Measure for Measure: A Song in Mind

The other day I forgot where I’d put my car keys. No big—found them soon enough and nailed a hook in the wall so I could hang them up as soon as I got home. Problem solved. But it got me thinking about song memorization. Was there an easy hack for that one, too?

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The benefits of playing from memory can hardly be overstated. First off, it means never having to say you’re sorry when you “lose your keys” halfway through a song. Music educator Mark Morley-Fletcher notes even bigger rewards in the intro to his course on memorizing music:

Playing from memory releases your brain from the task of reading music. This literally frees up mental resources that you can use to connect to the music and to interact with other musicians instead. So you’ll express yourself more freely, be more “musical,” and enjoy your playing more… (

To my mind, the single most striking benefit of memorization is the correlation between sheer number of songs memorized and songwriting success. By the time Bob Dylan began playing Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961, he had memorized hundreds of songs in multiple genres, fueling decades of creativity. As noted by Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles made a point of adding new songs to their set every day while they were in Hamburg in 1960. Competitors Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were energetic entertainers, but they recycled the same set over and over. The Beatles took off on wings of limitless creativity, while the Hurricanes faded. Sadly, the lads stole their drummer, too.

Maybe you’ve never played to a mob of drunken revelers at the Kaiserkeller, but if you’ve ever experienced performance pressure, you’ve no doubt noted what an electrifying effect it has on memory. This put me in mind of Jerry Lambreth, who has been posting lessons on at a furious pace for years now. Day in, day out, Jerry lives under do-or-die pressure to memorize. Here’s what he had to say about it (edited):

This is something that I always found came naturally, so when I started teaching I had to study myself to figure out what I was doing that made the pieces stick in my memory. What works for me may not work for others, but here it is, for what it’s worth:

I use the notes on the page when I’m starting to learn a piece, of course.

In the process of learning, I’m identifying fragments or phrases that need specific attention. I isolate them and practice them separately.

In playing them over and over, those phrases become memorized. And I deliberately look away from the notes to focus all my mental energy on what my hands and fingers are doing.

Sometimes I will even ‘play through’ a piece that I’m learning from memory when I’m in the shower, or wherever. I mean by that that I internally feel and recognize the hand movements that I make for each phrase.

That means that I can pick up a piece from any point. I noticed that many students can’t naturally do that—they have to start from the beginning.

Focused attention on your playing, not on reading, forces the muscle memory into your subconscious.

So, observe yourself as you practice: Are you listening and not simply reading? Are you consciously aware of the intricate movements of your fingers as they play each phrase? Are you turning off the inner voice that’s criticizing your playing while you’re simply trying to move the piece into your subconscious?

A Composite Method

The following is an easy-to-use memorization method based on multiple sources. The idea is to form a mental model of the entire song first and worry about details later.

Goal 1: “Look ma—no hands!”

1) Get a lead sheet (chords, melody, lyrics). You don’t have to be able to sightread, as long as lyrics and chords line up.

2) Listen to the song over and over. Sing along as you listen. Note the breaks between phrases. Mark them in color on the score.

3) Quiz: Play it again and hit “Pause” on each break. Sing the next phrase. Release the pause and check for accuracy. Repeat from the beginning if you make a mistake.

4) Draw a map of the entire song, using imagery. In “Wildwood Flower,” for example, the first pause comes after “I will twine and will min-gle my wav-ing black hair.” Draw a bubble with a woman’s face inside. Write “twine,” “mingle,” “waving” in the bubble. These are memory triggers. Look at the bubbles and sing the song.

Goal 2: Hit your marks

1) Play chords on strong points in the melody. Use chords strictly as memory markers. For example, in “Happy Birthday,” sing and play, “Hap-py [F] Birth-day to [C] you,” one stroke each chord.

2) When you can sing the whole song in time with chord punches as above, find a lesson on YouTube and master the technical details.


Follow these steps and you will memorize the song. But the most important ingredient has been left out: motivation. Actors struggle to internalize a character’s motivations, not only to interpret lines, but to memorize them. The same is true of songs. More about this next time.

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