Memorize Bach On Bass: How to Memorize Notes Quickly

| Memory Techniques

Johann Sebastian BachI get a lot of questions about how I memorize Bach, so I wrote this extensive post on some of the many ways anyone can memorize notes quickly.

Warning: I’m staring into space for the first half – a space where a music stand could be. You’ll just have to take my word for it that there isn’t one there until I turn my head away and show you the half-blind goods.

Not that it matters.

I got nothing to prove.

Anyhow, check it out. It’s a quick performance of one part of the Courante of Suite #2 in D Minor by Herr Bach himself.

I once heard it said that madness is good for the sake comparison (ha ha, another Spoonerism), so check out the following to see it performed by a pro:

Onto The Topic Of Memorizing Music …

A while back I wrote this post called Memorizing Music Made Magnetic about the process of super-quickly memorizing this Bach Courante using memory techniques and a Memory Palace. Basically it comes down to having a sound-number system and supplementing this system with imagery.

Vibrant, large, exaggerated, goofy imagery. The kind anyone can train themselves to create using the info on this website and the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast.

I’m still not ready to say more in specific terms, but there are ideas below that you can use today to explore along with me. Plus, Tom Geldschläger has some ideas that he shared with you some weeks ago about memorizing music that blew me away. I saw him play a flawless set on stage, long and complicated songs he had learned less than a week before the performance!

The problem…

… with my own teaching of music memorization is that I only memorize music for bass. I’m not sure that this will help a whole lot of people because I’ve structured everything around my favorite 4 strings (sometimes 5).

Memorize bass musicAnother problem is the issue of what exactly we mean when we talk about memorizing music.

Are we talking about theory, for which the Two-Chair Technique can be useful, or are we talking about memorizing the music itself?

Then we have to consider:

* Notes

* What those notes do in terms of action and time

* Special conventions of the notation

* And if you have a recording to refer to, the elements played in performance that notation can never indicate

That’s a lot of stuff!

And I probably haven’t even covered the half of it in this list.

That’s why I remain perplexed with respect to how to reasonably approach a book about memorizing music and will probably have to stick with working on the bass.

Is There A Connection Between Learning The Music Of Language And Language Learning?

I don’t use it myself, but a lot of people use Anki to help them pick up new languages, particularly new vocabulary and phrase. Anki is spaced-repetition software that not only lets you put the material you want to memorize onto digital index cards, but you can train it to either remind you to memorize words and phrases you haven’t mastered yet or leave you alone with certain words and phrases because you’ve made it clear to the system that you’ve done so.

Myself, I use the Major Method and talked in depth-about it on this livestream:

Frankly, this is just one of the 3 Most Powerful Technique For Memorizing Numbers.

It is very helpful for reducing the amount of repetition needed.

But if I were to use externalized spaced-repetition, I would sooner build a Leitner box or some kind of Zettelkasten than use software because I like to have lots of things in my hands and have good scientific reasons to believe that creating index cards by hand has more cognitive power than typing and fiddling around with digital toys.

I’m not a Neo-Luddite, incidentally. I love technology. It’s just that in my experience, it’s not the best way to learn, especially when it comes to spaced-repetition. In fact, for many people, technology-based learning can be counterproductive, if not downright destructive.

But for those who do love spaced-repetition software – and there are certainly loads of people who benefit from it each and every day – my friend Olly Richards has the absolutely best video on how to integrate technology into your language learning experience (his video is at the bottom of this Magnetic Memory Method Podcast page). And if you think about it, you can use Olly’s approach to help you learn a lot of other things too if techno-learning’s got a softspot in your gig bag.

But for learning music as such?

Again, it depends on what we we mean by memorizing music.

If it’s about memorizing musical terminology, then you would do well to create a Memory Palace. Memory Palace work is great because it turns your mind into spaced-repetition software.

The best part is this:

You don’t have to look at tiny digital screens (or tap them) and you certainly don’t have to carry around boxes of index cards (even though that can be fun and builds muscle).

You can also alphabetize the musical terminology that you memorize, which serves as an aid to memory. In other words, as you’re traveling your Memory Palace and you get to the next station and can’t quite get the next term, you can just zip back to the last one, look at the first few letters of that term and it will help trigger the next one.

But that technique is just for memory skills ninjas who really want to bolt down the things they are memorizing forever.

And of course you want to be reading about music, talking about musical terminology and applying it in order to steep your notation tea and age your rhythmical wine.

Learn How to Use A Memory Palace In Real Time


Wanna Know Where Online To Get The Best Lessons In Music Theory Online For Free?

