Why do professional classical musicians do it? Why do they memorise entire pieces, from violin partitas to piano concertos, from sonatas to symphonies? All those thousands of notes, every single one of them going into the brains and bodies of soloists, singers, orchestral players and conductors, so that, at will, they can play any bar of a fugue by Bach or a concerto by Tchaikovsky, without hesitation, deviation or repetition.


One of the reasons is that we in the audience love the frisson that these feats of memory give us. Think of any concerto performance you might have seen: with no sheet music in front of the soloist, it’s as if the music is emerging unmediated from their subconsciousness. The music is a spell that’s enchanted in front of our eyes and ears; it no longer belongs to Beethoven or Rachmaninov – it’s Anne-Sophie Mutter’s, it’s Martha Argerich’s.

Yet this memory fetish wasn’t always part of musical culture. It began in earnest with Franz Liszt, in his solo concerts in the early decades of the 19th century. Liszt’s piano recitals were sensual rituals of super-virtuosity, in which his audiences were transfixed by his ability to produce whole repertoires of music on the spot.

The pianist Stephen Hough has written about this turn to memory, great for Liszt but anathema to others: ‘Chopin would not have approved.’ In fact, Chopin ‘chastised a pupil once for playing a piece from memory, accusing him of arrogance’. And why? Because ‘in the days when every pianist was also a composer, to play without a score would usually have meant that you were improvising. To play a Chopin ballade from memory might have seemed as if you were trying to pass off that masterpiece as your own.’

That’s the hubris of playing from memory: pretending as a performer that you’re making it up on the spur of the moment is an affront to the composers who toiled over their pieces.

And there’s another problem with memory. The condition for a culture that demands that soloists learn their parts off by heart is that there must be a fixed historical repertoire written by other people for them to learn. And since the majority of them are now dead, there’s no real danger of anyone mistaking the performer for the composer. Our insistence on memory comes at the cost of new pieces becoming part of the repertoire, composed so quickly there’s no time to memorise them.

So next time you see a soloist playing with the sheet music, it’s not that they haven’t learnt the piece: they’re restoring musical culture to a state of potential creation, not a mausoleum of memory in which every note is fixed in advance. While memory can be freeing for some musicians, we as an audience shouldn’t demand it of all of performers. When memory becomes an ideology, we might be losing more than we’re gaining.


Illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan


BBC Radio 3 Presenter Tom Service
Tom ServiceColumnist, BBC Music Magazine

Tom Service is a familiar voice to BBC Radio 3 listeners, the station on which he has presented Music Matters since 2003 and his own programme The Listening Service, in which he breaks down how music works. He is also a monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine. For many years, Service wrote for The Guardian, where he was chief classical music critic.