Issue 57: How long does it take to memorise a piece?

“How long is a piece of string?”

Stephen Hough’s article


is a fascinating read, and set me to thinking about memorising.

Image from

The way my first “real” piano teacher, Valerie Dixon, taught me, resulted in me memorising everything that I learned. Many of these pieces are still mostly in my fingers to this day. We went through everything hands separately until they were perfect in every detail – notes, fingering, phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, everything – and then fitted the hands together.

My next piano teacher (we moved miles away so I had to change teachers) had a totally different approach. I was completely taken aback at my second lesson with her, when I played the Schubert Moment Musicale that we started in the first lesson. She stopped me, and upbraided me for only playing one hand. “Hands together now,” she demanded. I struggled through, and never memorised anything ever again, and never really, really, learned any pieces that I studied with her.

About ten years later, I had lessons from an amazing teacher called John Briggs. I read a review in the local paper, (we were living in Bingley, near Bradford), of his performance of  the Grieg piano concerto accompanied by a brass band, rather than the usual orchestra. I reckoned that if he could play the Grieg that well, and lived locally, and taught, that this might be a good way to go back to playing the piano.

It was a transformational experience for me. He re-ignited my enthusiasm. More importantly, he rebuilt my confidence which was at an all time low after a fairly bruising university experience. He also insisted that EVERYTHING be memorised. This was the first time that I had ever tried to memorise something “on purpose”. To begin with, I could manage about 2 bars per week. After eighteen months, I was playing whole sonatas, some (easier) Chopin etudes, and even Bach preludes and fugues, from memory.

This skill has never been used in performance. However it has changed the way I approach learning new pieces, and means that I can now ”get a grip” on accompaniments and grade pieces that I am teaching much more efficiently.

I memorise short bars, or phrases, or sections of the piece that I am learning, so that I can really focus on playing them perfectly. Although I usually don’t fully retain the memory of the music, I remember it well enough that a glance at the score is enough to remind me of what comes next and how to play it. I know it would only be a short step to complete the memorisation, but usually there is not enough time, nor the necessity to find the time!


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