As the 18th century came to an end, the concept of a performer as a soloist rather than as a musical member of a group began to take root. As the 1800s sprang into being, the soloist came to be viewed as a virtuoso, revered for miraculous abilities that stemmed from a supernatural source.
An offshoot of this metamorphosis in thinking was that virtuoso musicians began to prefer giving entire programs by themselves. It was around this time that they began to include memorised performance as part of their repertoire in order to impress their audiences.
This two hundred year old tradition of memorising is still expected in many types of concert presentations. Solo recitals, in particular, are expected to be performed entirely from memory.
But is there a deeper reason for memorising music? That depends on how we view the mind and its relationship to memory.
When it comes to our memories, we tend to easily remember information that is important to recall. We also remember landmarks that we see on frequently travelled routes as well as verbiage that are representative of our likes and dislikes. Even in the event that we remember these things imperfectly, necessity necessitates that we remember this and keep this in mind for next time around.
Our memories are also coloured by events that are emotionally-charged; be it for better or for worse. Similar to factual information, these memories leave behind imperfect impressions. The reason why they stick in our minds is because they represent details of our lives that were of great importance.
When it comes to performing, however, no one plays with their eyes glued to the score. To some extent, aspects of the musical piece have been committed to memory, even if it has been committed to memory imperfectly. To strengthen memorisation, the act has to be practised by processing the physical movements involved. This type of memorising is dependent on our ability to recall a physical process.
Another way to commit to memory is to allow yourself to improvise when necessary. If you play a wrong note, it can be easily overcome by improvising and moving on. Once the skill of improvisation has been learned, new memories can be born out of old memories. Once you know how to improvise well enough, you can establish the feeling that no matter what happens, you can play your way out of it.
Remaining unafraid in keeping minor slips and accidents in perspective is important to ensure that even if ‘it’ does happen again, it is a part of your regular working pattern and you can just move on from it.