How to Learn Things (Like Sheet Music) By Heart

How to Learn Things (Like Sheet Music) By Heart

There’s a widely held belief in the English-speaking world that Germans have the most precise language for everything, but at a yoga workshop here in Germany my teacher once praised an English saying for being more expressive than its German counterpart: to “learn by heart”, or to memorize something (in German: “auswendig lernen”). What impressed my teacher about the English version is that it emphasizes the role of emotions in memorization, whereas the German one implies cognition – she didn’t want her students to view yoga as a sequence of postures we repeated each day with the sole purpose of drilling them into our brains. Instead, she implored us to practice with heart.

Since then my daily yoga practice has dwindled from its previous hour-and-a-half repertoire to a mere ~10 minutes of sun salutations each day, and I have forgotten many of the postures which I did used to know by heart. But I have not forgotten my teacher’s lesson, and as I have enriched my yoga with other forms of daily practice, some of which have gradually returned to me after years of absence – in particular a revival of my violin studies from childhood – I have realized how right she was: how rewarding it is to center your heart in the process of memorizing something. Like sheet music, for instance.

I have the impression that many people find memorizing sheet music inaccessible or perhaps believe that it’s only for people with photographic memory. I recently began playing violin-cello duets with a woman in her eighties who’s never attempted to memorize sheet music in her life. I probably would never have tried it either, if it weren’t for the fact that it was a prerequisite for solo competitions when I was younger. So I just did it somehow, brute force, without really knowing how I was doing it.

Now that I’ve started practicing again, memorizing sheet music doesn’t come as naturally as it once did. I am currently working on a sonata by Giuseppe Tartini called The Devil’s Trill, and I have been practicing it for about thirty minutes each day for the past four months. Some weeks ago I began practicing parts of it by heart, with the goal of being able to eventually play the entire piece (4 movements lasting approximately 15 minutes in total) without having to look at the sheet music. And this time around, I am trying to do it more deliberately instead of thinking of it as a purely cognitive exercise. This essay is a summary of what I have found in the process.

A quick caveat on what playing by heart is not: it is not quite muscle memory, like riding a bike or driving a car. Even though I am playing without the notes in front of me, that doesn't necessarily mean that the experience is automatic or effortless.

Why Learn Anything by Heart?

Perhaps you don’t see the point of memorizing things in the first place. And indeed, when it comes to music, I don’t think there’s a noticeable difference in the enjoyableness of a performance carried out with versus without sheet music. After all, orchestras and chamber music ensembles perform almost exclusively using sheet music! Perhaps a tradition of performing solo by heart has become the norm over time because it was simply flashier to do so.

But I do think the experience of memorizing things is energizing and fun. If you are able to play for stretches of time without looking at the notes, you free yourself up to pay attention to other aspects of the music: how your shoulder feels as it supports the violin, for example, whether your neck or bowing arm is stiff, how the strings vibrate underneath your finger pads. Beyond bodily sensations, you might also become more attuned to the sound quality and intonation of the notes, which in turn affects how you play.

So if you approach the idea of memorizing things as a new way for you to experience the music, perhaps the idea will become more appealing. And once you get the hang of memorizing one type of thing (the main example I’ll walk through is sheet music, but one could follow the same approach for memorizing poems, song lyrics, or speeches) you may find that the same techniques can be extended to other repetitional practices like learning a second language, or yoga, too.

Step One: Technical Basics

Before you can recite or play anything by heart, you have to learn the ins and outs of it. Start by familiarizing yourself with the “ground rules” like - when it comes to traditional sheet music - meter, key signature, tempo, and dynamics (adjust accordingly if you're following a different type of notation!). Pencil in any additional cues which will help you hit the notes correctly, like fingerings and bowings for the violin.

As you are learning the basics, see if you are drawn to any landmarks on the page. This can be anything which stands out to your eye even if it seems “irrelevant” to the music – since I happen to be a visual learner, for example, I like to look for little peaks or troughs in the shape of the notes itself, because I can use them later as visual cues when I’m transitioning to playing the piece by heart.

