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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Aurora Orchestra at the BBC Proms Aurora Orchestra at the BBC Proms (Mark Allan/BBC Sarah Lee)

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?



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Comments [30]


I've never understood how it is possible to play something during a recital without memorizing. You have to prepare your program well before feeling comfortable to participate in a recital. By that time, it will be memorized or how can you say you can "play" this piece? If you have to read the notes everytime you play it, you can't express what's beyond the notes.

Jun. 28 2015 12:43 PM
Bob from Santa Rosa

I am an advanced amateur pianist. It takes me a LONG time to memorize a piece (always has), and sadly, a month later it has been partially forgotten. On the other hand, I can sight read music pretty easily. So for me, the winning strategy is to read the music whenever possible, and only memorize the few sections that are so fast and furious that memorizing is actually the fastest way to an accurate performance. And I favor this approach to minimize occasionally forgetting a memorized part during a performance. For me, memorizing everything is not an option.

Oct. 02 2014 07:46 PM
Craig Horst from Mendoza, Argentina

I am always a little suspicious of a pianist's ability and / or readiness if he is relying on a score in a recital. I feel if one truly knows a work intimately, you will play it from memory.

I am an amateur pianist; I do not give recitals. I am reading up on various techniques to improve my ability to memorize piano music. My goal is to memorize at least an hour of diverse music. I am tired of encountering a piano in someone's home or perhaps a hotel lobby, etc., and someone asks me to play something. In the past, I always had to apologize saying, "No, I can not. I do not have my music with me." NO MORE! I say, memorize.

Oct. 02 2014 02:12 PM
BL from winter park, fl

It would be a shame for a musician to refrain from performing simply because he/she can not memorize the piece. I feel the most comfortable with music in front of me though I rarely look at it. What counts is the musicality.
Though I never have any problem memorizing my piano repertoire as a child, teen, young adult.... I find it difficult now at 53. Yet I dare say I have never been able to play better!

Oct. 02 2014 09:27 AM
rada neal from san diego, ca

I think memory is a useful tool. I also think that memorization is a wonderful process for the brain to undergo. I just assign particular brain cells to specific songs. It works. I also think it works best for soloists and not necessarily groups.

Sep. 26 2014 11:31 AM
Gerald Martin from Michigan

I have a terrible memory; I'm not about to demand memory in someone else. Also, Toscanini had a humiliating memory lapse during his final NBC Symphony broadcast. I'm only impressed at performing without a net at the circus.

Aug. 26 2014 10:17 AM

Tough call. I'm for memorization in general. That said, I attended a concert on Saturday afternoon where both composers played from their own scores (piano and bass trombone) as well as the violinist. In fact, the violinist walked over to the pianist to check the larger score at one point.

Music is fluid -- but for established pieces, I prefer memorization. DD~~

Aug. 24 2014 05:55 PM
Floria from NYC

Soloists, I feel, should memorize their music. How distracting it is for a page turner to be onstage - you suddenly become nervous that he won't turn the page in time - or start to wonder "what if he doesn't turn the page in time" - or seeing the soloist himself turn the pages distracts from the mood created. It is distracting. Ensembles, accompanists, orchestras, conductors are fine reading their music. A mistake or loss of memory on their part can be disastrous. A soloist can handle mishaps...improvise??....catch up.....even create. (I've known many singers who have created their own words in a loss of text memory - no problem!)

Aug. 24 2014 09:47 AM
Walt Bahn from Houston, Texas

Variables not yet discussed :

1. Some musicians have perfect pitch,
2. Some photographic memories,
3. Some have both.

Stability, expressivity, inter-activity during performance: these are the goals.

Let each performer do what allows the highest musicality under each set of circumstances.

Aug. 23 2014 06:36 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I always thought it was Hans Knappertsbusch who retorted "because I can read music" when challenged why he didn't conduct from memory. I stand corrected. Yes, Toscanini conducted everything from memory as well as in rehearsals because of his near-sightedness and the fact that he didn't like to wear glasses at performances. I think Dimitri Mitropoulos also conducted everything from memory as well as rehearsals. If one is sitting in the audience, I think it's academic whether the conductor is conducting from memory or not since the performance quality is the goal and one can't see much of the conductor anyway from that vantage point, unless the performing venue is the Concertgebouw or the Mann Auditorium. I've never seen the Brahms Double Concerto performed by violinist and 'cellist from memory. I think Sir Clifford Curzon always performed with a full score on the piano rack. I DO prefer to see single soloists in concertos performing from memory (unless it's a brand-new work of exceptional difficulty). On the other hand, I don't mind seeing chamber music performances by musicians with music stands and their parts on them. I chalk up my preferences to ingrained habit.

