Why Memorization is a Poor Substitute for Note Reading

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Do you memorize instead of reading the notes?

Reading music

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If so, you’re not alone. Many people do this believing it is easier, at least for them, to learn the notes for a specific piece rather than learn to read them in general.

If you are one of these people, you are probably aware that you do it and that your teacher says you shouldn’t. But reading the notes is so slow for you and looking at the harp is a necessity. So you have taught yourself to play watching the strings and following along with the music on the page. Maybe you write in some of the notes.

When I was taking piano lessons as a child, my teacher prevented me from developin

g that habit in the time-honored way – she held the lid over the keys so I couldn’t watch my hands. As a consequence, I became a fluent music reader, a skill which has been key to my success as a professional musician.

And let’s face it. The more fluent your reading is, the faster and more accurately you learn.

But memorizing as a substitute for note reading is a hard habit to break. In fact, before you can change the habit you need to accept and commit to three things:

1. NOT reading the notes is wasting my time. It takes too long to learn a new piece. It slows down technical development and limits my potential musical experiences. It general, it stunts my growth as a harpist and musician.

2. I NEED to learn to read the notes. I want to play more music. I want to learn more quickly. I want to play better in ensembles. I want to be able to pick up an easy piece or a review piece and play it at sight. I could do these things, if my note reading were better.

3. I CAN learn to read the notes.

This is the sticking point for most people. They think it is going to be too hard, or take too long, or they haven’t been able to do it in the past. Here’s the problem with that thinking. Every piece you play is made up of the same notes, using the same lines and spaces. Logically, if you learn them ONCE, that has to be faster and easier than memorizing the notes for every piece you play.

Now for the good news. There are endless ways to incorporate note reading practice into your regular practice every day. You can say the names of the notes in a difficult passage. You can say the names of the notes in hands separately practice. You can name the first few notes of a new piece before you play it. You can say the note names as you play a technical exercise.

But do it. It will be the best investment you can make in your playing.

Ps. If you need a more organized approach, check out my Jump Start Note Reading course. It’s not just for beginner readers. It’s for anyone who wants to make sure their reading skills aren’t holding them back.

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  • Regina Clarke

    Hi Anne–

    I am a bit confused. Based on this article, I understand reading notes is better than memorizing. But you have a number of articles teaching how to memorize?




    • Anne Post author

      Hi Regina, Memorization is an important tool in a musician’s toolbox, but so is note reading. But they can’t substitute for one another. If you try to memorize instead of learning to read fluently, your learning speed will never reach its true potential. And memorization gives you the ability to play without having your attention drawn to the page – you can concentrate fully on the music rather than on the notes. Different tools for different tasks!


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