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Memorization Tips

By David Rock
(Revised 13 June 2006)

Here is my strategy for memorizing tunes. Learning styles differ, of course, but this works for me reasonably well.

  1. Listen to the tunes. If you hear them enough you´ll eventually get the melodies into your head. You can easily remember tunes you hear on the radio all the time, right? Rhythmically, some pipe tunes are more complicated than the average Garth Brooks song, but basically, if you can hum it you can play it.
  2. Learn the tunes a phrase at a time, starting at the end and working your way backwards. Both from a muscular and from a cognitive standpoint, it´s easier to cope with the new bit if what follows is familiar.
  3. One problem with the memorization process is that you can´t really be sure if you´re playing it right unless you´re looking at the music. Try this: make a recording of yourself while looking at the music, then close the book and play along with the tape. That way you´ll be able to tell if you´re going off the tune.
  4. When repeating parts, try alternating: one time looking at the music and one time not, or vice versa. Try it both ways: first time without the music, second time with the music for confirmation.
  5. Make a conscientious effort to memorize. It can happen more or less automatically if you simply play the tunes a lot, but it will happen a lot faster if you actually apply yourself to the task. It´s hard work.
  6. Don´t feel that you have to memorize the whole tune in one sitting. Learn it in chunks. A 16-measure (8 measures repeated) part is a conveniently sized chunk to work with. But I´d still break the part into phrases during the learning process.
  7. Here´s a memorization strategy I learned from an expert language learner: The magic number is seven (or more - it depends on the learner, but seven seems to be about average). When memorizing a new tune (or part or phrase), practice it immediately seven times - by memory. Then practice it seven more times the first day. Then seven more times that week, seven more times that month, and seven more times that year. That´s how you get things into long term memory. The key is to build progressively longer recall inervals into the learning process. This method will be more effective (and more efficient in terms of time expenditure) than dozens of repetitions in one or a few marathon learning session over a shorter period. So plan ahead and start early - don´t be like a certain band member who memorizes tunes in the car on the way to a performance.
  8. Gordon Peters, a well known piper and adjudicator here in the U.S., suggests that it can be a mistake to break yourself away from the printed page too soon. Make sure you really know the tunes well before you attempt to memorize them. That way mistakes are less likely to creep in. It is also a good idea to refer back to the printed score occasionally after memorizing a tune.
  9. Just do it. Play by memory. You probably know the tunes better than you think you do. The printed score can be a psychological crutch, kind of like Dumbo´s magic feather. Sometimes I put the music in front of me (tack it to a tree if I´m practicing outside), and as I´m playing I realize that I´m not really focusing on the printed score - I´m actually playing by memory and didn´t even realize it! If that´s happening to you, it´s probably time to put the music away.