Memory and Music

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for my students, and for a lot of modern pipers, is the problem of memorization. The bagpipes as an instrument are a marching band tradition generally speaking. Most bagpipers spend their time piping with a bagpipe band. Those bands do a lot of marching – parades, competitions, massed bands, with the occasional concert thrown in. We do not have equipment meant to bring our music with us. Part of the piping tradition is memorizing your music.

There is a vast debate regarding whether memorization or reading is better – I firmly fall into the camp of “memorization” – and may at some point choose to expand on why. However, for our purposes, we are going to assume that memorization is the superior method, and lay down methods for improving memory.

Short and Long Term Memory – Why they Matter

The first thing we need to do is understand exactly how it is our memory works (in broad strokes, of course). Neuroscientists generally accept two different types of memory – short term, and long term. Short term memory is for remembering small bits of information quickly in order to function. That’s reading a phone number off a text message, and if you’re a barbarian whose phone can’t automatically read that number and let you tap it to call, pulling up the phone app and dialing it. Remembering short strings of numbers, and within a minute entering it.

When you get off the phone with the store, odds are you can’t remember that number anymore.

That’s short term memory. In piping this is akin to playing the first bar of a tune, repeating it without the music, going and playing a tune you know, and then attempting to play the bar you had just read through. Because it was committed to short term memory, you can’t play it again.

Long term memory is more permanent, and will allow you to play through 20 minutes of music, deciding to play a tune you haven’t played in a month, and still be able to do it. A lot of pipers can do this particularly with a tune like Amazing Grace, because we’ve all had it drilled in so hard that our corpses will be able to play it. Long term memory doesn’t have a limit – we don’t forget it. We just have difficulty recalling occasionally.

The mission of every musician trying to memorize music is to transfer music from short term memory into long term memory. This requires a few different techniques.

First, we want to break a tune into easier to consume chunks. Memorization relies first on committing something to short-term memory, but short-term memory is limited. If you can break a tune into chunks – build associations between parts of the tune to turn individual notes into phrases in your mind, and then build those phrases into whole tunes – then you will have a much easier time committing music to short-term memory. Once that’s done, it becomes a matter of drilling the piece into long-term memory.

Let’s talk first about those associations…

Associative Memory

Associative memory in piping is the practice of look at a tune, identifying repeated sections, and memorizing that tune by those sections. Some folks in the piping community will refer to this as “the snowball effect.” The first disclaimer I’d like to give is that those sections can be various sizes – I generally use two measure phrases to illustrate this, but a phrase of music can be very different things. In piobaireachd it can be a single measure, in some light music it can be three measures. However, the key is to find repeating phrases, then plug those phrases into the tune pattern in order to build the whole piece.

This works great in piobaireachd. A single piobaireachd can be anywhere from 5 minutes long to 25 minutes – that can be a real bear to memorize. However, there is a well established method of classifying piobaireachd which breaks it down into insanely small pieces. There are tunes out there – Hector MacLean’s Warning in particular – where I have been able to memorize the entire tune in 15 minutes. Hector MacLean’s Warning is 188 measures long, as written.

Yes. 15 minutes.

Let’s look at something a bit simpler though – a classic 2/4 march named “Teribus”:

This tune comes out to be 32 total measures when played with repeats – but there are only 8 measures which are unique.

You will notice that I have highlighted this sheet music in four different colors. If you look at the music presented here, each colored section is identical to the colors of other sections of the same tune. If you memorize line 1, you already have 16 of the total 32 measures of the tune down. You then only have to learn the last two measures of line 2, and the first two measures of line 3.

Your phrase structure through the whole tune is:

Part 1: Blue, Orange, Blue, Pink, Blue, Orange, Blue, Pink
Part 2: Green, Orange, Green, Pink, Green, Orange, Blue, Pink

Let’s look at another one, shall we?

Scotland the Brave.jpg
Dum dum ba da dum ba da dee dee badee da dum bum THROW da…

In Scotland the Brave, once you’ve memorized the 2nd line, you’ve memorized half the tune. At that point, you just need to lock down line 3, and get the ending 3 beats of line 1 plugged in.

Scotland the Brave is 16 measures long – 9 measures is all you need to memorize.

Almost every bagpipe tune can be broken down in some way to simplify and speed up the memorization process.

Moving to Long-Term Memory

Now that we’ve broken tunes up into more manageable chunks, we now need to transfer those chunks from short-term memory to long-term memory. This is where individual preference starts to play a role, and I believe is where a lot of difficulty in memorization lies.

