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Improve Your Musical Memory

memory, memorize, learn music by memoryMemory is often a big issue for jammers, because so much of playing music involves memorizing stuff! Whether you are trying to recall a lyric, or what chords go with a bluegrass fiddle tune, being able to memorize these elements will make your music-playing life so much easier. Yes, there is a time and place for sheet music or TAB, especially in such musical styles as classical or trad jazz, but for most of the music we encounter in jam sessions, the more you can play by memory the better.

So, how do we learn to commit more of our music to memory, and stop relying on piles of TAB so much? Well, the first step is to learn a bit about how our memory operates, so we can stop doing things the hard way. The very word “memory” comes from the Latin “memoria”, meaning mindful. So, if we pay attention and open our minds to knew ideas, we are on the path to a more effective memory.

Let’s begin by going over the three mechanisms by which the brain commits material to memory: SegmentingRepetition, and Association. Yes, these sound like big scary science words, but don’t worry we’re about to break it down for ya…

Segmenting                                                                                                                                               Also known as “chunking” or in our way of putting it, “taking little bites”. This is something most of us do instinctively, but it bears going over as it is so important to the memorization process. Let’s take a look at the example below, the first four measures of some country licks. In this case, we want to Segment the piece into two measure blocks, primarily because that’s when the chords change. This is an important point when deciding what size segments to break your music into. The idea is to stick to small sections, like one or two measures, but it also helps your brain when the segments each have their own character. So in this example, our first segment is a “G strum followed by a G scale”, and then the next segment is a “C strum and a C scale”…see what we mean?

playing from memory, play by ear Now here is the trick, don’t charge ahead until you are certain that each segment is memorized on it’s own! Each segment is a “mini-composition”, and you want to be sure you can play each without looking at the page. Stop after you get a handful of segments memorized, we’ll tell you why in a moment.

Repetition and Association

Let’s talk about how the other two techniques of repetition and association work into this process. You will be repeating each segment over and over until you can do it from memory, that’s the repetition part. However careless repetition can actually cause bad habits, so as you repeat each part you will want to be sure that your playing is slow, accurate and even. Avoid the temptation to play fast, check the music to be sure you are playing each note correctly, and then play it with an even tempo (this is where using a metronome or JamAlong Backing Track is very helpful!)

Using association is a bit more subtle: you will be adding a mental “tag” to each segment, meaning you will find something significant about it and mentally repeat this tag as you practice. For example in the above bit, you could call the first measure “opening G”, and the next one “C strum”. You can also use general thoughts or feelings to create association with a block of music, like “blue” for the first measure, and then “hot orange” for the rest. This sounds funny, but it actually really works, try it!

Consider this: have you ever been practicing a song and something significant occurs nearby? Like a phone call from a friend, or a strong smell, or a dog barking, and then whenever you play that same phrase again you think of that event? This is exactly what we mean by association, except that we are doing it on purpose now 🙂


memorizing music, memory, how to memorize songs

This is our not-so-scientific way of describing how you can check on your progress when memorizing a piece. So up till now you’v been dutifully segmenting, memorizing the piece measure by measure. Now it’s time for a test drive! Put the sheet music to TAB aside, and just start playing and see how far you get. Don’t worry if you crash after the first few measures, just stop and start over again from the beginning. Try to keep your mind a “blank”, just let your fingers lead the way. After a few times you will get a good idea of how much of the song is actually memorized, now you’ll mark that spot and go back to segmenting from this new start-point. If you aren’t having much luck with test-driving, all it means is that you need to spend more time looking at the music and repeating it that way. The magic is when you discover that after a while more and more of the song becomes memorized, without you even knowing it. Eventually you’ll surprise yourself with how far you get in each test-drive, and one day it will take you all the way to the last measure!

All right, to summarize…

Five Step JamAlong Memory Method 

1 – Prepare a note pad to mark segments (or make separate noes if you’re using a screen)

2 – Segment the first part of the piece and start learning each part with repetition

3 – Make sure your practice is  slow, accurate and even (use a JamAlong Backing Track!)

4 – Put the music aside and try a test-drive

5 – Mark where you got to on your test-drive, and start the process over from there

This method works with any type of music you want to memorize, whether it’s a fiddle tune, Fur Elise, or the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row (and good luck with that last one!).

Brain Science and Muscle memory 

Although brain science and particular the study of memory is an ever evolving and contested area, having some know-how on what’s going on under the hood is not a bad thing.

The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells, called neurons. These cells are chatty if you will, they “talk” to each other using chemical messengers. Incoming signals cause a listening neuron to fire or send signals of its own. A cell fires when an electrical signal travels through it. The signal moves away from what is called the cell body, down through a long structure called an axon. When the signal reaches the end of the axon, it triggers the release of those chemical messengers. The chemicals then leap across a tiny gap. This triggers the next cell to fire. And on it goes.

As we learn something new, cells that send and receive information about the task become more and more efficient. It takes less effort for them to signal the next cell about what’s going on. In a sense, the neurons become wired together.

learn music by ear, how to memorize

From this brain-science point of view, memories are sets of encoded neural connections, triggered by the firing of neurons that were involved in the original experience. So when you play a measure of music you are actually connecting new brain cells together, with the idea that later on you can access these new connections and re-create that same bit of music in your mind. It’s like you have a movie projector in our head that can re-play the music score for you. When we think of it this way, it becomes clear that how well we “load” the projector in the first place will effect how clear our memories will be. So if we have a scientific approach to memorizing we are much more likely to succeed… that’s why we made you the Five Step Method!

Now when you are repeating your bits of music over and over, what you are actually doing is storing them temporarily in your short term memory, so that it can then be moved into long term memory. It is generally accepted that we can only store a limited number of things in our short-term memory—about four to seven different items. That is why you don’t want to try to memorize more than a few measures at a time. However, when you have succeeded in moving those measures into your long term memory, the space is much more unlimited. Think of it this way, your short term memory is a temporary storage to assemble the music, and your long term memory is the filling cabinet where you can put the whole song or lyrics. Musicians use a particular type of long term memory often called “muscle memory”, where we don’t “see” the music we’ve memorized, we just “feel” it and let our hands go by themselves. Have you ever watched a good pianist and thought “wow, her fingers have a mind of their own”? Well, this is actually truer than you may think.

This is because muscle memory is a feature of your nervous system, which is everywhere in your body, not just your brain. When you practice a song over and over again, you are literally “grooving” new neural pathways in the nerves of your arms and hands. You are embedding memories into the “mind” of your fingers! This is also called “neuroplasticity”, or the ability of our central nervous system to reshape itself based on the demands we place on it.

The good news is, you can learn to increase your musical memory just like any other skill, which will give you the advantage of learning songs quicker and not having to lug your music stand around all the time! So the next time you sit down to learn that fiddle tune or new lyric, don’t just practice, practice smart. Get out your pencil and segment the song into smaller pieces, then find a matching JamAlong Backing Track and play along to the slow tempo (you can order custom backing tracks for any song you are learning, check that out HERE). Then after you’ve spent some time and have a good collection of measures built up, put the music aside and see how far you get on your “test drive”, you may surprise yourself 😉


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