\"\"
Piano Forum logo

Theory for memorization (Read 817 times)

Offline jharrell12

  • PS Silver Member
  • Newbie
  • ***
  • Posts: 4
Theory for memorization
« on: August 26, 2019, 08:36:10 PM »
Hello Piano Street. I have a question (my first actually) concerning theory in regards to memorization.

A little background first: I am in my mid twenties and have played piano on and off for around 4 years. In that time I have only memorized a few pieces, one example being Clair de Lune.  I am now starting to practice again (my focus  being almost exclusively in classical piano) after about a year away from the piano.

I struggle with both reading and memorizing. When I learn a piece it is very slow and in short sections. At the end of all my work I can “play” the piece but it feels like flying blind. It’s mostly muscle memory. Most of the piece is gone in about two months. Sight reading is even more slow and painful.

I had lessons with a wonderful piano professor a couple years ago before I moved out of state and he told me before i moved that my problem was a lack of understanding of music theory.

My question to you piano gurus is this:
What have you found to be the best way to learn theory to help with your own or someone else’s playing?

Any additional input or advice you may have is very appreciated. Thank you so much for your time.

Offline brogers70

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 918
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #1 on: August 26, 2019, 09:12:17 PM »
I know it's really old fashioned but I'd suggest just reading a book. Tonal Harmony, by Kostka and Payne is a good, standard textbook, and inexpensive, used copies are available from Amazon (and elsewhere). There are on-line courses, too, but for me just going to the book is faster.

Your old teacher was quite right, knowing theory gives you all sorts of shorthand for memorizing bits where your muscle memory might fail; you'll remember chords and progressions in clumps rather than as individual notes, and it will solidify the weakness in pure muscle memory.

Offline jharrell12

  • PS Silver Member
  • Newbie
  • ***
  • Posts: 4
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #2 on: August 26, 2019, 09:58:17 PM »
Thank you so much for your response. I will take a look at that book you mentioned. Do you have any recommendations as to which portions of theory would be particularly helpful to study (aside from the chords and progressions that you mentioned)?

Offline j_tour

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 588
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #3 on: August 26, 2019, 11:08:14 PM »
I don't have any real original contribution, but for memorizing Bach (not to mention just plain playing his music), I get a ton of mileage out of just closing my eyes and trying to combine what I "know" from reading the scores innumerable times to a different part of the brain.

I happen to have OK eyesight in both eyes, and more-or-less OK ears (not as good as they once were, and I'm still only in my early forties), but I find it's a simple, powerful technique.

Particularly if one is prone to being distracted by various things, like damned neighbor kids and their hot rods and vaping and tattoos and such.

So, simple, but good.

ETA Oh, about the "theory" aspect.  I couldn't say which aspect or approach is best.  For Bach, I'll at least be aware of how to superimpose some roman numeral analysis (RNA), but I don't think that's the way for his music.  How much theory is needed?  All the theory!  IME, pretty much all basic harmony textbooks cover the same stuff — augmented sixths, yadda yadd.  Even just pop-style charting out some basic chords is still a kind of application of theory (well, more like "spelling" is to "linguistics") but it still is a good tool.

IMHO, you can't have too much theory.

Does it help in memorizing?  Yeah, I guess.  But I've always had a baseline of theory, so I couldn't say for sure.

IMHO it's about the same as knowing chords and inversions when it comes to sight-reading:  nobody reads every single note in a dense piece when reading for the first time:  you just recognize some common configurations.  Particularly good for things like the Debussy of (some of) his préludes, where the same chord voicing is used in both LH and RH:  I admit, for those, I often just write a pop-jazz mnemonic like Ab7#11/Gb or something to help me sight-read, when reading and marking up the score away from the keyboard, like at a bar or a coffeeshop or whatever.  Probably somebody would have a fit about that, but it's close enough for my level of understanding of some of those dense clusters, often duplicated in both hands.

Offline j_tour

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 588
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #4 on: August 26, 2019, 11:37:15 PM »
I know it's really old fashioned but I'd suggest just reading a book. Tonal Harmony, by Kostka and Payne is a good, standard textbook, and inexpensive, used copies are available from Amazon (and elsewhere). There are on-line courses, too, but for me just going to the book is faster.

