Why Memorize Music? Respect, Communication, Enjoyment And Skill

The word appearance often carries a negative connotation in society. Disney movies and bedtime stories tell us most definitely not to be concerned about outward appearances when the quality of our character is all that matters. While this is sound advice for daily living, in my opinion it isn’t good advice for a performer in front of an audience. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not actually talking about attire, hair style, etc. I’m talking about a different kind of appearance – the kind of appearance that says to the audience, “I spent so much time preparing to perform for you that I actually memorized my music.” Audiences always have and always will be more impressed with a performer who conjures the performance from within rather than acting as a “channel” that merely connects the audience to a printed page. While the performer still technically acts as a channel no matter how the performance is carried out, the audience is made far less aware of this channeling when it is done from memory.

When you witness a “performance” of someone toppling dominos, are you not more impressed by a thousand dominos than by a hundred? There is something to be said for the apparent amount of time a performer had to spend preparing for the performance. An audience does not need to be taught that a performance from memory requires more preparation than a performance using the music – they know this intuitively. So, while witnessing a performance with music in front of the pianist can certainly be a musically transforming experience, witnessing the same transforming performance without the use of sheet music is all the more inspiring and exciting. An audience feels Broiled Salmon Dinnermore respected when the performer in front of them has gone to great lengths to prepare for their arrival, the same way a dinner guest feels respected when the host serves a good home-cooked meal with silverware and wine glasses instead of plastic forks and styrofoam cups.

Of course, it is true that certain audience members may have no interest in the “give me something impressive” aspect of performance. If the audience’s goal is only – and I mean only – to enjoy well-played music, then theoretically, they wouldn’t care whether sheet music is used or not. But let’s be honest with ourselves: this does not describe the reality of most audience members. Performers communicate with audiences better when they perform from memory, and perhaps with exception to extremely skilled pianists playing music beneath their skill level (or pianists playing music at their skill level beneath their artistic potential), memorized performances are going to be more polished. More on that later.

In a 1999 study, Aaron Williamon found:

“…enhanced visual information in this study (i.e. an unobstructed view of the performer) was extremely influential in allowing the audience to grasp the performer’s expressive intentions.” (p. 93)

According to Williamon, this advantage was only noticed by musicians, but as Williamon notes in his study, J.W. Davidson found in 1993 and 1994 that the advantage was more strongly noticed by non-musicians than by musicians. Granted, this may not apply in the same manner to pianists since piano music stands do not obstruct the audience’s view of the musician, but I couldn’t help wondering how much of this study’s results were also due to the audience’s feeling that the performer is channeling a musical score rather than communicating from within.

A common argument against this is articulated well here:

“Would a blind man be able to discern who plays with the score and who does not, and would his enjoyment be less if he is told? Additionally, if the pianist plays behind the screen, or if the listener listens on the radio or the CD, would anyone know better?” (Lee)

This argument resonates with me since I’ve always been a proponent of blind auditions in competitions and festivals. I do believe music performance ought to be about the sound, not about the visuals. However, as a pianist who doesn’t move around much on the bench and who has been told many times, “You make it look too easy,” much to my dismay, the reality is that music performers always have been and always will be judged on visuals. The simple, unavoidable factor at play here is that audiences want to connect to the performer, and they do so not just by the sound of the music, but also by seeing the performer produce the sound. Studies have confirmed this multiple times. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to acknowledge and work with reality.

With this in mind, the “blind man” analogy isn’t valid since audience members are not and will never be blind. We have always and will always consider what we see to be a valid part of the performance.

I once witnessed a recital in which some students were performing pieces they had just begun only a couple weeks before. Many of them slowed down for sections they didn’t know very well, and some pieces even had cuts in them. It felt almost like a public sight-reading session. I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that the cumulative amount of time and energy spent on the part of the audience members to attend the performance might have very well exceeded the cumulative amount of time and energy spent on the part of the performers to prepare for it. There is definitely something to be said for the respect performers show to their audience when they perform from memory.

Audiences Want to Be Spoiled

A more sweeping conclusion in the Williamon study indicates that audiences enjoy memorized music the most, and this would suggest that this applies to all instruments, not just piano:

“The extra time spent practising for the memorised performances in this study was beneficial, especially with respect to audiences’ ratings of musical and communicative aspects. Both musicians and non-musicians rated the later performances significantly higher.” (p. 93)

For today’s audiences, non-memorized performances are to be expected when the material being performed is simply too difficult to memorize, such as avant-garde contemporary music, when there is ensemble involved (in case a performer “falls off the train” and must use the music to jump back on), or as a totally different example, news anchors reading news that just came in. Even in the latter case, the really good news anchors can do it while spending most of their time looking at the camera. And when they must read something, they look at a teleprompter so the audience thinks the news is being “performed” for them. When people deliver a speech, it is always seems more natural to the audience when it is delivered without speaking notes. Ballet dancers dance from memory, actors act from memory, and other artists who can perform from memory almost always do. Barnett says it well: “How shallow and absurd it would be if actors used scripts, visible to audiences, as security blankets during performances.”

