Have you ever had your mind go blank performing a piece that you could play perfectly beforehand? It happens to just about everyone, regardless of their instrument or skill level.


Talk to anyone who has memorized pieces to play at a recital or special event and they will be able to recount a time when their mind went totally blank while performing.


My First Trainwreck!memorize

I was 16 years old when it happened to me the first time. I had just put together a hymn arrangement for an upcoming piano competition. My dad, who was the worship director at our church, liked what he heard and asked me to play it on a Sunday morning during the offertory.

There were a few spots that I struggled with, so I worked on them during the week and felt confident going into Sunday morning. That morning, I started the piece with well, hitting all the runs and arpeggios just as I had written them.

I was progressing nicely through the piece when all of a sudden my mind went totally blank. I had no idea what key I was in or where I was going next. In a matter of seconds, my heart rate felt like it had tripled! 

Somehow, by the grace of God, I recovered and finished the piece in a totally different key than I had planned. What a disaster!

memorizeIs there a solution?

Have you ever wondered why this happens? Is this just something we need to deal with as musicians or is there a solution?

A while back, I recently came across a teaching about musical memorization by a guy named John Mortensen. John, a piano professor at Cedarville College, has discovered a solution to this problem.

He believes it begins with understanding that there are 4 different kinds of memory that we use to learn music.

memorizeIntellectual Memory

The first kind is intellectual memory. Intellectual memory includes details such as the key signature and time signature of a piece, the note names, and the rhythms it uses.

The ultimate example of this is a person who can write out the piece of music they are memorizing on a clean sheet of paper including all the notes, rhythms, and other musical details.

Aural Memory

memorizeAnother kind of memory is called aural memory. This type of memory can be best demonstrated by a person’s ability to hear the notes in a piece. To someone who uses this method, it’s as if they have an imaginary iPod playing the music in their head.

Motor Memory

The next kind of memory is known as motor memory. Motor memory is the subconscious knowledge of the physical motions. With this kind of memory, you can’t necessarily name any of the notes especially when you are away from the physical piano.

Visual Memory

memorizeThe fourth kind of memory is visual memory (for those that have their sight). This type of memory allows you to actually see the score as you are playing the piece of music. John goes on to say that he thinks most pianists do not memorize using visual memory.

Mortensen believes that many pianists fail to adequately memorize music because they have not taken the time to develop all four of the memory types. In fact, he thinks most musicians primarily use their motor memory when memorizing, which they develop by playing the music over and over again.

The Danger of Motor Memory Alone

memorizeThe problem with using just the motor memory is that it can be easily disrupted. We don’t realize this because we do not practice in the same setting as the one in which we perform.

Think about it. We practice in our living room or in a practice room. Usually, we are the only ones there. Compare that to a lighted stage in front of hundreds of people. Our nerves kick in and before we know it, we are talking to ourselves about the music we are playing.

We begin to doubt ourselves and ask questions like, “Where is that note that starts off in the left-hand?” Because we are relying on our motor memory alone, our thoughts are too much and it breaks, causing us to go blank.

This, of course, is much less likely to happen when we are relying on more than one type of memory.

Developing Other Ways to Memorize

John teaches that we need to develop each kind of memory when learning a piece to prevent the motor memory from taking over. Here is a list of steps that will help you to do that.


  • Make sure you know the key signature, chords, and chord progressions of a piece. Say them as you play them.
  • Put a recording of your piece on and narrate the chords and key areas.
  • Create a fakebook of the musical work. Write out the melody and put chord symbols over it.
  • Play your music so slowly that you can’t feel what comes next. This forces you to mentally interact with the music.

The Best Kind of Memory

Mortensen says that the best memorization always starts with our intellectual memory. We must understand the piece of music and be able to explain it in detail first. Once this takes place, our aural memory translates it into music that we can hear in our head. Our motor memory then executes what the aural memory hears.

memorizeJohn believes that the most lacking memory among pianists of all skill levels is the intellectual memory. He recounts many master classes he has sat through in which the pianists are asked to identify the key of the piece. Sadly, there are performers who have no idea!

The Danger Zone

The lack of intellectual memory puts the musician in a dangerous place. They may think they have the piece memorized, that is until they get distracted and they experience a train wreck.

For this reason, John says that all pianists need to work hard on the intellectual memory first as it is from this memory that all the others find their source.

Whether you are a beginner, concert pianist, or anything between, developing the different types of memory will help you to memorize music in a way that is much more reliable than your old way of doing it.

I encourage you to give it a try. You’ll be amazed how well it works!


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