Step Two: Finding the Heart of the Music

A DALL-E rendering of images I associate with The Devil's Trill Sonata.

Isn’t it remarkable that we can remember certain memories from early childhood quite vividly, in some cases of scenes that took place before we could speak full sentences - whereas other moments from that same period are a blur? If you examine the memories closely, you might discover an emotional core to them – a mood or sensation which you can remember before other details like what you were wearing that day. The more strongly an emotion you felt as the moment unfolded, the more likely that you can remember it vividly today. (There have been various attempts to establish a firm link between emotion and memory - here's a summary of one such study which was performed by researchers at NYU).

The idea behind looking for the heart of the music is to simulate this presumed connection between emotions and memory in our playing. Although “imagined” emotions might not feel as intense as ones which arise in response to real events, I have found that they can still deepen your performance profoundly. As early as possible, even while you are still learning the basics of the piece, try to look for the heart, or the emotional core, of the music. Is it a cheerful, upbeat piece? Or is it heavy and sad? The key signature of the music as well as the tempo notation will usually provide hints - typically minor key and slower tempo connotes sadness, whereas major key and faster tempo indicates happiness. If you’re lucky, some pieces will even include more explicit instructions about the mood or style - like dolce to mean sweet, animato for animated/lively, or con fuoco to mean fiery. But if possible, try to dig deeper than that. If you have studied music formally, you have probably heard of the concept of phrasing – or how a sequence of notes or measures can be grouped together to form an expression – and this is a similar idea, with an emphasis on the underlying emotions to be expressed. I like to create various scenes or stories in my mind’s eye about what is unfolding - for example, this passage in The Devil’s Trill reminds me of hummingbirds chasing each other playfully at the beginning of Spring:

DevilsTrillMvmt2 BirdDance

There are a couple of variations on how you could visualize the scenes: you could try to create one bigger, overarching story which encompasses a whole movement or piece, or you could come up with shorter, mini scenes which are disconnected from one another and take up only a few measures at a time. Or, if you’re not as narratively inclined, you could focus purely on experiencing a series of emotions. For example, in the below two clips I sense a distinct shift in feeling from (1) mourning and dread to (2) hopefulness and even triumph.

Here is (1) mourning:

DevilsTrillMvmt1 Mourning

...transitioning to (2) hopefulness and triumph:

DevilsTrillMvmt1 Hopeful Triumphant

It’s not so important how but rather that you create some heart-based connection which feels genuine to you. The more emotionally attached you allow yourself to become, the more naturally the music will eventually flow from memory.

If you are having a difficult time finding a feeling or visualization which feels authentic, you might try searching online to see if you can find any artistic context which might offer some clues. I wouldn’t recommend this as a first option because I think it’s best to develop a personal interpretation which comes from within, so consider this more like a back-up option. As an example, here's an Encyclopedia Britannica entry about The Devil’s Trill:

[Giuseppe] Tartini himself gave the work its byname, explaining that he had written down the piece after waking from a particularly vivid dream of the Devil playing a violin with ferocious virtuosity. He later stated that his sonata was but a shadow of what he had witnessed in the dream, for he was unable to capture on the page the Devil’s full intensity.

Of course, the "devil" image is already present in the title of the sonata, but I think it’s interesting that the idea occurred to the composer in a dream in which the devil played the violin with "ferocious virtuosity". These clues hint at a certain atmosphere which I can aim for in my performance.

Step Three: Into the Unknown (or: Beginning to Play By Heart)

Once you have developed an emotional connection to the piece – whether as one overarching story, a series of scenes or distinct emotions strung together – it’s time to jump into the deep end and start playing it by heart!

I prefer to simply start playing with my eyes closed, without any sheet music physically in front of me – I keep it tucked away in my violin case or somewhere else slightly out of reach so that I’m not easily tempted to reach for it. I find that starting with my eyes closed helps me visualize the emotions or scenes with less distraction, although there's one caveat: I once had a violin teacher who was adamant about not performing with your eyes closed, because the music tends to sound better that way so that you’re no longer hearing it objectively, and then you might stop adapting to your own performance. I think there is some truth to her advice, so my suggestion is rather limited to the early stages of practicing by heart – not something that you want to carry over into a final performance. As a rule of thumb, you can stop closing your eyes once you’re able to play the whole piece once through without looking at the sheet music.

