Practice Listening with Your Memory

A Deaf Composer on How to Hear the Piano


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With my hearing loss, I need to memorize every note in my songs that I can’t hear.  So I’ll break up the piece into separate elements. The melody I’ll play several octaves lower at first, down where I can still hear slightly. Then I’ll mentally transpose it into the proper octave. Chords have to be built note by note—hearing the third, the seventh, and so on, adding texture until I can hear complex chords mentally.

When people say they are “learning” a new piece of music, essentially they are memorizing it through repetition.

When people say they are “learning” a new piece of music, essentially they are memorizing it through repetition and slowly adding layers of complexity. You’re doing the same thing here, except doing “playback” in your mind and building up your mental playlist. A playlist not only of complete songs, but also independent parts, harmony, counterpoint—any music element you need.

It may seem daunting at first, but you actually remember much, much more than you think. Just ask yourself questions.

First, try remembering your favorite song. Then a song you loved as a child. Maybe a tune from a TV show. See how many different songs you can play in your mind’s ear.

Then try breaking one of these songs into its elements, like you do with the mental image of a loved one. You see their face and ask—what clothes are they wearing? What’s behind them? What’s the expression? With music, you do the same thing. Play back the song in your head and ask yourself: can I hear the melody?  What’s behind it: drums? A band, or a string quartet, or a guitar? After recalling the melody, I usually “listen” for the bass notes and build up the harmonics from there.

Try breaking one of these songs into its elements, like you do with the mental image of a loved one.

You may find it easier to tie each sound to an image: a person playing the piano, or see the music notation, or even an abstract picture if that inspires you. Whatever works to trigger the memory.

Once you’ve input the music you need and practiced listening to your auditory memories, it’s time to combine them with your other listening tools and put them to good use. As you sit at the piano, ready to perform, play back a complex section of music in your mind and lock in your starting tempo. Watch your hands prepare to strike the keys and imagine the music flowing from your fingers. Then dive into the piece, fully using what hearing you have to check balance, emphasis, and expression.

With practice, these listening tools for hearing, feeling, seeing, and remembering music can become such a part of you that you forget you’re using them. You’ll even forget you’re listening at all. Because by then you’ll be… living the music.

Now, go play!

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Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Dear Nancy,
    I can across your site yesterday while searching for recordings of Debussy’s Deux Arabesque I. I do enjoy listening to your performance and especially appreciate the tempo at which you play. You play at a speed where one can actually discern the notes and better appreciate the technical elements – as well as the art.

    It’s taken me about 2 months to learn the notes and now I hope I’m ready for the music!

    I returned to piano lessons about 5 years ago at age 63. I have much more passion than talent. I am enjoying the posts from other students on practice techniques (practice scales for 1 hour) and memorization.

    Thanks so much.

  2. Thank you for this article – it is so helpful to me to know that there are different ways of “doing” music

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