Since I did two mistakenly duplicated posts, I shall comment on this. 

There's a lot to be said for the internet, and for the information out there, but there's also a lot to be said for acquiring an inexpensive textbook. if available, and just learn it.

Music theory isn't actually that complicated, especially for beginning textbooks. 

Same stuff, pretty much, in every book, and while I said basic music theory isn't complicated, you'll likely want to revisit some material and perhaps use your own notes in the margins to revise your own opinions.

Offline j_tour

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 588
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #5 on: August 26, 2019, 11:38:28 PM »
Your old teacher was quite right, knowing theory gives you all sorts of shorthand for memorizing bits where your muscle memory might fail; you'll remember chords and progressions in clumps rather than as individual notes, and it will solidify the weakness in pure muscle memory.

For the same reason as above:  I didn't want to just write "dupe" or "2x post" because of my mistake in multi-posting.

I can't really add to the above topic, except that even for Bach, it's still critical to know how and why he (for example) is modulating.

And, for that reason, once you know how, for example, the music moves prepares a secondary dominant to modulate to the dominant key...well, I'd presume like most musicians you have some idea that "it sounds cool, maybe I can do that myself someday while improvising, like Bach used to do."

And, as brogers said, once you can see some structure, it isn't just some random notes that happen to sound cool. 

AND, added bonus, if you should forget a little bit of the piece, you can probably piece together something to get to the same place. 

Music theory:  it's not really dry, it just gives you options to get out of holes you might dig for yourself. 


Offline maxim3

  • PS Silver Member
  • Full Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 165
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #6 on: August 27, 2019, 04:45:17 AM »
There are endless free, high-quality resources and textbooks on music theory available, from libraries and the Internet. You can read them all for hours every day, and get something out of them, and you can even do the exercises.

But one thing that is missing from all this free stuff is an expert who can correct your exercises and explain where exactly you went wrong, and how not to make those mistakes any more.

Just try this little experiment: Take any reputable textbook on music theory. Study a chapter on a particular topic. Then do the exercises.

How do you know you did the exercises correctly?

In the elementary stages, there is often only one correct answer, so if you get it right, you can feel confident. But in music beyond the beginning level, there are often many correct answers.

You will soon find, even with solutions-provided exercises, that you cannot escape the persistent feeling that you don't FULLY understand what's going on.

Only personal training under a real expert can give that missing reassurance, support, and continuing motivation -- for those who can stand the experience of constant humiliation by even the most well-meaning of teachers.

In the old days, people learned music by the apprenticeship system: You lived with the master, took out his garbage, did his washing, and did his musical exercises. He cruelly and mockingly corrected you for several years until you got the material through your thick skull. (Mozart gave a few weeks of lessons to an English would-be composer named Thomas Attwood. On one of the young man's exercises in elementary counterpoint, the unimpressed Mozart wrote, in English, "you are an ass.")

The plain fact is that music theory is incredibly boring and depressing to learn. If you are paying someone to correct your exercises, you at least have the motivation of wanting to get some return on your investment.

But if you try to learn music theory by yourself, you will probably do what almost all ordinary, healthy people do: You will find it so appallingly depressing that slowly and gradually, you will convince yourself that learning it isn't really necessary.

Offline ranjit

  • PS Silver Member
  • Full Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 198
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #7 on: August 27, 2019, 08:52:17 AM »
There is an online course which really helped me out, called Write Like Mozart, on Coursera. I felt that it covers most of the basics, and it has served me well. (This was incidentally suggested to me over a year ago by brogers70. If you are reading this, thank you for the recommendation!).

A music theory textbook sounds like a good idea, but I found it much easier to stick to the course, and use it as a foundation further ahead. If you are already familiar with the material in the course (which I believe is roughly the equivalent of first semester music theory), feel free to disregard this.

The plain fact is that music theory is incredibly boring and depressing to learn. If you are paying someone to correct your exercises, you at least have the motivation of wanting to get some return on your investment.

But if you try to learn music theory by yourself, you will probably do what almost all ordinary, healthy people do: You will find it so appallingly depressing that slowly and gradually, you will convince yourself that learning it isn't really necessary.