The first few times you attempt this you may discover that you’re not able to make it more than a handful of measures before drawing a blank. At this point I will usually give it a couple more tries and then, if I’m still stuck, I will pull out the sheet music, play from the beginning to the part where my memory lapsed, and then continue further for a few more measures before putting the music away and trying again. I alternate back and forth in this way between without music (and eyes closed) and with music for the next several practices.

The amount of time it takes will vary from person to person and from piece to piece, but eventually you will be able to go for longer chunks of time without referring to the sheet music. What I find especially difficult during this phase is resuming from memory once I've had to stop – say, for example, that you make a fingering mistake in the middle of a run and want to restart from the nearest logical place. If I’m not able to quickly think of a re-starting point from memory, I may jump back to the beginning or refer to the sheet music to pick a more appropriate place, depending on what makes more sense. For example, if I make a mistake at the end of a movement and can’t think of any starting point other than the beginning, I'll go ahead and look at the sheet music in order to focus on the more immediate problem of correcting my mistake near the place where it occurred.

The idea is to gradually wean yourself off the sheet music by replacing the visual input (notes) with internal, experiential triggers, a few measures at a time. If this doesn’t come quickly to you, I find using the landmarks (or visual cues) which I mentioned in Step One to be helpful as well – this is a good time to lean on as many mnemonic devices as you need!

Step Four: Switch Up the Scene

After some time, you will consistently be able to go for longer stretches of playing entirely by heart. Perhaps it’s not yet a full movement or piece, but it will likely be more than you realized you were capable of!

Once you have reached some level of consistency, it’s time to build resilience by switching things up a bit – try to trigger your memory in as many different settings as possible. Get creative! For example, in my small apartment I am only able to practice violin in my bedroom (anywhere else and I’d get distracted by my cats or disturb my partner while he’s in work meetings), but even with these limitations I can tweak my circumstances in several ways: I can play while standing or while sitting, while facing the window or the wardrobe on the opposite side of the room. I can also practice at different times of day, like early in the morning or just before dinner, or at different energy levels and moods. The idea is to acclimate to different situations rather than one ideal environment, because in reality, if you ever choose to perform in front of a live audience, you won’t be able to predict exactly what conditions you’ll find your heart and mind in before you start to play.

Another valuable practice I find is to reinforce your memory randomly – whereas in Step Three the goal was to remove our "crutch", in this phase I will actually try to double check against the sheet music at random moments in order to ensure that my memory is accurate. Every few practice sessions I might play a section or even up to a whole movement without the music, followed by a section or a movement with the music in front of me. It's like performing an internal audit which brings into focus any parts of the piece which are fuzzier than others.

Exhibit A: reinforcing my memory while facing the wardrobe!

Even as I am gradually able to play longer stretches by heart and under different circumstances, I may still find myself making sporadic technical mistakes at this stage. Not that I necessarily play the wrong notes, but rather that I’ve forgotten some fingering or inadvertently reversed the bowing, and as a result the phrasing or tempo feels off. When this happens, I always return to practicing those specific parts with the sheet music and re-focus on the technical basics from Step One in order to avoid perpetuating mistakes.

Step Five: Putting it All Together

The last step is to put everything together: play the whole piece from beginning to end by heart! This moment will often coincide with your final preparations for a performance, so it is easy to get sidetracked by details – if you make mistakes, for example, you might be tempted to stop and “get it right” before moving on. Here I will cite the advice of another one of my early violin teachers: practice performing, don’t practice practicing. Or - put slightly differently - divide your practice into two different kinds: (1) one where you simulate performing from beginning to end, and (2) another where you dissect the piece into smaller chunks in order to zoom in and fine-tune specific aspects like sound quality or intonation. In the first type of practice, try to pretend that you’re performing on stage so that if you make a mistake, the aim is not to go back and fix it but rather to continue playing as smoothly as possible, without distracting yourself or your imaginary audience from the music.