There are some traditions that continue to carry on when maybe they should end (see this Tradition poster at Despair.com). But the tradition of playing from memory isn’t one of these archaic practices. It continues to be done not merely because “that’s just the way it’s done,” but because performers know from experience as audience members themselves that they enjoy a performance more when it is from memory. When Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann established the practice of performing piano music from memory, it caught on for a reason. Snobby critics limited by their own strong beliefs about tradition in music were slower to catch on, but genuine audience members loved it. Performers spoiled their audiences more and more, critics eventually came around, and audiences today continue to enjoy it and will never stop enjoying it. Just as most audience members will connect best with a speech given “from the heart” while the speaker walks around on stage, most audience members will connect better with music that they feel is performed “from within.”

Montparker (p. 19) describes a student who is a school teacher and who does not have time to memorize, but who still wishes to perform publicly with the score. At one time he felt like he was a “victim of convention and custom.” I think it was out of line for one of the student’s colleagues to call it a “crime” for him to perform without the music, and, in fact, if any criticism is dished out at all, I think any criticism of using the score should be filled with gentle honesty, such as, “I would connect better with you as a performer if you played this piece from memory. But your playing was still lovely.” However, to those who wish to perform with music on stage: please understand that if you invite me to your recital and perform with the score, unless your performing is truly world class or you are performing unusual music, original music or extremely difficult music, I may very well leave, not out of anger or protest, but in calm, economic recognition of opportunity cost: it is simply a better use of my time to practice the piano, compose, blog or do housework than it is to hear fair, decent, fine reading of conventional music. However, I confess that I will feel misled if your flyers and e-mails do not advertise that performing will be done with the score, so if you’re going to perform with the score, please advertise it that way! In fact, doing so may even help your cause of trying to get society to accept with-score performances. Society should have no problem with Montparker feeling “entirely justified using the score onstage or anywhere else,” as long as she in turn will not hold anything against those who only wish to attend performances that hold promise for “superhuman perfection” because of “drilling away,” as Montparker dysphemistically calls it.

Distracted Pianists

“Our prime mission is to strive to convincingly penetrate beyond the superficial limitations of the printed notes, phrases, and dynamics to the very core of the composer’s mindset and emotions. Thorough memorization provides greater potential, liberating and stimulating more creativity. Without distraction.” (Barnett)

Even disregarding the audience and thinking only of the internal processes of the pianist, “distraction” in this case comes in the form of having to translate score notation into sound and physical movement. Pianists such as myself claim that musical performances with the score tend not to be as good as performances with the score. In Montparker’s 2013 article, she responds to this argument by saying,

“Does it follow, then, that the same pianist playing chamber music with the score, or any other instrumentalist using music (winds, brass, and string players, even harpsichordists and organists), is inadequately prepared and dependent?” (p. 17)

She then cites examples of Artur Rubinstein playing chamber music or Myra Hess playing Beethoven sonatas with the scores in front of them. The problem with this refutation becomes clear as we first realize that whether the performance is great or not, the pianist is having to use mental energy to translate the written score to physical movements and sound. It is only logically possible for a pianist to be able to have the excess mental energy required to do this while performing at a high, polished level if the pianist’s skill level exceeds the difficulty of the piece by a wide enough margin, such as with Artur Rubinstein playing chamber music or Myra Hess playing Beethoven sonatas. It’s not about whether the pianist is inadequately prepared, it’s about what the pianist might have done with the music if they had memorized the music instead.

With that in mind, it is no wonder why proponents of this philosophy always cite professional pianists rather than intermediate piano students. They never use examples of piano studio recitals in which students perform with music, even though piano teachers are, by far, the ones who most commonly take the time and energy to debate this issue. I’ve never witnessed one studio recital featuring non-memorized music by all performers that included any truly polished music. Perhaps there are some teachers who can do this successfully, but it seems to me this would be many times more difficult to pull off than putting on a good recital of memorized music, since so many students inevitably practice less when they know they can rely on the music while performing.

Montparker only offers two other “common objections” to performing with a score, neither of which I would agree with: “A performer who is glued to the printed page cannot play with spontaneity and freedom of expression,” and, “The page turner is a distraction.”

Expected Pleasure of Memorized Performances

Later in the article, Montparker advocates for using a small mini-score as a security blanket while performing something from memory (looked at only when a memory slip occurs):

“How can the presences of small pages [mini-score] be more objectionable to anyone than the chaotic sounds of a train wreck?” (p. 19)

I would agree that I would rather hear someone play with a security blanket than to hear a train wreck. The problem is that this choice fails to embed probability and magnitude of reward and failure into the choice (a mathematical concept known as expected value). I would estimate that 99% or more of all performances I’ve heard in my lifetime (including performances by students in recitals, festivals and competitions) did not include a train wreck. It’s difficult to quantify how much extra pleasure audience members derive from a memorized performance than a non-memorized one, but let’s generously suppose it’s only 3% additional pleasure, which would be almost negligible. Even this negligible amount, when spread across 100 random performances, will add up to a lot more collective enjoyment among audience members than the amount of pain and suffering the audience feels because of the rare train wreck.

