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Posted By: impendia How to memorize music you don't understand? - 09/17/20 03:33 PM
I've been experiencing a problem, I don't know how common it is, and I'd be eager to hear your advice.

I'm trying to learn Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1. Technically it's well within my level, but I can't read the jumps in the left hand well, so I've realized I need to memorize it.

I'm having a very difficult time memorizing it -- the chords on the second half of the first page in particular. Memorization-wise, I've found it much harder than music by older composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc. which I feel like I "understand" and know how to analyze. (I have pretty good background in music theory.)

With Satie, I find the music hauntingly beautiful, but I don't understand it on an intellectual level. I can't make sense of the chord progressions in terms of the circle of fifths, or even really figure out what key it's in!

I work as a math professor, and this might be connected to my experience there -- I find math formulas very easy to memorize if I understand why they're true, and very difficult to memorize if I don't. I always need something to "hang my hat on", and I find that sheer force of will never works.

I'm curious if this situation is familiar to others, and if anyone has advice for me?

Thank you!
It's important to learn to be able to read the score while looking at the keyboard when necessary. I think because of the slow tempo and lack of technical difficulty this piece would be an ideal one to practice that skill. You could practice looking back and forth between the score and keyboard by first playing the piece slower than normal.

What do you mean by "read the jumps"? Do you mean play the jumps without looking or reading the notes in the chords or...? If you can analyze the LH chords can you just memorize them or is that the part you were talking about needing something to hand your hat on?

It's possible that someone who knows more theory than me can show you a way to memorize that chords that uses logic and and rote memory.
Some suggestions for memorizing the LH:

1. play just the LH lowest notes (at tempo, in time and counting), "sing" the top chords (you can't really sing three notes, but just say "bomp" or something.

2. play just the LH chords, but in time and counting, while "singing" the lowest note (with some syllable like "domp")

3. Play the LH part (all notes) while singing the RH part.

4. Also, it's in Dmajor I assume (??) so go through the piece and find all the times where the LH plays that low D....

Look at the chords in the image I'll post below (D maj triads and D maj cadences), try to see how many chords in Gymnopedie are the same, or inversions of those chords. Label them and as you play, say the label out loud (whether it's the chord name, or something like "dominant" etc.)

5. Go through the piece and find all the passages where the same LH chord pattern is used.

6. Write in the fingering for all the LH chords, and the practice the "gestures" -- by which I mean, how will you change from one chord to the next? *Feel* the gestures across a series of chords. (And of course, it goes without saying, be sure you're using the same fingering all the time)

I suspect by doing those steps, you will get much farther along in trying to memorize the piece.

7. Or if you don't get very far with these suggestions, google "how to analyze Gymnopedie No. 1" and I bet there is a video or something by a music teacher who will use actual theory in their explanations (unlike my explanations).

Actually, do step 7 first! whome

Any way, here are the D major triads and cadences.

[Linked Image]
Not a pro here [I rarely analyze the pieces I practice, although I have done so for a class when I had the interest] -
I think this could be answered in 2 ways
As far as memorizing....
1. Use your muscle memory by playing the piece without the theory until learnt.

As far as the theory,
1. Use reduction of embellishments and identifying
Key , Chords , neighbor and passing tones.
2. Finally the cadences and final bass l note. to identify keys and phrases.
Originally Posted by impendia
I'm trying to learn Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1. Technically it's well within my level, but I can't read the jumps in the left hand well, so I've realized I need to memorize it.!

Are you just getting confused by the multiple voices in the left hand?

I'd say this is a good opportunity to learn to read music like this rather than try avoid the problem. You shouldn't try to memorize something you don't understand.
Originally Posted by rkzhao
I'd say this is a good opportunity to learn to read music like this rather than try avoid the problem. You shouldn't try to memorize something you don't understand.

I don't mean to be argumentative, but I think memorizing something that one doesn't understand (theory-wise) is perfectly fine and can actually be helpful.... In many instances, memorizing something to the point of being able to play it smoothly contributes to understanding it....

Also, I had the impression that the OP knows how to read music, but has a hard time with the jumps and so needs to look away from the score, hence, the idea of memorizing the LH part...
Hi Impendia,

I do not memorise, but when I tried to learn Gymnopédie, I wrote the names of the left hand chords in the score. For instance, it starts with Bm F#m Bm F#m. This helped me a lot. Then for the single notes, I said them aloud. It worked for me. Maybe it'll work for you as well? smile
I would never want to memorize something so easy and instantly readable.

BUT, if you want to memorize the piece, I can see there are some pitfalls. First, what is the structure of the music? Are there sections that repeat? And how much is being repeated?

Did you mark the phrases in the music? How long (number of measures) are they? Is there a pattern? Understanding the phrases will make the analysis more understandable.

