The Nature of Memory, Part 3: The Principle of Forgetting, continued

The last time I wrote about the nature of memory was way back in May of 2015. I am very happy to finally be able to continue writing about this topic. Basically, these writings on the nature of memory comprise one of three main reasons why I am able to learn and memorize music much faster than I was able to about a year ago. You can read Part 1: What It Means to Learn A Phrase and Part 2: The Principle of Forgetting if you want to understand what I have talked about so far. So far, I’ve basically said the following:

  • As long as you intend for the music to be memorized, you should memorize the music from the very beginning of the learning process. This is much more efficient than making memorizing a separate process that you only accomplish at a later point.
  • Music should be learned phrase by phrase as musically as possible. (See Part 1 for extensive details.)
  • The more we forget and re-remember something (including phrases), the more that thing will stick in our memories. Thus, distributed practice is a much more useful way to memorize a piece of music quickly. (See Part 2 for my elaboration on these topics.)

Although I am not proud of the long hiatus that plagued this blog, I have to say that I am glad I waited to write this particular post. The methods I have been using have changed and evolved many times over the last six months or so. To be honest, I originally intended for this post (Part 3) to be nothing more than further citations of scholarly writings in order to support the ideas that I proposed in Part 2. Instead, I find that I have developed some ideas of my own.

Some of these ideas may appear at first to contradict the thoughts I expressed in Part 1 (learning music phrase by phrase). I hope you will bear with me as I attempt to explain why these new ideas, far from being contradictory, in fact perfectly complement the old.

Once you separate the piece of music you are learning into phrases and attempt to learn / memorize each one as musically as possible, the most efficient way to memorize the piece is to forget and re-remember each phrase as many times as possible. The more we retrieve the musical, meaningful phrase from our long-term memories, the more we become likely to permanently remember the phrase. This is essentially what I described in Part 2.

But how about the memorizing of the phrase itself? Just like playing through the entire piece over and over is certainly not the most efficient (or at least reliable) way to memorize the piece, simply trying your best to memorize the phrase over and over again for five minutes is not the most intelligent solution. So, I combined the idea of the principle of forgetting with one of my strongest and oldest practicing methods:

  • Break the music into 4 measure, 2 measure, or even 1 measure sets.
  • Play “all loud”, often with metronome.

Let me first elaborate on the first point. If a phrase is 4 measures or 8 measures long and it is difficult to remember, logically it would make sense to separate it into even smaller chunks. Indeed, if the piece is very slow and a single measure is very complicated, you can even break single measures into half measure or quarter measure sets.

When I do these “sets”, I always include the first note of the following measure. If I break single measures into even smaller chunks (halves, quarters, etc.), I always include the first note of the following beat. By including at least the first note of the next set each time, you are naturally creating “linking notes” so that you do not have to practice transitions between measures nearly as much later.

Remember: you are memorizing each set of measures and then moving on from them. You have to choose a goal that can be easily accomplished with very minimal effort. Again, the decision will vary depending on your skill level and the difficulty of the piece. If 2 measure sets seem like a reasonable choice, memorize the entire piece in sets of 2 measures (always including the first note of the following measure) or memorize up to the point that you wish to work on for the day. It may seem very odd, but do not try to remember each set of 2 that you memorize! Just having each set in your memory for a moment is already enough – each little “memory task” should take something like 30 seconds or a minute to accomplish. In fact, you should acknowledge that you will probably immediately forget the set of 2 that you just saw. I realize it is very counter-intuitive for some (including me) to just immediately move on. But it works! When you go through the piece again (even if you only do it fifteen minutes from now), you are already solidifying your memory because you had time to forget the music.

Other points to keep in mind:

  • You can adjust! Some sections may require 2 measure sets, while a difficult section may need you to choose 1 measure sets. An easier section or a repetitive section may cause you to choose 4 measure sets for the first time that you go through the piece.
  • You can break down sets into smaller subsets as you go along. If a 2 measure set is not being memorized instantaneously, you can reduce it to 1 measure or half measure sets, always paying attention to which part is giving you more trouble and dedicating your time accordingly.

The second point – “all loud” (often with metronome) is something that may be controversial. I have read articles and heard from quite a few different musicians that claim the metronome is harmful and/or that it should never (or at least rarely) be used. Essentially, I believe that the metronome is merely a tool – nothing more and nothing less. If you find this tool harmful, then of course do not use it. But if you find that it consistently improves your playing, as I do, then by all means, use it! I do not find that it has “robbed me of my natural sense of rhythm” as some would claim. I have used the metronome to help me solve an enormous variety of technical and musical issues. So, this is what I mean by “all loud” practicing:

  • Play almost everything at a good, healthy mezzo forte or forte. Temporarily do not concern yourself with dynamics or shaping.
  • Play with your entire body relaxed (including shoulders, arms, wrists, fingers, etc.) as you play loudly. You should feel very grounded and confident in the keys without pressing on the bottoms of the keys or using excessive force.
  • Still voice chords! But the difference in volume between the note(s) you are showing and the other notes does not need to be as obvious as usual.
  • Still close the ends of phrases to some extent. They do not have to be pianissimo or especially quiet at this time. The ends of phrases merely have to be somewhat softer than the rest of the phrase.
  • Play with the metronome if desired / needed. I find it helpful with just about any piece of music at some point. Choose a speed that is slow enough to comfortably manage.

Practicing with all different kinds of dynamics and articulations is helpful, but I find that the “all loud” method I just described reliably works not only for me, but for all of my students (regardless of talent, how much they practice, etc.). The purpose is to greatly strengthen your muscle memory, preparing you both physically and psychologically to conquer the technical, musical, and memory-related challenges in the piece. Remember that you are doing this “all-loud” practicing while practicing in the sets I described in the first section of this discussion (2 measure sets, 1 measure sets, etc.).


If you go through the piece or the section of the piece you are working on today with these points in mind – memorizing in 2 measure sets (for example) “all loud”, you can go through the piece again in 2 measure sets (since you had time to forget them) or you can increase the size of the sets to 4 measures. After increasing to 8 measure sets “all loud”, it is very likely that the entire piece can be linked together “all loud”. It often helps to break up this task over several days, since sleep greatly helps retention.

So where does “learning phrase by phrase” come in? Basically, at any point during this entire process, you can look at the sheet music (or play from memory if you’ve memorized the markings) and try your best to do all of the points described in Part 1. This “all loud” practicing should make it much easier to accomplish those musical goals because your weight will be much more in the keys and your body will understand the coordination much better. Similarly, the memorizing in sets should make it much easier to remember each musical phrase (since you’ve forgotten each chunk of music multiple times).

At some point, you should try to simply play from the beginning of the piece (using all of the points described in Part 1), trying your very hardest to be musical and to give each phrase meaning. If you have memory problems, try to practice in sets. You can try the sets both “all loud” and with full musical expression. Even though you might temporarily break each phrase into smaller sets, ultimately the phrases will still be the main unit of your musical expression. The only purpose of the methodology described above is to make that task much easier to accomplish. You could say that the method has been amended to something like “learn set by set, but internalize and express phrase by phrase”.

I should also mention: even if you want to memorize a piece “all loud” in order to make things easier, you must always remember to play musically when you actually do a real reading of the piece. It is not acceptable to play “all loud” for a performance, for a lesson, or even for a “real performance” for yourself.

Soon, I will write about the two other main components of this method – separate hands practicing and mental practicing.

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