Stated differently, there is something to be said for the value of risk. There is so much more satisfaction on the part of the audience, and so much more sense of accomplishment on the part of the performers, when performers overcome the risk of failure on stage. Given a very high success rate in avoiding train wrecks (whether it’s 97% or 99.5%) and the high reward that is attained by achieving success, isn’t it worth the risk?

The Difficulty (?) of Memorizing

The complaint that memorizing piano music is difficult is so common that I don’t feel I would even need to cite a source. But for the sake of being thorough, let’s take this source which articulates a thought that almost everyone has had at one point or another:

“The pianist has thousands more notes per program, yet is the only instrumentalist expected to memorize.” (Montparker)

This logic is so inviting on the surface. The problem with the logic is that it isn’t actually how information works. Very often, adding more information to something makes it easier to memorize, not more difficult, as long as the added information helps to tie together the already-existing information. The classic example would be the English teacher who gives students 60 seconds to memorize a list of 20 random words. After studying them, students are given another 60 seconds to write them down, and students typically get between 7-15 words. The teacher then presents a different set of 20 random words, but this time, takes 60 seconds to read the students a ridiculous story that utilizes all the words. The students are given another 60 seconds to write the words down, and this time, not only do they all get between 15-20 words right, they even write them down in the correct order.

Music works the same way. The addition of harmony and rhythmic framework that the accompanying hand provides allows the pianist to relate every note of the melody to an underlying story, and likewise, the melody aids in memorizing the accompaniment. The most difficult piece I’ve ever memorized is the 7th movement of Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata. The left hand has a septuplet ostinato that repeats throughout the piece at the tempo of septuplet = 88, while the right hand plays a melody at the tempo of quarter = 116. Because the left hand is played independently of the right hand – none of the notes even line up with any of the right hand notes except when done so accidentally – memorizing this piece is exactly the same as memorizing a piece with nothing other than a single melodic line. Granted, Ligeti’s organic phrasing and deliberate avoidance of structural patterns also presents a huge memory obstacle too. But there is no doubt that the piece would be much easier to memorize if the left hand offered something the pianist could use as signals to help with memory.

This is why it is also so important for teachers to integrate music theory into the teaching of music performance – without it, the pianist has no hope of understanding music the same way composers understand it.

Furthermore, while adding more notes can often make a piece of music easier to memorize, it also often makes it physically more difficult to play. This in turn causes the pianist to have to practice more, which in turn causes the piece to be memorized even more easily. In fact, usually I don’t even have to “try” to memorize a piece, because by the time I’ve practiced it enough to be presentable for stage performance, it was accidentally memorized long ago, even without the aid of music theory (this is how I memorized as a child, when I barely understood what a C chord was). That is why I find it more difficult to memorize slow pieces than fast ones. When the difficulty of music lies in musicality and interpretation and carries little or no technical difficulty (and I can therefore sight-read the piece almost as well as I would perform it), that is when I must put deliberate effort into memorizing.

Performance Skills

Williamon (1999) concludes in his study:

“…the findings of this study may be applied – though with discretion – to both musical performance and pedagogy. Performers can be reassured that memorised performances can offer enhanced stimuli to audiences, whether they be through the aural or visual domain. Consequently, teachers should prepare their students for the demanding expectations of audiences, especially those composed of experienced musicians, by offering them more opportunities to prepare for memorised performances.” (p. 94)

As a teacher, I always have in mind that the set of skills required to perform from memory and the set of skills required to perform using music are quite different. The former skill set is much larger and more demanding than the latter. Some of the skills developed over a lifetime of memorized performances would fall in the category of sport psychology: they are purely skills of the mind that affect everything from control over muscles to mental attitude. A high school student who has performed from memory five or six times per year since the age of six will have a far more robust set of these skills than a student who only performs from memory once or twice a year, or who performs from memory before pieces are truly done yet – again, see my Preparation Threshold article. These latter two students are likely to get “worse” with every performance since the complexity of their music is increasing faster than their ability to handle it on stage.

With this in mind, teachers who do not require students to play from memory are limiting their students’ possible futures by closing doors before they ever have a chance to open. Every skipped opportunity to practice performing from memory increases the gap separating students’ musicianship skills from their actual performing skills, and the longer this goes on, the less possible it becomes to correct the issue. I find this to be tragically ironic considering that the vast majority of those who sign up for piano lessons are doing so to study piano performance.

Considering that a couple of the keynote speakers at recent MTNA conferences have literally been none other than sport psychologists (who talk almost exclusively about preparing for and handling performances), this may indicate just how important this issue is – and should be – to teachers and students.


Barnett, Fred. Letters to the Editor (“Remembering To Memorize or Not to Memorize“). Clavier Companion 5.6 (2013): 12:13.

Lee, Evelyn. Letters to the Editor (“Remembering To Memorize or Not to Memorize“). Clavier Companion 5.6 (2013): 12-13.

Montparker, Carol. “To Memorize or Not to Memorize.” Clavier Companion 5.4 (2013): 16-23.

Williamon, Aaron. “The Value of Performing from Memory.” Psychology of Music 27.1 (1999): 84-95. Sage Journals. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

(c) 2011 Cerebroom