Just wanted to add that this has not been my experience at all. Learning music theory made everything "click" for me, and I have not looked back since. It made my playing so much better when I stopped fretting about chords and started thinking in terms of chord function, contrary motion, etc. However, I may be thinking of music theory in a more general sense as the study of harmony, as opposed to an academic exercise of applying rules of the common practice era. As I understand it, by music theory, the OPs teacher probably meant something like recognizing a i - ii dim - V in context, which definitely aids in memorization, as opposed to, say, being able to write a fugue.

Offline j_tour

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 588
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #8 on: August 28, 2019, 12:16:05 AM »
A music theory textbook sounds like a good idea, but I found it much easier to stick to the course, and use it as a foundation further ahead. If you are already familiar with the material in the course (which I believe is roughly the equivalent of first semester music theory), feel free to disregard this.

I'm sure that's true:  there's nothing inherently bad or wrong in choosing one form of the presentation over another. 

It's the same stuff, I'd really wager real money, at least for serious online courses/lectures or textbooks.

Just wanted to add that this has not been my experience at all. Learning music theory made everything "click" for me, and I have not looked back since. It made my playing so much better when I stopped fretting about chords and started thinking in terms of chord function, contrary motion, etc.

I like this as well:  yes, even, say, taking some little folk tune you can just plunk away on by ear and improvise some arrangement (think, like, I don't know, "Waltzing Matilda" or "Danny Boy" or whatever).

You may not need the basic tools of harmonic analysis, but it will give you options.

As to needing a teacher to correct exercises.

I'm sure that's true for more advanced things, but I somewhat doubt it's really required for working problems out of something like Walter Piston's Harmony.

And, anyway, there's no quiz at the end if you can't quite remember the difference between a French Sixth and a Neopolitan Sixth.

I agree with ranjit that more of the broad strokes knowledge is what really helps, similar to writing fingerings in pencil on the score or things like that.

Makes it easier in general, certainly makes transposing easier, if that's a goal. 

Just another way to "see" the same music, and, one hopes, remember it a bit better or more quickly.

Offline jharrell12

  • PS Silver Member
  • Newbie
  • ***
  • Posts: 4
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #9 on: August 28, 2019, 02:55:27 AM »
Thank you all so much for taking the time to respond. I will probably try out some books and online courses and see what works best for me.

j_tour, would you mind elaborating on that part in your first post about combining what you know to a different part of the brain? I'm afraid that bit was lost on me.

Offline j_tour

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 588
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #10 on: August 28, 2019, 03:39:22 PM »
Thank you all so much for taking the time to respond. I will probably try out some books and online courses and see what works best for me.

j_tour, would you mind elaborating on that part in your first post about combining what you know to a different part of the brain? I'm afraid that bit was lost on me.

Well, it's really just a guess, based on my experience in lots of areas that the more ways you can conceive an idea, the better chance you'll have of really learning the material. 

Kind of making your memory a set of redundant systems, so if one fails, you have something else to fall back on.

Sort of like being able to use pencil and paper to solve various mathematical problems, as well as exploring different ways of conceptualizing and executing the same problem.

Anyway, it makes common sense to me, but it's really just a guess.

Offline jharrell12

  • PS Silver Member
  • Newbie
  • ***
  • Posts: 4
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #11 on: August 29, 2019, 08:47:05 PM »
Ok that helps, thanks

Offline ted

  • PS Silver Member
  • Sr. Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 3677
Re: Theory for memorization
«Reply #12 on: August 30, 2019, 04:51:02 AM »
I have never used theory to memorise anything, a pretty good reason being that I don’t know any theory and, in any case, have a limited repertoire. However, I do think a lot in terms of combinatorial keyboard patterns and their sounds for improvisation, which appears to be a complex interweaving of memory and new ideas. If I wanted to memorise a piece I would certainly try to chunk it into groups, harmonic, phrasal, haptic and rhythmic, but I doubt theory, as the term is usually used, has much to do with it. I am probably not competent to say, as I have no understanding of my own musical process, never mind anybody else’s.
"We're all bums when the wagon comes." - Waller