Partly, this is where point number two on the How to Study Music sheet I include in my student policies comes in. You can’t memorize a tune if you have distractions, period. While practicing your phone should be off, your computer should be asleep, and anyone else at home ought to be aware that you are practicing for a set amount of time, and so should not bother you while you are working on your material. You can’t commit material to memory if your mind is wandering.

However, it goes further than simply focusing.

Repetition is the method I find to be the most reliable to move material from short term to long term memory. Here you review the music, then play through it as far as you can without the sheet even accessible in front of you (no having the sheet near you as a crutch to fall back on in order to get through the tune). Once you hit a point you can no longer work through, flip your sheet over, look at that section, then flip over the paper and start again from the beginning of that section. Memorize the section, then move onto the next section.

Once the sections you have pre-selected are all memorized, you then plug them together and memorize the phrase structure of the tune.

This process does take time – you have to step away and do something else once you are relatively comfortable with the memory on the section you have worked out. Beating a dead horse isn’t going to make it run. Likewise, flogging your brain with intense repetition at a certain point becomes useless. Set down the chanter, put the music away, and go do something else. Sleep on it, and come back to it tomorrow.

But it has to be tomorrow.

This is where daily, consistent practice comes in. If you work through a tune as I’m describing above one day, then wait four days to pick up the chanter and play the tune again, you will have lost all of the progress you made. Work on the tune, sleep, work on the tune, sleep. After a few days you’ll have it memorized. Introduce it into your practice warm up repertoire, then your performance repertoire.

Do you have a method of memorizing which works particularly well for you? Sound out in the comments!

For additional thoughts on this exact topic, take a look at this article.

Practice Tips #1: Time

Every so often I will be posting some practice tips for my students. These topical posts are meant to give specific advice for how to practice effectively to hone the craft of bagpiping. This episode in the series will feature on practice duration and frequency, and how to best schedule your time for practice.

One of the biggest questions I always had as a student was “how long do I practice?” Over the years I have developed strategies and habits which answer that question. The answer to the question is two-fold: daily, and as much as you need to.

The more important of these two, frequency, is what we’ll talk about first. Practicing is about building upon material – creating a kind of snowballing effect where each time you pick up your instrument your skills grow. A key to developing skills quickly and efficiently is to practice each day, and if you can, multiple times in a day.

15 minutes per day, seven days a week, will produce better results for you than 2 hours on a Saturday every week. Sure, you may be practicing more hours on that Saturday, but between sessions you lose a lot of what you did the last time.

How long should you practice each session? Ideally, however long is necessary to achieve your practice session goals. Are you looking to memorize a new tune, and it takes you about a half hour to roughly commit one part of the tune to memory? Practice at least a half hour, then do the same thing the next day. However, it’s always better to get some practice time in a day than none at all. Even if you can practice one hour one day, and only 10 minutes the next, and an hour the next, that 10-minute session in between will help a lot in retaining skills.

For those playing pipes, you ought to dedicate two separate practice sessions – one on practice chanter, and one on the big pipes. Each session should focus on material specific to those instruments.

Here’s a couple ways you can do it:

Chanter Learner: 15 minutes per session, twice per day.
Beginner Piper: 30 minutes on practice chanter, 15 minutes on Highland Pipes
Novice Piper: 30 minutes on practice chanter, 30 minutes on Highland Pipes
Intermediate Piper: 15 minutes on practice chanter, 1 hour on Highland Pipes

the bigger time blocks can be broken up – a hour per day can be broken up into two 15 minute chunks, and one 30 minute chunk.

The big takeaways here are:

  1. Practice every day, even if it’s for just 10 minutes.
  2. Break chanter and full pipes time up into two practice sessions.
  3. Aim to practice as long as it takes to achieve a single day’s practice goal.

Our next practice tips will discuss setting goals at the start of each of your practice sessions.


  • Chanter Learner: A bagpiper who is learning basic notes and fingerwork on the practice chanter.
  • Beginner Piper: A bagpiper who has graduated onto the full bagpipes, but is still learning instrument management, and has not yet progressed to playing full tunes on the instrument.
  • Novice Piper: A bagpiper who has begun to play full tunes on the Highland Pipes, but is still developing instrument management skills and mastering transferring fingerwork to the bagpipes.
  • Intermediate Piper: A bagpiper who is able to perform full musical pieces on the bagpipes, and is capable of playing with pipe bands, in gigs, and compete with full tunes.