Close this search box.

The Memory Map

Melissa Colgin-Abeln | November 2009

    For flutists, music memorization has almost become a lost art, even though playing from memory provides enormous advantages in terms of complete musical mastery. The hours we spend practicing yield memorization at a certain finger level; in a relaxed setting, the notes flow easily. However, apply the pressure of competing or performing, and the scenario changes drastically. If the music is not etched into our brains, the result can be disastrous. Successful memorization requires intellectual intensity on several levels from the onset of practice.
    My personal experiences and facility in memorizing may sound familiar to some. I learned to read music from piano lessons but found that playing from memory was much easier. Progressing as a musician and flutist, I developed a habit of condensing larger flute works into written graphs of the music during practice. I call these graphs Memory Maps. The map eventually replaces the music on the stand, until it too is unnecessary for performance. What follows is a how-to process, illustrating the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto in G Major, Debussy’s Syrinx, Marco Granados’ Hibiee-Jibiees, and Lieberman’s Flute Concerto, 1st movement.

What is a Memory Map?

    The process of mapping music into a condensed visual guide during practice pulls together the essential elements of study in a simple, practical way. Shorthand notations illustrate form, harmony, melody, phrasing, rhythm, and dynamics. The method needn’t be elaborate. A notepad with handwritten rhythms and a melodic skeleton within a framework of the form can do the trick. The musician can use as little or as much information to aid the learning process and trigger recall.
    Over many months of practice, we discover the subtleties and other attributes that make a work interesting and wonderful to both player and listener. Mapping leads to increased comprehension, better memory, and confidence. Time spent on these endeavors pays off handsomely both for an upcoming performance, as well as those in later years.
    The Memory Map is also an excellent pedagogical tool. Time is often wasted because the student does not know how to organize his practicing. From the outset, a student’s practice method is brought to a higher level of study, well beyond the notes, thus providing the teacher with a tangible means to evaluate comprehension and progress.

Constructing a Memory Map
    The Memory Map can be useful at any stage of learning, but working out details from the very beginning is advantageous. Simple notations can evolve to more detailed, elaborate ideas as the player gains a greater understanding of the music. There is no right or wrong way to map; what might trigger memory for one flutist wouldn’t necessarily have meaning for another. The map is a compilation of personal study and reflection.
    To begin, write basic information, such as the key, meter, and form in the left margin. Although staff paper or a steno pad works nicely, I like to tape lined and staff paper together to clarify written and musical notations. Rehearsal numbers or letters often work well as landmarks. I often notate fragments of themes and rhythmic patterns on the staff paper.

    As you continue to fill out the map (see below), the elements that form the composer’s intentions become apparent.

    Mozart’s use of 18th-century double-exposition form in the first movement follows convention; however, signature elements of multiple motives, winsome melody and artful appoggiaturas set him apart from everyone else. The possibilities for mapping are limitless.  Descriptive labels, such as “bird-call” bridge and “rocket” at the recapitulation can provide an imaginative trigger for these points. A teacher can nurture a young student’s imagination through these creative words to describe sections that later might be given proper musical terms. Difficulties in memorization occur when the player can’t remember the details of thematic transformation or variation.  
    Works that employ diatonic harmony and conventional forms are a good starting point for mapping, as the Mozart example illustrates. Atonal and unconventional contemporary works, however, pose more difficulty and the task becomes a more significant challenge.

Maps of Debussy’s Syrinx.
    While far from atonal, Debussy’s Syrinx is an iconic 20th-century flute solo that illustrates the move toward the dissolution of diatonic tonality via chromatic, pentatonic, and whole-tone harmony. To set the stage for mapping, certain aspects of this short work deserve special emphasis.
    Composed as incidental music to Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyche, the programmatic piece was dedicated to Louis Fleury, who performed the premiere in 1913. Played offstage, the solo foreshadows the death of Pan. Syrinx remained in Fleury’s possession as a manuscript until 1927, at which time flutist Marcel Moyse added the key signature and barlines for publication. (For a more comprehensive discussion, please see Flute Talk articles: “Performance Guide: Interpreting Syrinx” by Roy Ernst and Douglass Green, Feb. 1991; and “Debussy’s Syrinx” by Laura Ronai, March 2008.)
    It is commonly held that Syrinx is organized into four perceptible sections. Debussy intended an improvisatory nature for the piece, yet he gives precise notations of alternating duple and triple rhythms that sound loose and unhurried. In only 35 measures, the harmonically ambiguous theme is expanded, interpolated, and recapped at a moderate, elastic pace.
    My first map was comprised of the quarter-note skeleton with the underlying rhythm. More details were added as needed.

