How many pieces of music / songs can you keep in your head, and how do you make sure they stay there?

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TheBathBird
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My preference is always to commit my favourite pieces to memory, it’s obviously a lot easier not needing to have the music available every time I want to play something, but I also find I can get much more absorbed in what I’m playing if I’m not trying to follow the music at the same time.

I have a lot of fingerstyle reentrant music in my head, some of it’s been in there for years (it’s a bit like the contents of our fridge), but because I’ve played reentrant ukulele almost exclusively over the years I’ve cycled through it often enough to keep it fairly fresh (unlike the contents of our fridge).

I’ve often wondered at which point every new piece I memorise will push an older, less-played piece out, and now I that have a ukulele tuned low G for the first time in many years I’m wondering that even more - because I’m neglecting my poor reentrant sopranos. You know how it is, the new baby’s getting all the attention. I think I might be in danger of forgetting all those reentrant pieces as I move a load of linear stuff in 😕

What I’d like to know is how other people manage their memorised music? Presumably there’s a finite amount of stuff you can keep in your head? Do you make yourself play everything you know off by heart regularly so that you don’t forget anything? I guess muscle memory plays a huge part in memorising music, that probably makes it very different from remembering what you did last Tuesday etc.

Anyway I’m just interested in what you guys think.
 
In my experience ... stuff learned is stuff learned :)
I may need a little prompting (from sheet/book) if I haven't played a piece for a while, but once I've been through it once or twice, it's back (more or less), though the more "tricky" passages may need a little practice.
I'm multi-instrumental, guitar, banjo (4 & 5-string), ukulele, mandolin, plus some woodwind, so it's almost inevitable that some pieces don't get played in a while ... they mostly come back with no problem.
Inevitably, YMMV - good luck :)
 
I was just on a camping trip in January with my uke, trying to count how many songs i can play fully by memory. My guess, off the top was around 10, but when I started playing and really counting, I was getting close to 20. It's definitely easier for the strum and sing (i just learned the acronym S&S), where you "just" have to remember chord progressions and lyrics. The fingerstyle pieces I have memorized are very much muscle memory and I play them often to keep 'em in there. I should perhaps start a song list with estimated times to see if I could potentially put a setlist together for that big moment when I take the stage at a huge event! ... (NOT). One can dream!

I've met with another member who busks and I believe he said he has 2hrs worth of songs he can play in a set. I'm not sure if that's all memorized... if it were, I'd be pretty impressed!
 
Everything I know is made up of bits from everything else I know. So it's really just remembering the words to songs.

I learned this recently - it will fall out again, because it's a weird progression and now I've worked the song out I'm not sure where I'd play it. I don't have much else with a similar chord progression that I can "hang it on", if that makes sense. It's in Abm, if you are interested.



As to linear vs reentrant, I just play it with a different instrument, it's still the same song. I just "trim" the arrangement to suit the voice of the instrument.
 
In my experience ... stuff learned is stuff learned :)
I may need a little prompting (from sheet/book) if I haven't played a piece for a while, but once I've been through it once or twice, it's back (more or less), though the more "tricky" passages may need a little practice.
I'm multi-instrumental, guitar, banjo (4 & 5-string), ukulele, mandolin, plus some woodwind, so it's almost inevitable that some pieces don't get played in a while ... they mostly come back with no problem.
Inevitably, YMMV - good luck :)
This is a good point, there are a few pieces I used to play on the piano that I can still just about stumble through, even though I haven’t played piano regularly for years.


I've met with another member who busks and I believe he said he has 2hrs worth of songs he can play in a set. I'm not sure if that's all memorized... if it were, I'd be pretty impressed!
Two hours would definitely be a pretty impressive feat of memory! It would be interesting to know how long your set list of memorised songs would be. Like you, I suspect I know quite a few more pieces off by heart than I think.
that big moment when I take the stage at a huge event! ... (NOT). One can dream!
Haha, that would be more of a nightmare for me!
 
Everything I know is made up of bits from everything else I know. So it's really just remembering the words to songs.

I learned this recently - it will fall out again, because it's a weird progression and now I've worked the song out I'm not sure where I'd play it. I don't have much else with a similar chord progression that I can "hang it on", if that makes sense. It's in Abm, if you are interested.



As to linear vs reentrant, I just play it with a different instrument, it's still the same song. I just "trim" the arrangement to suit the voice of the instrument.


Everything you say makes perfect sense. Funnily enough I find it much harder to remember chords and lyrics than I do something like classical fingerstyle, I think my muscle memory might be better than my actual brain.

I love the song you linked to, if it was me I’d definitely want to keep playing it just for the sake of it, so that I didn’t lose it.
 