As for theory, this is Satie. He's trying to evoke some ancient Greek "sounds." You might need to know some modes because he might be doing some modal borrowing--I think the piece ends in Dorian mode. And there are definitely some pedal points going on, so you have to be able to pull those out before you analyze the chords.
This might help: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrcRwu-ddqE
Originally Posted by impendia
I've been experiencing a problem, I don't know how common it is, and I'd be eager to hear your advice.

I'm trying to learn Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1. Technically it's well within my level, but I can't read the jumps in the left hand well, so I've realized I need to memorize it.
Personally, I think you're going about it the wrong way.

Instead of trying to memorize it, you should tackle the main problem - reading the jumps in LH. Are you having trouble reading the notes of the chords, or getting your hand in the right position? There're lots more pieces of this ilk (for instance, you might want to tackle a Chopin waltz in a few years' time wink ), so why waste valuable time memorizing if you aren't intending to perform it in public or do an exam that requires memorization of your pieces, when you could use it to develop valuable skills instead?

A piece this slow - and you can go really slow - should be sight-readable unless it's far beyond your level, and you'd be better off improving your reading skills using this piece, as you obviously like it. (I once sight-read it in my mis-spent youth, and vowed never again to touch it with a barge pole - but my mind is not mathematical like yours smirk ).
For avant-garde pieces like this you have to rely heavily on aural memorization. Ear training is helpful for that, but it takes time.

Another way is score vizualization, if you have a talent for that.
Originally Posted by Qazsedcft

Very interesting, indeed! I really enjoyed the video, helping me appreciate even more this delightful and harmonically deceptive piece.

Thanks for the link.

Regards,
Originally Posted by impendia
I've been experiencing a problem, I don't know how common it is, and I'd be eager to hear your advice.

With Satie, I find the music hauntingly beautiful, but I don't understand it on an intellectual level. I can't make sense of the chord progressions in terms of the circle of fifths, or even really figure out what key it's in!

Thank you!

The music of the late 19th century can not be fully explained in the traditional circle of fifth. The piece really is in between the D major (at the beginning, indeed a IV then I, we are not in G lydian) and D dorian (D natural which is a minor mode). Many french composers used to insert modal shifts in their music like Faure, Debussy imitating some of the greek and gregorian modal music (or what they thought was the greek music, since it is essentially melodic and not harmonic).

The piece pretty much stays in that tonality, Satie just moving from one harmony to the next (reaching finally the dominant minor in bar 38). You will see that he is essentially using quite frequently the II (II to I like in medieval music) and the III degree which is quite usual for him. When using the D natural scale, the sequence II to III (III over a pedal on II !) gives an unusual half step dissonance (e to F) which gives the impression of a phrygian mode. And he puts these on top of a pedal (again a frequent device in french late 19th music). So to see the harmonies, you have to remove the effect of this pedal.

There are not many cadences, which participates to a fairly loose tonic center. There are 2 cadences but again Satie is modifying the usual V to I into a v to I to reduce the cadential effect in bar 38 and 39. The final cadence ending in dorian.

This harmony remains somehow tonal, but with a number of deviations vs the traditional harmony. These loosening techniques were used to add more color, so you have to replace them within the musical context. I dont think you should try to see a sequence of tonal centers like in usual harmony, but more a coloristic gradation around a combination of D major/D natural following a very loose progression using a lot of II, IV and some circle of fifth sequences.
Originally Posted by rkzhao
. .. You shouldn't try to memorize something you don't understand.

That was my first thought, reading the thread's title. There are some people who are happy memorizing things without inherent structure (in mathematics, they're the 100-digits-of-pi memorizers). You're not one of them.

Stare at it, scribble on it, work out the harmonies and progressions, _before_ you think about playing it as written. Left-hand jumps suggest that you should memorize the sequences, rather than looking at the score.


(I haven't played any Satie, and I suppose it's time that I start. So take this FWIW).
Great post, Sidokar. And the video of Qazsedcft is useful
Originally Posted by BruceD
Originally Posted by Qazsedcft

Very interesting, indeed! I really enjoyed the video, helping me appreciate even more this delightful and harmonically deceptive piece.

Me too, that was great to watch.

I've never been particularly interested in playing Gymnopedie before, but after watching this, I want to play it and hear those tones... and then watch this video again after I have the piece in my fingers!
BTW, impendia, having now watched the video and read Sidokar's post, I still think the suggestions I made (back on the first page) could help you. I suspect that you'll want to read Sidokar's comments, then watch the video, and then if you still need some help (and you may not) use some of the tips I suggested as a way to get the piece ito your fingers. Also, on the topic of "gestures," the gentleman who made the analysis video has a video of him just performing the three Gymnopedies:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIfN0m6YvHo

watch that and see his gestures, the chord shapes are built into every movement....
A lot of popular / common pieces are already online so finding a recording made by someone else is not an issue. It's almost unavoidable that I'd listen to some version of a song as I'm learning even if it is in another Key with some parts that are improvised.

