. By taking our eyes off the music-stand we free up a lot of attention that we can now usefully direct elsewhere. Watching ourselves in a mirror, or simply watching one particular part of our body/cello (bowhand, point-of-contact, bow tip, left-hand, head and neck, face etc) we can make some very important and unexpected discoveries.

Another good reason to play (and practice) from memory is that it gives us the freedom to be able to just sit down and play anywhere and anytime, without the need for a score or a music stand ….. or even a light. While this is not so practical for long sonatas, it is certainly highly useful for the Bach Suites (and other unaccompanied pieces) as well as for shorter pieces.


Not all of us have a large flat open unobstructed area to run in, but if we do, then it is an interesting experiment to try running – or even walking – with our eyes closed. Not being able to see where we are going (what is ahead of us) is an unsettling feeling, identical to the feeling we get when playing from memory when, for whatever reason, our memory is letting us down.

To play comfortably from memory, we need to be able to “see” where we are going. This means that our imagination needs always to be one step (at least) ahead of what we are actually playing: comfortably “observing” (planning) the music that is coming. When we feel secure, and know the music well, playing from memory is a delight, a perfect “flow” experience. To return to the running analogy, this is like running on a smooth, perfectly even, wide-open surface with no obstacles: we barely need to look where we are going. However, when we don’t feel secure with our memory, playing without the music can be quite terrifying. It is as though we were running with our eyes closed (blindfolded or in the dark) on a very uneven potholed surface, on which every step is a step into the unknown and a potential fall.


At the instrument, we can use several different types of memory, all of which can interact with, support, and even substitute for each other. Each type of memorisation technique can be worked on, improved, and developed separately:

  • cerebral (intellectual): for form, structure, keys, repeats, order of movements etc
  • aural: for the melodic sequences, one note leading always to the next one
  • muscular: the automatization of the sequences of movements, like a gymnasts routine
  • photographic (visual): the imagining of the written score


Entire books have been written about how to improve memory in general but these usually talk only about purely cerebral (intellectual) memory. Here below are some general tips for improving our general memorisation skills:


Obviously, if we don’t practice from memory then we can’t expect performing from memory to come easily. Musical memory is like a muscle (musIcle !!??): the less it is used, the weaker it gets. The best way to keep the “memory muscle” permanently strong is simply to practice as much as possible from memory. This idea is valid even for the smallest, shortest little passages. Any tricky little bar or figure will become more profoundly integrated into our muscle memory if we can also play it with our brain memory (without the need to read the notes before playing them). Children who don’t learn to read music at the beginning are obliged to play everything from memory, which actually gives them a huge advantage in almost every way.


Breaking up a piece or passage into sections can help our memory. Sometimes the music makes the sections quite obvious, but other times – in long passages without any particularly outstanding features for example – we may need to choose our own “waypoints”. These are like beacons in the dark: secure reference points on which we can depend to get our bearings and which help us to not get lost in the complex labyrinth of the musical structure. When memorising we should practice starting from the different waypoints in the piece rather than always starting at the beginning. That way, if we do have a memory lapse while performing, we will have no problem just picking up the thread from the nearest waypoint.


When playing from memory we need to know especially well the music that is going on around us. Like that, those other lines of music not only don’t distract us, but rather even help us to know where we are. The fact that we have no other musical voices to help orient us out makes memorising unaccompanied music particularly challenging. On the other hand, if we do get lost or start to doubt in unaccompanied music, then we can always try to improvise our way out of the swamp or jump to a secure waypoint, without any other player having to follow us.


Mental practice (imagining ourselves playing) is a very useful tool for memorising. Not only because we can do it anywhere and anytime, but also because being away from the instrument means that we have no aural or physical feedback to help us to know which notes come next. In the same way that slow practice at the instrument is a great way to calmly automate complex passages into our muscle memory, we may want to slow down our mental practice, imagining each pitch and recognising every note name, to deeply reinforce the security of our intellectual and aural memory.



The melodic line of traditional “harmonic” music is perhaps the easiest type of music to memorise because each note leads us on to the next one in a logical and natural progression, as if the music was telling a story. When we know what the next note will sound like before we play it, this helps us to remember our associated finger and bow movements. In atonal music, by contrast, the notes often seem to be plucked at random from the universe. This means that we will often not be able to imagine (remember, predict) what the next note will sound like. We are thus obliged to depend uniquely on our mechanical “body” memory (fingerings, positions, bowings) without the help of our aural memory. Some people are also able to use visual memory – imagining the written music in front of them.

With atonal music, it is as though we were telling a story in a language that we don’t understand. Or more precisely, in the case of music, we are now telling a story in a language that we do understand, but the words of the story (its sounds) and its grammar have been deliberately muddled up to alter (or in extreme cases, destroy) its logical structure. The language we knew has now been converted to some degree into “gobbledygook” (nonsense), and remembering a story (word sequence) in a language that we don’t understand is one of the most difficult memory tasks that exists!


When our melodic lines start leaping around, they become more difficult to memorise because we need now to think harmonically rather than just melodically.  Memorising larger “harmonic” intervals is considerably harder than memorising “melodic” music. This is one of the reasons why the Prelude to Bach’s Fourth Cello Suite is one of the most difficult movements of the Bach Suites to memorise.


Chords and double-stops are harder to remember than single notes because they combine the need for “harmonic” thinking with the need to remember two (or more) fingers at the same time.


Very often, composers will take the music along a path that it has already been down, only to then suddenly take it somewhere totally unexpected at the last moment. By lulling the listener into a false sense of security, the dramatic or expressive effect of the unexpected modulation or turn of phrase is greatly increased. But if we are the performer, and if we are playing from memory, then we need to be especially well prepared for (protected against) these moments. If we are not, and just follow mindlessly the previously travelled path, then we can easily miss the turnoff, fall into the trap (memory lapse), and end up in a very deep hole! The following examples are just two of many that we could have taken from the Prelude to Bach’s Fourth Solo Cello Suite. This movement is quite an intricate and tricky labyrinth for memorising:

Bach IV prel memory

The Bach Suites have a lot of these traps. Some can even take us to a different movement if we are not careful !!

memory trap to new movt Bach

Or even to a different Suite !!!!!!

memory trap to diff suite


Memorising Bach’s Fifth Suite with scordatura is a real challenge because on the lowered “A” string our fingers and ears must disobey thousands of hours of programming. The combination of chords, “harmonic” intervals, and scordatura makes some of the movements of this suite particularly difficult to memorise. Gavotte I must be one of the hardest movements to memorise in the entire Bach Cello Suites!