Funnily enough I find it much harder to remember chords and lyrics than I do something like classical fingerstyle, I think my muscle memory might be better than my actual brain.
Me too. But I think for me it stems from my formative years learning violin and then having to play at a recital - so if I'd grown up learning chords & lyrics, I'd probably have less trouble with it (is my theory for me).
 
I question why someone would even want to keep things in his or her head. There is just so much evidence of how these instruments nurture our brains by learning new things to stave off dementia and other maladies. Accordingly I am always moving on and learning new things and discarding previous things. I do circle back and re-learn things. For example, I did learn my minor pentatonic shapes like a myriad of other players but now I am re-learning and re-thinking them to emphasize common notes in shapes low on the fretboard and high on the fretboard. And who knows? Perhaps tomorrow I will gravitate toward a Melodic Minor mode because I am attracted by a D# or I will re-introduce myself to Bird Changes. I have the attention span of a kitten and I am gleeful about it.
 
Me too. But I think for me it stems from my formative years learning violin and then having to play at a recital - so if I'd grown up learning chords & lyrics, I'd probably have less trouble with it (is my theory for me).
Now you come to mention it, there might be similar conditioning at play for me. Although in my case I always learned my pieces off by heart as quickly as possible so that I wouldn’t have to keep reading the sheet music! Much to the irritation of my music teachers.
 
I question why someone would even want to keep things in his or her head. There is just so much evidence of how these instruments nurture our brains by learning new things to stave off dementia and other maladies. Accordingly I am always moving on and learning new things and discarding previous things. I do circle back and re-learn things. For example, I did learn my minor pentatonic shapes like a myriad of other players but now I am re-learning and re-thinking them to emphasize common notes in shapes low on the fretboard and high on the fretboard. And who knows? Perhaps tomorrow I will gravitate toward a Melodic Minor mode because I am attracted by a D# or I will re-introduce myself to Bird Changes. I have the attention span of a kitten and I am gleeful about it.

I get a great deal of pleasure from learning to play music on my little soprano ukulele which was written by people with infinitely more compositional skill than I have and intended for much grander instruments. It’s my bag.
Your bag is, I gather, quite different. Suum cuique, Mr Ripock!
 
Even as a teenage banjo player, I’ve always found it difficult to keep one tune in my head all the way through! I have no other “ADD” or “ADHD” symptoms and have never been labeled as anything other than a PITA. :ROFLMAO:

As @kypfer mentioned, a quick glance (well, maybe not so quick these days) at a chord sheet is usually all it takes to sort me out.

I love the OP’s question for another reason: I often find my brain humming some similar tune while trying to gain finger muscle memory for another. This happens almost every time I start a new tune.
It’s perhaps most obvious in my recent cover of Westphalia Waltz, when I unintentionally played the first new notes of Norwegian Wood as the D9-Am7-D7-G intro.

Is that (mentally and unconsciously mixing up two different tunes) common?
 
Ive been playing piano for 55 years, played in bands, wrote songs and I cannot play without my cheat sheets...I blame it on the 70's, sex, drugs and rock n roll....
 
At 67 years old I'm not memorizing anything. I play every day. A different 10-20 songs each day. I'm always adding more songs, and it might take 4 weeks to circle around back to the beginning. That's my joy!
 
Is that (mentally and unconsciously mixing up two different tunes) common?
I often mix up / combine more than one piece of music when I’m playing in my head (which is one of the many completely useless techniques I use to try and combat my crippling insomnia 🤣) There are certain things I mix up quite often, for example the beginning of Jake’s Pianoforte and a nice little David Beckingham arrangement of Enya’s Watermark. In my middle of the night brain they merge into one another quite nicely!
 
I find it difficult to memorize anything. And with music I can't even remember how many songs I have forgotten. Sometimes I hear one and then think geez I used to play this all the time years ago and now it's gone. The only way to keep songs in memory for me is to play them regularly.
 
"What I’d like to know is how other people manage their memorised music? Presumably there’s a finite amount of stuff you can keep in your head? Do you make yourself play everything you know off by heart regularly so that you don’t forget anything?"

I have around 20 fingerstyle pieces memorized, and yes, I review them regularly so I don't forget them - but also because I really enjoy playing them. I have another 5 or so partially memorized, and another 5 or so that I'm still learning and not ready to start memorizing.

I like to memorize them so I can focus on the music - shut my eyes and just enjoy playing. And I feel like I have more leeway to change things up when I'm not reading it off of a piece of paper, (digital format hasn't worked out for me so far), and play around with the arrangement if I'm in the mood to do so. But mostly, it's just better for me to be able to focus on the music, the tone, my technique, (such as it is), and to flow with it.
 
I play mostly by ear and don't replay much note for note. I just memorize the progression, the melody and try to recreate the flavor of the piece I'm playing. Some solos on guitar and banjo are so well known that I can play them note for note if I choose, but generally I supply my own arrangements.
 
if I'd grown up learning chords & lyrics
I didn't grow up learning anything in particular :ROFLMAO: -- certainly very few of my music lessons took at all, which is why the last time I'd touched a musical instrument was during the Carter administration before I took up the ukulele in 2020.

