Sorry, Memorizing Doesn't Make You a Better Musician. Or Does It?

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Memorization is ingrained in the protocol of classical music performance. Singers, solo pianists and concerto soloists are usually expected to play "by heart." However, trios, string quartets and larger ensembles almost never play from memory (with occasional exceptions).

But these rules, which evolved over time, may not stand up to close scrutiny. Some musicians find memorization liberating, but others say it inhibits, creating an unnecessary fear of forgetting the music. On this week's episode, we get two views on the topic.

The concert pianist and writer Stephen Hough says he thinks it's time to reconsider the conventions around memorization. He asks, "Isn't it most important that we play our best? And if we really play our best with a score in front of us – or these days an iPad in front of us – perhaps we shouldn't pay too much attention to this."

Hough notes with some amusement that audience members will frequently approach him backstage and express amazement at how he remembered all of the notes. But not, "'how did you find the musical meaning behind those notes, how do you pedal, how do you find nuance,' or all those thousands of things that we musicians work on all the time."

Also joining us is Nicholas Collon, the conductor and founder of Aurora Orchestra, a London-based chamber orchestra that recently performed Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 at the BBC Proms, without using scores or sheet music. The performance proved to be controversial, first dismissed by some pundits as a gimmick (reviews, however, were overwhelmingly positive). Collon says that some players found the preparation "stressful" at first, but ultimately it was liberating.

Segment Highlights

  • Hough on memorization's historical place: "In Chopin's time, it was considered disrespectful to play without the score. At that time, if you played from memory, you were improvising."
  • Collon on memorizing Mozart's 40th Symphony: "To be honest, the musicians said yes to this eight months ago and thought, 'this will be easy.' Then about a month ago, they started thinking, 'oh dear, we've actually got to do that.'"
  • Hough: "There are artists like Myra Hess or [Sviatoslav] Richter or Clifford Curzon who played all the time from music and have so many wonderful things to say. Who am I to say to Richter, 'I'm sorry, you can't come and play in public because you're not playing from memory?'"
  • Collon: "Memorization is not the goal. It's part of the journey to get there and something that we'll do on the way."

Listen to the above segment and tell us what you think below: Does memorization matter? Do you enjoy performances that are memorized more than those that aren't?