Aug. 23 2014 09:30 AM
London pianist from London

Hmm, a lot of these comments seem very one-dimensional to me. I'm a pianist and play chamber music as well as solo recitals. I'm much more comfortable playing from the music, even when I know the piece from memory. I have spent many wasted hours on improving the 'safe' memorising of pieces and still felt uncomfortable (or even had memory slips) because of the mental demons. I've played my best recitals of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas from the music.
Actors and singers have an entirely different challenge - a single line that doesn't rely in the same way on muscle memory. They also often rehearse the same production for weeks.
As a professional musician, workload is also an issue. Last year I played over seventy major works - sonatas, song cycles, piano trios etc. All from memory? Not likely!
Of course musicians can play from memory if they feel they'll play better. I wouldn't judge. But I think you have to go deeper than 'he doesn't know it well enough' when you're considering an artist who is using the music.

Aug. 23 2014 06:12 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

MEMORIZATION is most best achieved by full analytical reviewing of the composition's structure and its overall message. Everyone may be different in their approach, but in essence total freedom to express is best served by a dependable memorization. Memorization planned as a military assessment of all the factors, music. words and acting to achieve a total victory for the authors and composers is a worthy cause celebre.

Aug. 22 2014 08:15 PM

To expand slightly on my comment below, Walter's response is usually quoted as "Because I can read music." Don't this quip mislead you, though -- Walter and Toscanini were good friends and held each other in mutual esteem.

Aug. 22 2014 05:27 PM

DianaID, the conductor who replied "I can read music" when asked why he didn't conduct from memory like Toscanini was the great maestro Bruno Walter.

Aug. 22 2014 05:10 PM
Ramona Perez Finkelman from Nyack, NY

What a wonderful conversation. I am enjoying reading the opinions of all! When it comes down to it, the most important issue to be considered is what gives the most compelling performamce for the audience......and for ouselves. We must enjoy together the wonder of music, whether it be sung, played by an instrument, danced, acted while singing as in opera or musical theatre,etc. As a singer, I have done all of the aforementioned, and more. There are different rules or preferences for performances and I have found that using music when not on camera or stage is sometimes helpful and sometimes not! I have never found using music while doing an opera to be my preference...gets in the way of the acting and is something that gets in the way of the energy and creativity we are joyfully sending out to the listner. It seems that we are dealing with only what is deemed "classical" music in our conversations. What about the fine cabaret performers, the "once upon a time" back-up singers for the big TV shows and when recording. Rarely was music used when on camera or singing for a live audience BUT sometimes it was necessary.......and nothing was lost I could go on and on but Mr. Koenig has done such a wonderful job of saying how I often feel, I will happily leave it there. Music is a rich field with much productivity and that is why we are all giving and taking from it every day.

Aug. 22 2014 04:31 PM
Clay Ruede from NYC

Memorization is a recent phenomenon. Unlike actors and opera singers, the classical musical tradition never featured memorized performances until the advent of Paganini, who played without music in order to keep others from learning his "secrets." He would also collect all of the music from the orchestra players after every rehearsal and performance, to prevent anyone from being able to recreate his music. Liszt only began performing from memory (and I have a long-standing suspicion that he was actually improvising much of the time) after witnessing Paganini's successful performances. That it has become a fetish since has deprived us of many great soloists, as concert etiquette and competition requirements make it unseemly to play such music with the score is a travesty of history.

Aug. 22 2014 02:39 PM

I always perform better when the music is memorized. It means I have truly mastered it and made it my own, so I am free to focus on expression and reaching the audience.

Aug. 22 2014 01:15 PM
John Chernoff from Arcata, CA

This is interesting to me and I've two conflicting opinions on it. Sometimes it's helpful to memorize - it teaches us what details we've glossed over when summarizing a piece in our minds and hands. It allows us a wider perspective than the mere page to focus on. It forces us to understand the structure/harmony of the piece well enough to be able to improvise if needed (or, dare I say, even simply desired), and it can also allow us to better connect with an audience. That said, I also find that memorizing music, unless given the indefinite amount of time required to occur naturally, can force me to reduce things into rote tactile patterns and disconnect me from the score which I'm constantly learning from each time I look at it. There's all sorts of things (articulations, phrase marks, dynamics and sometimes just general visual note shapes and clusters) that can be lost when attempting to convert a page of music into a sort of file in my mind. I mean, I can try and "bake" all this information in by practicing the same exact articulations, phrase marks, and dynamics, and so forth over and over, but I get the feeling that's still transforming a dynamic world into a flatter one, for each time I play an articulation I'm doing so not because I'm really aware it's there any longer but because I've tactilely programmed it into my fingers. In other words, I've lost the ability to consciously decide how much of a "dot" something gets, or what mezzo-piano any longer might signify at some unique point in time, in some unique hall, with unique players and a unique audience.