But I've been singing along with records, the radio and such for over 60 years. THAT, I can do. I've never intentionally tried to memorize any of them that I can remember, but I've still managed to memorize hundreds of songs by accident, at least well enough to pass an oral exam if not a written one, so to speak.

I question why someone would even want to keep things in his or her head.

Look, there's a pile of garbage in my head that got stuck in there by accident. I'd remove a third of it if I could, but you can't really forget something on purpose, can you? :ROFLMAO: If something's gonna be there, it might as well be things that I WANT to be there. THOSE, I can do something about.

My own experience observing dementia in way too many family members is that it's not entirely about forgetting things. It's about losing control of what you remember. You could even describe some aspects of dementia as non-stop novelty for the sufferer, and non-stop suffering for their loved ones. I gotta tell ya, when your dad asks, "Hey, you're new here! What's your name?" the answer is NOT, "I'm your son, and I was just here 10 minutes ago. I just stepped out to talk to the doctor." He's certain he's never seen you before, and it just upsets him to have forgotten that he'd ever had any kids at all, much less you in particular.

There's no question that an ever-widening range of new experiences is an important part of exercising the mind, but the flipside of neuroplasticity is that if you don't have the ability to solidify some of the novelty into persistence, AT WILL, then you really don't have much at all. Experiencing new things. Remembering them. Calling them up at will. A healthy mind exhibits them all.

To put it another way, what turns "experiences" into Experience, is memory. If you're not remembering things, are you actually learning them at all?

I'm going to assume that you're making a rhetorical point about being at one end of a practical spectrum of memorizing everything you play or memorizing nothing, but I'll conversationally push back with the observation that you've likely forgotten more about scales and modes than many of us can recall....except that you don't seem like a guy who's forgotten much of what you've ever heard or read. 🙂 Maybe it comes easily to you.

Back to my earlier point, I can remember garbage stuff with no effort whatsoever. The less important it is, the more easily I'll remember it forever and ever, whether I want to or not. LOL

Aside from the role and nature of memory in forging experience, there is also for me the notion of living with intent. I've wasted an awful lot of my life bouncing from one thing to the next, driven by whatever vague impulse I'm feeling, or driven by circumstances where I lacked the wherewithall to shape my circumstances myself. I find that I like being at least a little in the driver's seat.

With music, here's the key. When I'm reading sheets, the music is outside me, and I'm straining to pull it in. It's true, but it's not how I FEEL. I feel like the music is in me, and it's trying to get out, and the only way to reconcile the two is to actually learn the song well enough for it to actually BE inside me.

From there, I'm riding downhill. The hard part is done. Now I just need to keep building the skills to make it actually sound good. :ROFLMAO: Which is easier when the energy is moving in the right direction -- from INSIDE ME, out.

Here's the other thing. Everyone has a different road. Maybe going through the Beloff books, a page a day, one after the other, is exactly what you want. God bless the Beloffs and those books, but that's not my road. And yeah, I don't need to memorize every single song I'll ever play. Sometimes playing a fun song once in my life is enough.

But for some songs, playing then a THOUSAND times, TEN thousand times, won't be enough. Nothing could ever possibly be enough, so rather than only have them in me for the length of time I'm playing them, I'll invite a handful of 'em to LIVE in me.

I'll visualize playing them when I don't have an ukulele in my hands. I'll keep thinking about adding more riffs and chord extensions and inversions to make it sound even better. This handful of songs will be my life's work. The rest of them will just be fun, and that's okay too.

Fun's fun, and we all need fun, but sometimes I need to play for keeps, and the songs I want to play for keeps, I'll be memorizing.

More of an answer than anyone was likely looking for, but if you're gonna ask, even rhetorically, why anyone wants to keep a song in their heads, there's the short version of my answer. :ROFLMAO:
 
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In my case, very few, unfortunately. I mostly strum and sing, and I’m just not good at memorizing chord progressions. And if I think I do have them memorized, but go very long without practicing them, it becomes swearing evident that they weren’t really memorized after all. I might could do five from memory, on a good day.
 
Even from a young age, memorizing music just never came naturally to me, no matter what instrument I was playing. So, by default, I became an excellent sight reader. For awhile, I continued to feel that I should just work harder at memorizing songs, but eventually I gave up trying because I realized that - for me - the real joy in playing an instrument comes from being able to play my way through a vast array of music. At this point in my life, I have collected a great many books and binders of music for various instruments. More than enough to hold my interest, and keep my brain happy … until I eventually move on to my final resting place at that marvelous, magical music store in the great beyond. :)
 
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