Check out my fellow Canadian Andrew Furmanczyk’s music theory and piano lessons channel on YouTube.

The dude’s just awesome.

If you can’t use a Memory Palace in real-time, which I teach you how to do in Memory Secrets of an A+ Student (now known as the MMM Masterplan), then by all means take notes or write down index cards and then pop them into your Memory Palaces later.

This is a great strategy because you’ll be activating so many parts of your brain by using your hands, ears, eyes and imagination that the whole learning experience will become super-duper Magnetic.

That ain’t hype, dear Memorizer.

It’s a fact.

But How Can We Apply All Of This Razzmatazz To Memorizing Sheet Music? 

The last 4 bars of the first section of Variat...

The answer to this question …

I’m afraid I don’t entirely know.

At least …

Not yet.

But until I do …

Here Are Some Ideas!

Again, I can only work from my knowledge of bass music, which is much less complex to read than what you’ve seen above. Bass guitar rarely chords (though this varies by genre), so it’s usually just one note we’re playing at any give instance of time.

That said, give the following a try in one of your Memory Palaces and see what happens:

1) Build a really cool Memory Palace. If you’ve studied music, you’ve probably got a solid memory of at least one classroom where you took band. That’ll probably make a whizzbang Memory Palace for these purposes. I like to use Mrs. J’s Grade Six band class where I learned to play trombone mostly cooperatively with the rest of the youthful cacophony trying hard to sound symphonic.

2) Just start with that one room in this Memory Palace (for now). I’m assuming it’s got four walls. Mentally arrange those walls so that you have a linear journey.

3) Visualize an empty bar of sheet music. Like this:

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 13.37.30

You can “burn” it into the walls or spray paint it on like graffiti.


See what sticks. It’s just one ear, two eyes and five lines.

Plus, it’s fun!

And you don’t have to place these bars on the walls of your Memory Palace in black and white. Experiment with color.

Remember Good Birds Don’t Fly Away to help you remember the notes on the lines in ascending order?

That acronym of notes is also good for

* Green

* Blue

* Dandelion Yellow

* French Rose

* Aquamarine

You can even “compound” the two systems with a phrase like “Good Green Blue Birds Don’t Dare Fly French (Rose) Aquamarine Airplanes.”

Sound like overkill?

A little too ninja?

We’re talking about memory mastery, dear Memorizer.

Mission Possible is all about compounding the details (if you want to make your mind Magnetic).

4) Pick a piece of music you want to memorize. This one from Josquin Des Pres’ “Bach for Bass” is lots of fun (it’s the opening of the piece myself and that dude on cello perform in the videos above).

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 13.42.13

Here’s you’ve got two options:

a) memorize the notation

b) memorize the tablature

Frankly, memorizing the tablature works better for memorizing bass guitar music. At least for me.

That said, all those musical purists who tell you that you should memorize notation are right. Like Jaco Pastorius talks about in one of the best bass guitar lessons you’ll ever take (except for the ones you’ll find by Scott Devine), Jaco fiddle-diddled his way through music without knowing how to read for a long time. But it was only after learning to read that he truly got into the big time. Take this lesson now:

I made the same mistake for many years even though I knew how to read the bass clef very well until grade 9 when I started playing Heavy Metal bass.

Bad mistake (that is, not reading was the mistake – Heavy Metal is awesome, especially when combined with these 16 Heavy Metal Memory Methods).

I don’t like the cliche “lose it or use it” (because it’s not true often enough to be a rule), but in the case of reading music, it’s true. Good thing the Magnetic Memory Method is around to make it fun. 🙂

5) Experiment with how you’re going to make those notes/tablature stick. If you use the number method I talk about in the link toMemorizing Music Made Magnetic, then you’ll quickly see what to do. If you experiment with notation, please let me know what experiences you have. Stories of any level of success are welcome – and keep in mind that just trying it is already a success! So there’s no excuse not to get in touch and tell me about the triumph you’ve had. (Or leave a comment below – it’s all good). And remember the old line that has served me well many times: 90% is just showing up. The other 10% comes from experimenting with learning techniques in an informed way.

Take A Teaspoon Or A Bucket To This Exercise

I once heard a cool saying that makes sense in lots of different contexts:

Take a teaspoon or a bucket. The ocean doesn’t care.

Basically, this phrase means that whenever you approach something you want to learn, you’re free to just scoop away as much as you want. The subject itself doesn’t matter how much people criticize you for it or whatever negativity or challenges you may face because the thing you are learning from or collecting cares not a whim for any of the dumbass politics that we humans too often waste time on. Cats never do this – or haven’t you been watching YouTube?

