Memorizing Music Made Magnetic

Memory Palace technique for memorizing musicDear Memorizers,

I received this great email today:

Hi Anthony,

I finished reading your book that I got for my Kindle a few minutes ago…I feel like I just had nice spanish cheese and I am trying to recall how it tasted:-) I found that I have some similar experience in memorizing new vocabularies with reading, or the images that I use to memorize new expressions. I would like to share with you some examples:

1) En train de

We don’t have the equivalent present continuous tense in French to express something like ‘I am presently doing something’, we use ‘Je suis en train de…’. My trick is to imagine a person being in a high-speed train running at 300 km/hour, for sure he cannot stop but continue… 

2) Tailler un short

Once I was in my colleague’s car. She is French from Paris. A jaywalker tried to cross the street in front of her car and almost got hit. My colleague murmured something like: je vais te tailler un short! Imagine this person’s long pants got cut off by the car and almost became a short!

In addition, I noticed that what you are trying to achieve:

‘…He is currently memorizing all of Bach’s compositions for the cello.’

How do you do this? I am trying to just remember the invention 9 F minor of Bach for my piano class! I did some structural analysis (I am a structural engineer) trying to get a global image of the whole piece, but still find it pretty hard to memorize this piece. How I can start Bach’s six Partitas this fall, as I planned with my prof???

Again, thanks for sharing all the great ideas with us.

First of all, I have you to thank for writing in and sharing some of your strategies. I especially like your use of the high-speed train imagery because I used to take one quite often when I lived in Saarbrücken and traveled to Paris for my research. 400+ kilometers in less than 2 hours is quite a thrill!

As it happens, we had a question about memorizing music about 2 weeks ago and I answered it at length. Anyone who missed that episode should just write back with “Send me the music” and I’ll send it to you. Otherwise, you can wait for Volume 4 of the Magnetic Memory newsletter to be released.

Since creating that earlier blog post on memorizing music, I’ve been experimenting with one of the techniques, which involves devoting a Memory Palace journey to the memorization of sheet music.

Now, before I carry on, I have to tell you that:

a) I am memorizing single instrument Bach pieces for performance on electric bass, not the cello. The instrument itself doesn’t really matter, save for the fact that it has four strings and that limits the amount of space one needs to work with in terms of laying out the phrases on the fretboard, which leads to:

b) Muscle memory. Just as memorizing vocabulary is rather limited if you don’t speak the words and train your tongue to pronounce them through repetition, you won’t get very far in terms of performing the memorized material if you don’t practice playing the music. This form of repetition in no way borders on rote learning, but it does tempt one to engage in rote learning if you have your instrument in hand while memorizing the music. I think that you need to really memorize the music in your mind – and confidently so – before picking up the instrument. I suppose the exception here would be if you don’t know your fretboard and you need to have the instrument in your hand in order to decode the music and decide upon the best placements for your fingers. But more on that in a moment.

c) I am memorizing music that has an absolute minimum of chords. That doesn’t make it any more or less difficult, but I haven’t extended my strategy to involve all kinds of chord variations juxtaposed with phrases and other musical “special effects.”

All that said, here are two methods that I’ve fruitfully experimented with and hopefully these will give you a basis for your own experimentation (and I hope you’ll let us know how you do):

1. Sound-Number System for the Frets

Determine how many lines the piece you want to memorize contains. You can work in bars, but I think that requires far too many Memory Palace stations along the journey, and (again, allowing for the fact that I am working on single-instrument pieces) there’s not a whole lot of information per line.

Let’s take the Courante of Suite #2 in D Minor, for example. It’s 13 lines of bars (on the sheet music I have, at any rate), and the piece is more or less split in half, and both halves repeat one time. Thus, I only have to memorize about 6.5 lines per part of this particular composition in order to get quite a lot of performance power.

I was talking above about knowing the fretboard and needing the instrument in one’s hands in order to read. Well, when it comes to stringed instruments, there’s an interesting option.

It’s called tablature.

You can make it it very easily and it looks like this:





(For guitar, one simply needs to add space for two more strings).

Why do this? For one thing, it erases the need to create mnemonics for sharps and flats (not such a big deal, but a feature you might like).

Second, most people who are serious about memorization techniques already have a system for memorizing numbers. For example, the following sound-number system is quite popular:

0 = sa

1 = ta/da

2 = na

3 = ma

4 = ra

5 = la

6 = sha/cha/ja

7 = ka

8 = fa/va

9 = pa

So, now you’ve got a number for each fret and a hard sound for each one.

The tab I’ve just drawn out for the Courante in question can be readily memorized by singing it in my head using the sound number associations:

Ka ka ka va ka la …

Not great because it doesn’t specify the string – and quite likely impractical for some, but it is a quick way of remembering the fret your fingers need to be at to start the piece, and experienced musicians will see many other applications for this.

But the point is, that so long as you can picture in your mind which string you’re on, you only need thirteen strings of seemingly nonsense phrases in order to memorize a piece like this.

Now as the Magnetic Memory system always specifies, we need to locate this material someplace.

Hence our carefully predetermined Memory Palace, which, for the purposes of review:

1) Starts at a terminal location so that you are always moving outwards

2) Does not involve crossing your own path

Ta da (in the magic sense, not the 1 – 1 sense). You’ve got a piece of music stored along a journey using nonsense words (remember: Ebbinghaus demonstrated that we can memorize nonsense words just as well as we can sensible words, so don’t fear forgetting).

Now, I recognize that all of this may be too abstract, so you can go one step further and give an image to each sound:

0 = sand in egypt

1 = right foot big toe nail

2 = rusty nail


(I’m being specific about which toe and which sand because this helps increase the memorability. If it was just sand, then there’s nothing extraordinary about it and that means its association power is diminished).

I know there are people out there who are going to wonder: what happens when I reach the 10th fret and beyond.


1 + 0 = Tasa or Dasa

1 + 1 = Data or Tada (hence my obnoxious joke above about “tada” and magic)

2 +2 = Nun, etc.

The trick is to really specific those sounds into words whenever possible if you are going to associate them as images with each fret and on top of that, make sure the words are specific and memorable.

I think this is a key mistake that beginners make when learning mnemonics. They are taught that any old image goes, but I doubt that this is the case. I think the power increases the more specific the images are.

2. Seeing the Writing on the Wall

Now, if you’re a particularly visual person, you could just see yourself painting the sheet music on the walls of each station in your Memory Palace. You’ve got a limited spectrum of notes to work with, so assign each note a color, give every sharp a sword and every flat a bomb and you’re good to go.

This one works gangbusters. But you’ve got to be able to read music to do it.

The good thing is that it only takes a few sessions to achieve performance speed without needing to mentally review the music you’ve memorized in your head.

Just be sure that you’re not cheating your way into rote learning by constantly referring to the sheet music to see if you’re memorized it correctly. You’re far better off consulting the images you’ve worked out in your head – by whatever method – and then feeling your way to the answer by noodling about until you find it.


Because you’re giving yourself not only the chance to rely on your mind to find the solution without referring to something that was externally created by someone else (i.e. the sheet music), but you’re also learning your instrument better.

I’m certain that I haven’t covered every angle here, so you musicians out there feel free to expand on these ideas as you see fit.

Until next time, pick up your strings and then tell someone what you’ve learned about memorization. Teaching a skill is one of the best ways to learn it and helping people improve their memory is one of the best ways we can make the world a better place. The more we remember, the more we can remember. And the more we learn, the more we can learn.

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