To demonstrate what I mean, I would suggest to almost anyone who thinks they have memorized a piece of music to try writing it out. See how far you get. Can you do the first measure? I find I generally cannot - I'll miss a dot, or a phrase, or all the other things we subliminally absorb through sight and hopefully transform into music. I once tried this with a "simple" slow movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto and was shocked at how much of my memorization was essentially in my fingers.

Anyhow, I don't mean to say playing by memory is bad - I just think there are some hidden practical pitfalls in doing so that musicians (or possibly just me) should be aware of.

Aug. 22 2014 12:48 PM
Alex from NYC

It is ridiculous to think that playing music with a score in front of the artist is better for the expressing of the music. As a vocal artist, we are trained to memorize and then... create. Otherwise the instrumentalists are sight reading. One must know the music, the words and the intent of the composer without having to rely on reading a score. The greatest conductors knew the their scores by memory. This is where technology has limited the human race.

Aug. 22 2014 12:07 PM
DianaID from Maplewood, NJ

I am surprised that no one has mentioned the role Toscanini played in creating the standard of memorizing orchestral and operatic scores. He had a prodigious memory and was able to rapidly memorize. Somewhere in this equation was that he was also very nearsighted. He set the standard of memorization for conductors at least, that we are still discussing here. Interestingly one of the best put-downs was when another conductor was questioned why he had not memorized the score, like Toscannini. His reply "I can read music."

Aug. 22 2014 11:10 AM
12-String from Staten Island

I can memorize music and chords when I play the guitar, but I am not so good with lyrics, especially verses with lots of imagery and poetry. So I have to use the sheet-music stand wherever I play. I don't consider it to be unprofessional. I try to learn songs as best as I can, and I do frown on a performer staring at the sheet. The performer should learn how to use the pages, but also know how to glance at them, look at the instrument, glance back at them, etc. Performing and selling the piece to the audience is much more important than memorizing everything.

Aug. 22 2014 12:29 AM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

There is a business aspect to this issue. A soloist is not likely to memorize a commissioned piece unlikely to ever be part of the repertoire only to be played once. That also goes for obscure works of well known composers that will not become part of the performer's repertoire.

Finally, if you cannot distinguish between a memorized performance versus an unmemorized performance, then what difference does it make? If you were listening to a radio broadcast of the same work both memorized and unmemorized can you assume the memorized performance is better?

Frankly, live music, which I love, is partly a circus act wherein one is amazed that the performer is able to pull off the stunt.

Aug. 21 2014 10:05 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Accompanists read. Orchestras read. Choruses read. Conductors read. Performances are still great.

Aug. 21 2014 09:32 PM
James Koenig from Los Angeles

The choices for answering the question of memorization leave something to to be desired. Shouldn't be "enforced"??? I've never seen the memory enforcement squad haul anyone off the stage for back to the practice room incarceration until parole was earned through playing (or singing) by memory. The real answer is something of a blur between the three. Certain repertoire is better done by memory. There's no doubt about it. And not respecting the convention puts a printed score up between you and your audience.

I'm a singer. Schumann's Dichterliebe would be a reading more than a performance. The drama of the cycle requires the singer as the character of the cycle to portray many scenes from song to song-- and in none of them does the character carry or read a book.

Still-- it is perfectly acceptable to use a score in certain performance settings. Oratorio, Bach Passions, b minor Mass are meant to be done with a score. Complicated contemporary works are fine to do with a score. I personally don't like it when there are four soloists-- and some sing from memory and the others use scores. I think there should be agreement and uniformity. If you're prepared you're not glued to the score. It's a reference if necessary-- . In an opera you know not only your own part, but the parts of everyone on stage -- and in the pit. In a concert work it is helpful to be able to glance at other parts. (But it is a good convention to NEVER sit on stage as one of a group of soloists and follow the music while somebody is doing their aria or whatever. That's called upstaging the soloist(s).

