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5 Types of Memory in Music

Do you fear memory slips when performing? Make sure you've equipped yourself with these 5 Memory Warriors!

Imagine you’re in a lesson, an audition, or on stage. You’re playing the best you ever could and then your mind goes blank; Your body stops playing; You’ve forgotten the music; You’ve forgotten where you are, what you’re doing, who you are, WTF is going on?

Memory slips can feel like clever and evil little things, just waiting in the shadows to sabotage all your hard work.

I’ve been there and I’m sure everyone has had this experience at least once.

When it comes to memory, I like to think of it as though I have 5 warriors on my side to fend off the memory slip demons. Oftentimes, students only rely on Muscle Memory and don’t level up the other 4.

Here are your 5 Memory Warriors to help your memory and nail your next performance!

#1 - Muscle Memory (Kinaesthetic)

Muscle memory is the body’s ability to recreate a movement without much conscious thought. It is often the first type of memory to be built. It’s a passive and subconscious way to remember music.

In a way, it's like the first line of defence against memory slips.

Muscle memory can get a bad rep because of it’s fragility during mentally stressful situations, but it is not something we should abandon completely.

The body has developed this ability to remember things subconsciously because it’s efficient!

You wouldn’t want to have to re-learn how to tie your shoes, or how to play a scale EVERYTIME you need to use these skills.

Muscle memory then, is a great way for you to keep those skills and then build and refine them into more complex tasks. Because Muscle memory is a fickle creature, you need other forms of memory to strengthen the reliability of your memory and execution during high stress situations (like performing on stage!) More on that below!

But first! Here are some things to consider to deepen and strengthen your muscle memory when learning or memorizing a passage of music:

  • What does it feel like?

  • What does the hand shape of the chords feel like?

  • How much weight are you putting into the keys - is this section heavy, light, gliding, swooping?

  • How does it feel to play this passage? - disjointed, light hopping, sweeping arm motions, active fingers, loose wrist, the pressure,

  • How are you connecting your musical gestures?

  • Where do you feel the music? - in your arms, fingers, torso, legs

  • When do you feel it - do you feel heavy at the beginning of the music and then light and free in the following phrase?

These questions help you understand your muscle memory more deeply so that you can organize the music in your body. In a way, it’s like forming a musical map for your body.

#2 - Aural

While Muscle memory is easy to develop, Aural or Musical memory is the most important!

At the end of the day, the sound you have in your mind should connect directly to the body to reproduce the sound. So if you don’t know what it sounds like, your fingers will have no guidance and be just as lost!

Just like our muscle memory, we want to be able to enrich our musical memory because the richer each component of our memory is, the more data we have, and the likely we are to be engulfed in the music, thus less likely to have a memory slip.

Here are some things to consider to enrich your Aural Memory:

  • What does it sound like? - does it move up, down, stay the same, jump around?

  • If there are leaps, how far are those leaps? - whats the interval and direction

  • What’s the tonality? - Major, Minor, Modal,

  • Do you know EXACTLY how each voice or line in the music sounds?

#3 - Visual

Visual memory can help bolster the forms of memory and you DON'T need photographic memory to make good use of it. If anything, the visual memory will help you form a visual map of the music and help trigger another memory functions to recall the music.

One way to use the visual can be related to the score so that you have a visual road map of the music:

  • What does the score look like?

  • Where does the specific passage occur in the music? - in the Exposition? The middle of the 6th page?

  • What does the melody look like? - Blocky section with chords? Flowing melody that cascades down, Contour of the music,

  • I, personally, like to colour in my music to help me make that mental map. For example, I may colour in a bar green when the music changes the key to G major.

The visual memory can also be used in it’s relationship with your instrument:

  • Where are you on your instrument? - low, middle, high, spread across the piano

  • What does the hand shape of the chords or scales look like?

  • What do you hands look like in relationship to the keys on the piano (topographical)

#4 - Theoretical

I find that this type of memory is the most unaddressed because it does require a level of musical investment and maturity to use in a meaningful and quick way.

Theoretical memory is like the Grammar of music. If you were memorizing your lines to a play, it can be helpful to know the structure of your sentences. The structure helps give you guardrails when you’re reciting the phrases and also helps you improvise your way through to the next line in a tough situation.

In Music, even knowing the most basic theory concepts can be helpful.

  • Knowing the chords: It’s much easier to remember that a melody uses a C major chord, moving to a G major chord, than it is to remember the order of 6 different notes.

  • What are the chord progression? - Knowing the chord progression can help aid your aural memory and also help you improvise your way out of a sticky situation. Sometimes, people won’t even notice that you’ve made something up!

  • What is the structure of the piece? - is the piece in ABA form? Sonata form? How are the phrases arranged in each section? What keys are you in?

#5 - Emotional

This is a powerful memory tool that I feel is often not brought into more awareness.

Humans are emotional creatures and it’s these very emotional that help you learn, encode, and retrieve information deeply and efficiently. I’d like to dive into this topic more but definitely in another post!

Since music is Emotions in the form of sound, you should make use of it!

Here are some things to consider:

  • What’s the mood of the piece/section/phrase?

  • What part of the music, or what voices take on what emotion?

  • When the music evokes an emotion within you, where do you feel it? (chest, hands, arms, etc)

  • What’s a story that you can create considering these emotions?

  • What is the relationship between the emotion and the articulations and dynamics.

Once you hone in on the emotions, it automatically informs so many musically expressive things that you would no longer need to “remember”. For example, some students have difficult remembering to play quietly, with light staccatos, and a slow tempo. But if you realize that this section of the music is “Cautious”, those seemingly random details take on a whole new meaning and execution!


All 5 of these areas in Memory are not divorce of each other! They all work together to form a strong, rich, and deep understanding of the music you play. Thus, allowing you to embody the music better and not relying on “memorizing” and “retrieval” of the music. If you’re “in the music”, you’re embodying the music, there is no need to grab and perform it because you are the music!

It is also these 5 areas that can help keep the performance alive if one aspect starts to fail. They are like safety nets.

Enriching each component of memory can only benefit you and your music. Find your own chemistry that works for you!

Happy Practicing!


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