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How important is it to memorize piano pieces?

By Scott Houston
This excellent topic has posed much debate across different piano circles over the years. I thought I’d offer my take as it relates to my personal playing style and how I’ve taught adult learners over the last 25+ years.  

If this is your first time on my blog, allow me to set the stage a little bit by telling you about my method. My philosophy is centered around learning to play the music you love right from the beginning rather than focusing on kiddie tunes or traditional two-line sheet music. My students and I read a simplified type of music notation called lead sheets to play the melody with our right hand and chords with our left. Keep reading to see how important memorization is when using lead sheets.

First, what is a lead sheet?

By its very nature, a lead sheet is just an outline of a tune, containing the bare-bones melody line and the chord progressions. This type of music notation is used to accurately convey most non-classical genres of music, where the goal is not to recreate something verbatim as in classical music, but rather, to interpret a tune to create your own personal version or arrangement. Lead sheets contain a single staff (the treble clef) with the notation of the melody line of a song and chord symbols above the notation denoting the harmony of the tune.

A) Traditional notation with two lines of music vs.  B) Lead sheet with one line of music. 

What is playing by ear?

Depending on who you ask, this term could mean any of the following, which I’ll rate in terms of doability: 
  • To people new to the music world, playing music by ear could mean the savant-like ability to reproduce music after hearing it without ever reading the music. This is a pretty rare skill that very few are born with or able to acquire. 
  • For serious performers, playing by ear might refer to the ability to memorize long pieces of material and play without their music on hand. This is doable but takes decades of practice and undivided dedication.
  • Finally, for people like myself and my students who are just in it for fun, playing songs by ear represents the ability to play a tune and even improvise without a lead sheet after having learned from the lead sheet. This is an extremely practical and doable goal—even if you’ve never played piano or any instrument before. 

Leads sheets, memorization, and you

The goal of learning a tune from a lead sheet is to not need it as soon as possible. It’s kind of like training wheels in that way. I have found this to be a much easier and quicker method, learning to play by ear for enjoyment as opposed to memorizing traditional sheet music note-for-note, which is the way a lot of us learned growing up. 

Once you get comfortable playing the tune while reading the music and no longer feel absolutely dependent on it, then you’re free to improvise by adding embellishments, playing in different tempos, and more! 

Why memorization isn’t important

 Much like memorizing and delivering a robotic, pre-written speech with no deviation from the material—memorizing and playing traditional sheet music note-for-note is, in my opinion, a boring, unfulfilling way to communicate and play.

 On the other hand, using a rough outline of note cards to guide a speech (or using a simple lead sheet to guide a tune), allows each “performance” to be slightly different, more communicative, and more tuned in to your personal mood.  That’s what we’re shooting for… making music rather than regurgitating the exact thing by rote time after time. If you’re interested in having a go at this method, I’d love for you to try a free intro course on me. In it, I’ll teach you a song in 45 minutes using these three secrets for easy online piano learning: 

  • Using Lead Sheets instead of classical notation to eliminate unnecessary complexity.
  • Focusing on chord-based playing. Hint: You only need to learn three to access hundreds of great songs. 
  • Borrowing “licks” or musical patterns from great players. (Plus other great tips and tricks!)  
Thousands of adults have learned to play the piano with this method and so can you! It’s never too late—click the button below to get started.