Is the music better when played from memory?

Better from memoryThere have been a few pieces that I have learned to play from memory. I did not set out to learn to play them from memory, it just happened. I had to play the piece so many times to learn it that it became ingrained in my  mind.

The sensation of playing from memory is like nothing else. The mind and body take over. I don’t know what to be thinking about or looking at. If I close my eyes I get a little dizzy!

I have been to concert when the entire program was played by memory. Paul Jacobs did this at the Peristyle. The program was excellent. Seeing an organist play from memory for nearly 2 hours is very impressive.

I also attended Daniel Roth’s concert and none of it was played from memory (except the encore piece). The program was also excellent.

Is the music better when played from memory?

To the untrained ear, my answer is no, it is not better. The quality of the musician is what make the difference. If I were to listen to a concert with my eyes closed, I would not be able to distinguish if the organist was playing from memory. The only exception might be if I heard a page being turned!

While researching this question, I discovered Caroline Wright’s blog Memorising Music. Caroline’s site gives the basics for memorizing music and also the pros and cons of playing from memory. I am very intrigued by her site. So much so that I decided to contact Caroline.

I asked Caroline “Would you be able to tell if the musician was playing from memory if your eyes were closed?” Here is her response:

Although I like the premise of your question, If I’m honest, I don’t think that music played from memory necessarily sounds better than music played with the score. The level of preparation and musicianship is key. If someone uses the score because they don’t really know the notes, then unfortunately I think that takes a lot away from the music. Equally, if someone plays from memory with lots of wrong notes that disrupt the flow of the music, then that is also detrimental to the performance.

Personally, I much prefer to watch a soloist playing without a score, but I have heard many magnificent and expressive performances from musicians using the score. (I also prefer to play without a score, though it can make the performance feel more like a high-wire act!) I think what matters is the performer’s ability to communicate the both composer’s and their own musical ideas. I doubt I could tell the difference between a well prepared musician playing from memory versus the score with my eyes closed, but it’s certainly an experiment I’d like to try!

Note, that I wrote my opinion on the matter before I contacted Caroline. She and I seem to agree how well the music sounds depends on the musician and their ability!

Caroline referred me to another resource: Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge University Press, 2002).  Caroline says:

Aaron Williamon describes an interesting experiment where audiences apparently rated memorised performances higher, as being more expressive and communicative.  I’m not able to access the study so it is hard to know how large, well controlled or reproducible it was, but the results provide at least some tantalising evidence to support the idea that playing from memory improves the performance. Which is definitely something most ardent memorisors like me believe!

What do you think?

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Heidi Bender writes about her experiences of learning to play the organ. She started on the adventure in 2009.

She also writes on her website Tons of Thanks, which helps people write thank-you notes. Heidi is also a cat lady who writes at The Joy of Cats.

9 thoughts on “Is the music better when played from memory?”

  1. I’m impressed when somebody does a song by memory but I don’t think I could tell the difference unless I saw them throwing the pages aside!

  2. I have a strong dislike for intentionally memorizing an entire piece (something required for at least one piece the three semesters I had a piano jury in college). Evidently organists are sometimes required to memorize a certain amount of music for performance in academic degree programs, but I haven’t encountered this personally (at least, not yet).

    Personally I think the answer to this question is heavily based on the individual musician. Each musician needs to do what it takes to fully connect to the music they are performing and also provide an engaging and moving experience for the audience. That means one musician may accomplish this by memorizing their entire program, while another still has the score in front of them for each piece. I also find, as you have already mentioned, that you do gradually memorize parts of or an entire piece simply by continuing to study it and dig deeper into the music (you may not even need it anymore even though it’s still there).

    It’s always impressive (and so often expected) to watch a pianist or an instrumentalist performing repertoire from memory as they visually portray their complete immersion in the music they are creating. However, I have never seen listening to/watching an organist perform in the same way. Maybe it is just me, but when an organist knows their music well I honestly do not notice a difference between playing with the score and playing without, besides being able to comment later that he or she played without the score. Due to the organist’s usual position of having their back to the audience, regardless of where the organ console is, playing from memory lacks the visual aspects of the audience’s experience provided when a pianist/instrumentalist performs without the score. (The audience may not even be able to see whether or not a score is being used in the first place).

    In the end, the aural experience provided through the performance itself is much more important and what leaves the lasting impression on the audience. Whether it includes a score sitting on the music rack really does not matter (even if some may always hold organists who can provide passionate, well-interpreted performances from memory in higher esteem).

  3. Well Heidi I probably would not be able to tell the difference if my eyes were closed if music
    was is being played by a professional
    I would not want to be to performer from memory.
    I never did like that idea when a I was piano student.

    • Hi Mom!

      I will not ask you to play anything on your piano from memory. Most people cannot tell the difference. Like my playing probably sounds great to 95% of the people. The other 5% could pick out every issue!



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