Posted Aug 4, 2016 by Brian Jenkins - 3 Comments

The Four Types of Musical Memory

The Four Types of Musical Memory

As a musician there will surely come a time when you need to memorize music. Learning how our brain works is extremely important, so that we can maximize our memorizing effectiveness. Too many musicians rely on just one form of memory, when in reality there are at least four different ways to memorize a piece of music.

Music that is well memorized can be written out note by note by the musician. Music that is not well memorized, can only be performed at the instrument from beginning to end.

You’ll find exactly how to avoid memory slips in performance as you continue reading.

Short Term vs Long Term Memory

In order to understand how the different types of memories below work, we need to understand the difference between short and long term memory. I will only go over the differences here briefly as I’ve already written an article teaching students how to memorize music. The article discusses the differences between short and long term memory in depth.

Short term memory has a capacity of 7 (plus or minus 2) items in adults, and it lasts about 10-30 seconds. Short term memory can be helpful in sight reading, but it isn’t the type of memory we are working towards obtaining when memorizing music. It serves as a vehicle to get a piece of music into our long term memory.

Our long term memory is different. This is the type of memory that lets you recall events that happened days or even years ago. Science hasn’t found a limit to long term memory in both capacity (how many memories you can have) and length. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be looking primarily into what different forms of long term memory we can establish to recall music effectively.

1. Muscle Memory

Muscle memory is both the most important, and least important form of musical memory. Let me explain.

It’s not Actually Memory

Everyone has muscle memory. If you can walk, drive a car, or yes play an instrument, you’ve experienced muscle memory. In a lot of areas of your life that require motor control, your body has “remembered” how to effectively complete a task. These tasks usually require no concentration. We do them on autopilot.

Some researchers do use the word basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is also where habits are stored. Habits happen without us having to think, and so does muscle memory.

When you start playing a piece of music your body takes over and plays the correct notes. Like habits, if you get distracted, it all breaks down. This is exactly where we are prone to memory slips.

Even slow music is usually too fast for our conscious mind to keep up. Because of this, we automatically develop muscle memory. It’s a requirement for playing advanced music on any instrument.

So how do you develop muscle memory? By playing the music. If you play a piece of music enough, you will establish muscle memory without any conscious work on your part. Just practice, and it will come.

If it’s so easy to develop, and is required for playing music, then why would we bother talking about any other form of memory? Although it’s important, it’s also very fleeting. It can fail without any notice. Like was mentioned earlier, any interruption and it stops working. If you’ve ever performed a piece by memory, and had a massive memory slip, it’s because you were only using muscle memory. You hadn’t actually stored the piece in your long-term memory.

Unfortunately many many students rely 100% of muscle memory and memory slips are common. Don’t be one of them. Learn how to establish an actual long-term memory storage of a piece. You’ll then have the piece stored away. When your muscle memory inevitably fails, you’ll have another form of memory to fall back on. When you find your place again your muscle memory can then again take over.

If you’re doing it right, this will cure all memory slips.

2. Conceptional Memory

Conceptual memory is understanding how the music works together. Conceptual memory can be learned by understanding music theory. By having a good conceptual memory you memorize the chord progressions in a piece, the key changes, the form, and other ways that the piece was written.

When your muscle memory fails, instead of stopping, panicking, and starting over, you can just think to yourself, “ok I just played the tonic, I remember what comes next is the sub dominant!” That may be all you need to get your muscle memory started again.

When you get really good at understanding a piece of music on a conceptual, theoretical level, you’ll find that memorizing comes much easier.

3. Visual Memory

Visual memory is your memory of the notes as they are arranged on the page. Without knowing it you likely have at least a small degree of visual memory of all your pieces. Can you picture in your minds eye where sections of music are on the written page? You may be playing through a piece of music, using muscle memory of course, but then your muscle memory fails you as it inevitably will. Then you start to picture the written page in your head, and you know where you are because you can see the next section of music on the page. Maybe you can’t read every note in your head, but you can likely see where sections are without looking.