I once attended a wonderful recital with Soprano Galina Visnevskaya being accompanied by her husband Mitslav Rostropovich. She sang from memory-- and he played the whole recital from memory. That takes a certain musical genius. It would have been wonderful if he had used the score. But it was quite magical to have the whole collaborative effort done from memory.

I did a wild Finnish chamber piece for baritone, clarinet, cello, and piano. The text was from a classic Finnish novel (Seven Brothers by Alexis Kivi) and it was a wordy and descriptive account of being taken up a high boot-leather tower on the devil's back and back and forth conversation between the two and being forced to observe the destruction of the world and then sliding back to the base of a fir tree where the whole alcohol induced hallucination began It was a pretty wild ride-- and no one would have expected the baritone part to be memorized.

Each performance is unique and requires good judgement, dilligent preparation, and choices-- including whether or not to use scores.

I generally think orchestras and choral ensembles should use scores-- although I heard wonderful music making both with and without scores.

Aug. 21 2014 09:01 PM
John from Budapest

As a piano soloist, I prefer not having the score to deal with. If I have practiced and put the correct motion patterns to the notes, I will get in enough reps that it will be memorized by the time of performance. If you need the music, then maybe you have not gotten in enough reps, or you haven't clearly defined the motion patterns and ingrained them with the notes. It is true that you cannot drive without looking at the street, but I think a score gets in the way. You start out with the score. But the interpretation is so much more than the score. The score is only the recipe. It takes a great chef to understand how to make that recipe in the way that will taste the best. So it is with the artist. Why would you go back to the recipe book if you have made this recipe a thousand times?

Aug. 21 2014 07:59 PM
Albert Nemiroff from California

Most often artists are guided by muscle memory, or colloquially, "it's in the fingers". Repetition creates an expected flow frrom the first measure to the last. On listening to the same parade of pieces repeatedly from a favorite recording, one comes to expect the same composition in that rigid order. Think of music played repetitiously in an office or store setting. Just the opening two chords on strings telegraphs what to follow is Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song. Perhaps you sing along aloud or privately with the same phrasing. I believe that the majority of artists have sheet music before them as assurance there is a prompt if it is needed. Knowing the sheet music so completely yet haveing that assurance, they are free to make music and not just play notes.

Aug. 21 2014 04:42 PM
Victoria Overing from poughkeepsie, ny

I think it is like drama. If someone went out on stage and was reading their lines, that would be weird. Being memorized gives you a freedom to now work on all the other nuances better. On the other hand, if you are not ready enough with the piece of music, that person shouldn't be expected to do it yet because that would be where the stress and fear of not remembering would come in. If you don't know it well enough with the music in front of you, you shouldn't be ready to perform memorized. Once you know it very well, and are memorized, I believe it is better for you because now your ears can concentrate on listening to the other voices along with yours. Again, like drama, listening is the most important aspect of music.

Aug. 21 2014 04:30 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

The issue of memorization is really that of theatrics. Would anyone care if it turned out that Glenn Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations while reading notated sheet music? It may even be that if one wants to record a piece to one's exact specifications, then this would be ideal, leaving nothing to chance.

Obviously, most soloists would have the major repertoire memorized because they would have been playing these works since their youth, the Beethoven Violin Concerto, for example. You would not expect the performer not to be able to perform from memory. However, maybe having the music available could add something to the performance.

When I see conductors without scores I often think, "Well, bully for you!"

Aug. 21 2014 03:59 PM
Sandy from Peterborough, NH

This question can't be answered in as cut and dried a fashion as your poll exhibits. Whether to use music or to memorize depends on what kind of music it is, among other things. In my opinion, soloists on any instrument should always memorize for a live performance, because it means they are so familiar with it that they can really communicate. This is especially true for pianists and vocal soloists. This is less true the more musicians there are in an ensemble. For groups from trios on up to chamber orchestras, memorization is tremendously time consuming. It is not just notes that need to be memorized, it is also dynamic markings, phrasing, etc. In the case of staged opera, singers would have a hard time portraying the character and communicating the character's emotions with a score in their hands.

Aug. 21 2014 03:09 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

Try doing an opera in a foreign language from memory....including "foreign" stage directions and "unique" conductor interpretations.....hard but do-able! I admire musicians that play from memory.....soloists that don't, impress me that they haven't prepared the piece enough.

Aug. 21 2014 01:24 PM

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