The restatement of Theme 1 moves onward through thematic extension. In this part of the map, I employ mostly rhythmic stems and skeletal notes.

The rubato section serves as a transition to the love theme and subsequent climaxing cadence.

The final impassioned call leads to a descent, correlating to the death of Pan. With use of the descending half step, long held as a gesture of tearful lamentation, Debussy broadens the rhythmic pace, the tempo and aptly writes perdendosi (gradually dying away).

The map’s short-hand underscores the descent.

More Maps
    The following maps show how mapping can evolve over time. Marco Granados’ playful Hibiee-Jibiees has been a staple for school demonstrations for a decade. The first example is a scribbled map with the barest essentials.

The second version, although a fragment, shows the opposite extreme for detail.

The third and most personal version illustrates a more compact approach. 

My graduate student Jennifer Rodriguez mapped the first movement of Lowell Lieberman’s Flute Concerto,  notated much like those shown on the left, except that her map was three pages long! (Scroll down to see her maps!) However, her final version evolved to a set of flash cards completed for a competition.

    For Jennifer, simple, descriptive words and phrases in colors became effective triggers. (She cut and pasted the corresponding musical sections on the back of each card.) Her efforts paid off; she was a winner!

    Memorization of music is a process of discovery, hard work, and liberation which offers advantages for performance. There are several generally established types of memory work – kinetic, aural, visual, and analytical. The Memory Map combines elements of these four approaches. As the musician condenses a musical work into a visual, written graph during practice, the process leads to more careful study and understanding of the work. I find that it also leads to greater insight into the composer’s intentions. The Memory Map is an excellent pedagogical tool and provides teachers with a tangible means to supervise and evaluate a student’s comprehension and progress. In everything we do musically, expertise comes with deliberate, organized practice. There are limitless ways to construct a map; creative imagination and intensified study of musical elements through mapping sets the stage for more indepth study and understanding of any piece of music. This, in turn leads to enhanced performances.

Leiberman Concerto Map 1 (page 1), mm. 1-50
This map is the written out first portion of each section. Staves 1-3 represent the opening section. The next 7 staves represent the arpeggios before the "playfully annoying" sections.

Lieberman Concerto Map 2 (page 2), mm. 51-135
Staves 1-2 are a continuation of the “playfully annoying” section.
Staves 4-8 are page 3 of the concerto.
Staves 9-10 are the slow F-minor section (page 4 of concerto).

Andreas, Jamie. On Memorizing: Part 2., accessed June 1, 2008.
Dunsby, Jonathon. Memory and memorizing. Grove Online:, accessed June 14, 2008.
Ernst, Roy and Green, Douglass M. “Performance Guide: Interpreting Syrinx” Flute Talk, February, 1991.
Gandrup, Kimberly. “Creative Memorizing Tips”, Flute Talk, February, 2000.
Garrison, Leonard. “For the Mnenomically Challenged.”,  accessed June 5, 2009.
Houser, Virginia. “Memorization-An Integral Part of Musicianship at Every Level”,  Accessed June 5,   2007.
Kelly, Robert T. “How to Memorize Music”., accessed June 1, 2007.
Koenig, Laura. “Debussy’s Syrinx: An Annotated Biography,” The Flutist Quarterly, Winter 1995/6.
Lewis, Martha Beth. “Memory Methods”., accessed June 14, 2008.
Mishra, Jennifer. A Theoretical Model of Musical Memorization in Psycomusicology, Vol. 19: Spring 2005.”
Rawlins, Robert. “Musical Memory Skills,” The Flutist Quarterly XX/3 (Spring 1995): 51-53.
Ronai, Laura. “Debussy’s Syrinx” in Flute Talk, March 2008.
Shockley, Rebecca Payne. “An Experimental Approach to the Memorization of Piano Music with Implications for Music Reading”. D.M.A. Dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1980.
Mapping Music: Some Simple Strategies to Help Students Learn. American Music Teacher 56:2 (Oct-Nov. 2006), p. The Memory Map ©