You can take this a step further and actually spend time memorizing every note as it appears on the page. Remember, that in order to put something into your long term memory, you need to first put it in your short term memory and then repeat. In order to have a visual representation of the sheet music memorized in your mind, you’ll need to do the same. Take a short section. It should be small enough so that when you look at it once and close your eyes, you can reproduce exactly what it looked like on the page.

This small section may be one measure, or it may only be one beat. Once you have the accurate representation of the music in your minds eye, look through it again. Look at the music then close your eyes. Repeat this about 3-5 times. Then move on to the next section. Make sure you are memorizing the articulations, the dynamics, the notes, even pay attention to the color of the page, and the texture. This takes concentration. The more things you focus on the more clear your mental image will become.

Keyboard Memory

For keyboardists there is another type of visual memory. It’s usually referred to as keyboard memory. This is your memory of how your hands actually look while you’re playing your piece. You should be able to mentally run through all of your music from beginning to end in your head. You can acquire keyboard memory the same way you acquire visual memory of the page. Take a small section and then play it in your head over and over. Then take another section and do the same. For keyboardists, this is often the most simple type of memory, beyond muscle memory, to acquire. It comes fairly easily because we’re constantly looking at our hands.

This type of memory is not impossible to acquire for other instruments, but it can be more difficult because you may not see your actual body performing from your perspective, whereas pianists have the best seat in the house.

Photographic Memory

I want to write a quick word on “photographic memory”. You may have noticed I purposely didn’t call memorizing the physical page of music a “photographic memory.” That doesn’t mean you couldn’t use that term. Having a visual image in your mind, is a little like taking a picture and storing it in your head. But we need to be careful. Photographic memory is also the term used to describe people with a magical ability to memorize anything with just looking at it once. They just take a picture in their head, and POOF! It’s up there for good.

The truth is, though, that people like this don’t even exist. There is one possible unexplained case, but even that is a little fishy. It takes work to develop a visual memory of a piece of music. So don’t get discouraged by myths.

4. Aural Memory

The last type of memory is an aural memory. Aural memory is memorizing the way a piece sounds, so that you can later reproduce it. Most of us naturally are able to hum or sing a piece of music that we know well. But in order to be effective, this can not be a cursory humming of the piece. We should be able to reproduce each note, each sound, in our heads and out loud as close to the real thing as we can get. Often this takes practice.

One way to practice this is by singing it the music. Sing the music on some syllable, like la. Practice it like you would anything else. Take a small section and repeat. Then take another small section. Over time you’ll notice that you have a good idea as to what the piece sounds like, and you’ll be able to reproduce that sound in your head. This is especially helpful when combined with visual memory of actually playing your instrument. You can then play through a piece in your head and actually hear what it sounds like.

In order for this to be most effective, though, we really need to take it one step further. Ideally you should be able to dictate the music. That means you need to be able to write the music down based on what it sounds like. If you can hear the next note in your head, but you don’t know how to play it on your instrument, it won’t be very helpful.

There are a few things that will assist you in doing this. First is ear training. Getting good relative pitch recognition through daily practice is the best thing you can do to help with aural memory.

Relative Pitch

Relative pitch is ability to recognize notes, or groups of notes, with a reference pitch. The reason this is helpful is because if you can hum the music out-loud, or in your head, you can then recognize what the next bunch of notes are going to be just by ear, and you can replicate this on your instrument. Your recognition capabilities have to be pretty good for this to work in a real life situation though.

When just beginning with ear training, students will need to sing up or down to the pitch, or imagine the interval as part of a familiar song. That type of recognition is a great place to start with relative pitch, but it’s not quick enough to be able to recognize pitches you’re singing in your head before the music passes you by. This is the topic for another post, but working on ear training can help quite a bit with memory.


Is it really necessary to memorize a piece using all 4 types of memory? Not necessarily. What’s most important is that you actually have the piece memorized. If you were asked to sit down away from your instrument and write down the entire piece of music, would you struggle? Could you do it at all? Even if you would struggle, you probably need to memorize the piece better. You won’t have all day to figure out what comes next in a performance setting. If one type of memory fails, the other will take over. Ideally you need at least one other type of memory learned extremely well beyond muscle memory to feel confident with a piece of music.

What type of memory do you use the most? What has helped you to memorize pieces quickly? Let us know in the comments below.