Once the nature of your practice shifts from ~50% performance / ~50% zooming in to ~100% consistent performance, then you know you are ready to finally perform it – if you choose to, that is!

Extending this Practice Beyond Music

My hunch is that there are many ways in which these steps can be re-purposed outside of learning sheet music. One example has been particularly impactful for my life in Germany: learning to speak a second language.

Here’s a quick overview of the same steps outlined above as extended to second languages:

1.    Learning the technical basics – similar to music, try to understand the basic language rules like grammar, conjugation and pronunciation first. In this phase it is also helpful to use mnemonics or visual aids like flash cards or taping sticky notes to everyday objects as a way to build up vocabulary, similar to the idea of landmarks.

2.     Finding the heart of the [language] – I believe every language has a distinct melody to it and that, if you're willing to trust your ears and intuition, it's possible to understand far more than just the vocabulary you've learned. For example, one nuance I like to listen for when first learning a new language is how the inflection of words change when asking a question as compared to making a statement of fact - the more you attune yourself to these melodic tendencies, the more you will be able to speak the language in a way that sounds natural to native speakers.

Another yoga teacher of mine once put this more poetically: she said that Sanskrit words have inherent meaning carried in their intonation and suggested that instead of looking up English translations in the dictionary, we should instead listen more closely in order to intuit their meaning.

3.     Stepping into the unknown – the sooner you jump into using the language practically, the better. Here my advice differs slightly from the sheet music realm in that I would not suggest to refer to grammar books as soon as your mind blanks on a rule but rather allow yourself to make mistakes, trusting that you will correct yourself over time. Of course, if you make a mistake during a language lesson then it does make sense to correct it in that moment so that your teacher can help ensure that you understand the language rules – but if you’re out conversing in the “real world” then it’s better not to disrupt your flow by stopping to check every time something sounds slightly off to you.

4.    Switch up the scene The more surface area you expose yourself to in the second language, the more organically your vocabulary will grow. I try to always hold at least 50% of my conversations with my partner in German, but I also watch TV shows and news programming in German and follow some German accounts on Twitter. I also occasionally read German newsmagazines and editorial articles, although right now this still feels a bit out of reach for my comprehension level so I try not to push myself too hard.

5.     Putting it all together – I never really warmed up to the saying “fake it ‘til you make it” until it came to learning languages (I can speak Spanish, German, and Taiwanese Hokkien with intermediate fluency). The truth is, unless you begin learning a second language at a young age, you will likely never sound exactly like a native speaker to another native speaker. But if you practice “performing” – or speaking the language with confidence, as if you are already fluent – then you can focus on emulating the melodies of the language, which will make you more understandable to native speakers despite small grammar or vocabulary mistakes.

If you’re still feeling unsure about how to “find the heart” in a piece of music or language you’re working on, you might want to look for external sources of inspiration. One of my violinist idols is Hilary Hahn because her performances inspire me to imagine music in new ways – her rendition of the famous Mendelssohn Violin Concerto has moved me to tears!:

For languages, perhaps you can find an actor or actress who is a native speaker of the language you are learning and watch a couple of videos to study how they speak. It is particularly helpful if you can find someone you like who plays a wide range of genres and emotions, so that you are more likely to encounter the full spectrum of sounds from the spoken language. I tend to benefit the most from watching programs with subtitles on while simultaneously studying the actors' intonation, facial expressions and gestures to see how they line up with the script.

One Last Remark

There's that famous quote from Maya Angelou which goes, “at the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” I believe that the most rewarding experience that a performer can impart on their audience is not the perfect execution of a flashy passage or difficult sequence of notes but rather a certain feeling tone – a real, human emotion expressed exquisitely and authentically. For me, this is the most compelling reason to play music by heart – because in the process of committing the notes to memory you are bringing images and emotions to life which are real and personal to you - and in doing so, if you are lucky, you may just touch the hearts of others.

This essay is a submission to Tasshin Fogleman's Share Your Knowledge! Essay Contest.