Do you rely only on the score or do you listen to a recording first? I played a few Jazz pieces recently and there are a lot of chords like a 6th, 13th that I am not familiar with. The scores I have contain the Bass part and guitar chords above like lead sheets which makes reading easier. Otherwise I'd work on the melody (Treble line) first and fill in the chords after. There are chords I don't know I'd decipher the chords individually. I'd even write in the letter names of the notes on paper for reminder. I'd play a chord a few times to get the best fingerings and connect it with the phrase before and after. I'm not a good reader and would decipher the notes first and repeat them many times to get them into my muscle memory (my fingers can play them without having to think about the actual notes than finger positions).
Did you try just playing through slowly? For me, my brain would pick it up anyway, less structure just means more repeats are needed to get it memorized.

I agree that it would help if you could sight read this, as interrupting the reading also hinders your memorization process. But if this is just a one-of then writing in the notes may be good enough.

Also, there does seem to be structure, it all sounds pretty coherent, it's just not the traditional structure. That's exactly the point of Satie if I remember it correctly, he was trying to push against these traditions.

After a few Satie pieces, your brain will pick up the new satie-structure and then it will become easier.

Is the OP still here anyway?
There have already been some excellent points made. I thought the recommended video was outstanding. I have just three additional points to make.
  • Ambiguity - although the video pianist kept describing the effects of the tonal ambiguity in the piece - he never (to the best of my recollection) used the word "ambiguity" in his description. The fact that there are times when we are not quite sure what the tonal center is, i.e., in what key we are playing, is evidence of that ambiguity. I do believe this is precisely what Satie was doing as he pressed up against the limits of what had been common practice harmony.
  • The OP wrote of difficulties in reading and doing the jumps in the left hand. One thing to try would be to play the left hand with BOTH hands. Play the low bass note with the left, the upper components (usually on beats 2 and 3) with the right. In this way one can cultivate an awareness of how the harmonization SOUNDS, and, in my experience as player and teacher, can help learn the progressions so they can be played with just the left hand. I would recommend as a SECOND step, playing JUST the left hand alone - focusing on the analysis of the chords.
  • Sometimes it is easier for me to use jazz like chord symbols rather than those from functional harmony. E.g. - a min D7 G vs. ii V7 I. It's still useful to know the tonal center, but it can be a nice shortcut simply to call a chord by its key name rather than a numeral.

Hope this is helpful.
Seems a better a solution is to read it anyway and not memorize any sections. I agree with that.

If you were memorizing though, I don't see how understanding it would help you to memorize it any better. When I first started to analyze chords in classical music, I quickly discovered that even basic chords I thought I knew well could be played in the most obscure ways. So my way of thinking of a chord was always way off from how it actually gets played. So, I can't see how this would ever help you. It didn't me. I agree though, that generally it is a little more difficult to memorize a piece that just feels awkward and not as familiar territory. Even so, how is theory going to help you? It will be even more complex, likely.

What I need to know is where my hands need to be next. That's really all, it's groundless. Just memorize how it looks feels and sounds. It isn't brute force either as you do need to focus and think. And of course, it gets easier if you do it enough.
Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
Any way, here are the D major triads and cadences.

[Linked Image]
Nice. May I ask what book you took it from? I've always wanted to have it all in one place in such a refined form
Joni, it’s this book:

The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences

From Alfred’s Basic Piano Library. It’s my favorite resource for scales and arps.

Amazon tells me I bought it in 2010! whome
Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
Joni, it’s this book:

The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences

From Alfred’s Basic Piano Library. It’s my favorite resource for scales and arps.

Amazon tells me I bought it in 2010! whome
Thanks, ShiroKuro!
Dear all,

I'd link to thank everyone very much for weighing in, and for sharing your thoughts! And apologize for being absent from the thread; life got in the way for a bit -- not just of checking here for replies, but piano practice too. Fortunately I'm back at the piano.

I watched the video posted by Qazsedcft, very enlightening! Confusing as all heck, but I guess that's the point: Satie defies any sort of simple analysis.

Anyway, I made one change recommended by my teacher. Some of the chords in the difficult section have ninths in them, and following the recommended fingering in my Alfred edition, I was taking the top note with my right hand. My teacher recommended I play the whole chord with my left hand -- not really because of memorization, but for consistency of sound. Anyway, once I did this, the piece felt easier to "understand" -- I guess because my fingering was now a good match to the structure. I have more practice yet to do, and I find the ninths a bit technically challenging, but at this point I've more or less succeeded in memorizing it.

Some suggested I spend more time practicing sight reading. (Bennevis mentioned Chopin waltzes; indeed I've practiced the A minor one, which is perhaps the easiest of them, and I found it much more difficult than it looked.)

Might be a good idea to bring up to my teacher. I have several of the Paul Harris books as well as some books of very easy repertoire; for awhile now they've been gathering dust, but perhaps I should dig them out.

Thanks again everyone!
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