All that matters is results.

Thus, if you’re interested in using the Magnetic Memory Method to memorize music, the training I’m working on (which will be centered on bass guitar) isn’t available yet.

However, there’s more than enough on this page and on this website to get you started and keep you within sight of the ever-receding finish line so that you continue to improve and grow and amaze yourself with all the things you can do with the natural powers of your imagination.

Remember, your imagination is a free resource. You were born with it.

Take a teaspoon or a bucket.


Anthony Metivier


Further Reading & Resources:

Courante on Wikipedia

Wikihow page on memorizing sheet music

Dave Grossman’s arrangements for Bach on electric bass

30+1 Ways to Help You Memorize Music Flawlessly

Wikipedia page on spaced-repetition software

My favorite online bass guitar teacher, Scott Divine

9 Responses to " Memorize Bach On Bass: How to Memorize Notes Quickly "

  1. MyronCarroll says:

    I too am a bass player. I have paid attention to how other musicians, particularly keyboard players who have to know all of the parts in gospel music, learn and remember music. I want the ability to be able to recall any song I have ever learned instantly without having to practice it. As a freelance musician, I often find myself in this kind of situation. I will try some of these methods and let you know what comes of it. Thanks for the thoughts.

    B Easy

    • Thanks for this – and great to meet another low-ender.

      One cool thing you can try is to have a “reference song” in mind. For example, if you have the bassline from Stand by Me memorized, know the notes by name and visually on your fretboard, you can cross reference other songs against that by singing them. In other words, if you can find just one note from a song and then find where that note falls in Stand by Me, you can then open up the keyboard in your mind and figure out a great deal while driving or walking or doing anything without even having the bass in your hands.

      I realize that this is not exactly memorization as such, but I think having a reference song is a huge part of the puzzle. For me, I have three Bach pieces that serve this function. Because they are so elaborate, I can “find” the root of just about any song through singing it and then referencing it against a Bach passage that I can not only hear in my mind, but clearly see on the fretboard.

      And of course, this would work with most other instruments too. It’s also an interesting alternative to perfect pitch, or may in fact be what people who have perfect pitch are doing in their minds, even if they don’t know that they’re doing it.

      Hope this helps and that you’ll post any results that you have. Talk soon! 🙂

  2. MyronCarroll says:

    I try that method sometimes. I have an F# that I can sing correctly most of the time. I am also actually working on perfect pitch. I have the audio course. It has helped a little bit so far. I will see how it turns out.

    • Thanks for stopping by – it gave me the opportunity to check out your website. Now I wish I could go to AIM!

      Perfect Pitch is an interesting course and I got some good ideas from it. Mostly I’ve gotten results from building a repertoire in memory and then singing part of a song from that collection to try and find a match. It’s an interesting – but not entirely fool proof – way of figuring out how a song you’re listening to might be played and then reconstructing it in your brain before your hands even land on the instrument. Fun to play with.

  3. MyronCarroll says:

    i love AIM. I may go back and get my associates degree. I was exposed to a lot there.

    I think perfect pitch is incomplete for this purpose. You have to also have relative pitch to identify the intervals.

    • Yes, this is true. It would be interesting to run experiments and see how memory could be more integral to learning both PP and RP. I’m taking the idea into my Memory Laboratory now … stay tuned! 🙂

  4. Thanks for this, Sam.

    There’s really no right or wrong to it and I encourage people to memorize tablature for many reasons. But I do like the ideas you’ve got and some of your other mnemonic writings. Wanna be a guest on the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast?

    Talk soon!

  5. Very interested in learning about this, Anthony! I have some musical things I’d like to try, and just recently started Tang Soo Do, so I have a couple of good applications.

    I also studied Japanese and French when I was younger, would love to get some language proficiency back under my belt.

    Anyway, your program is on my radar. 😉

    • Thanks for stopping by, Leanne.

      I just started going back to Systema myself (the Russian Martial Art) after two years away. We can definitely trade notes about memorizing movements and concepts. I have to focus more on the concept element in Systema because the technique involves developing instinctive flexibility in response to situations of conflict.

      I’d love to hear more about your goals with music if you have a chance to describe them. Maybe I can help more specifically.

      The Magnetic Memory Method works great for French and I’m working on Japanese myself at the moment. This video I have on the site about memorizing the Hiragana will help you out a great deal and stay tuned for training on memorizing Kanji in the near future.

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