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By Heart

In school, we had to learn poems by heart.

You tried to cram a lot of things into your head without understanding the connections just because that seemed the way to score high marks.

It wasn't exactly fun.

So why should we still learn things by heart?

I've been pondering this for a few days.

Maybe the phrase itself says it all.

It's not just in English, either. The French, too aprende par coeur.


Maybe because if you learn something by heart, you enter deeper levels of engagement with what you've memorized.

Hear me out.

Really hear.... because those are the things I feel are most useful to learn by heart:

Poems & Music (if you play an instrument)


Poems often paint a soundscape before they are understood. I believe that's why poems are best read aloud.

Only then do you get a sense of their whole beauty. Sure, people on the bus might throw weird glances at you, but it's better than eating a Kebab there.

Poems play with language for the arts' sake.

At times, that's all a poem does.

At times, there's more to it. Poems make for great social criticism, but even then, they probably won't be shouted at protests.

They do not help us communicate effectively with others, nor will people ever ask us to recite the Erlkönig. (If you do ask me, I'm ready!)

Committed to memory, the poem will possess you, and you will be able to read it more closely, which great poetry demands and rewards.”

Harold Bloom

Poems are something in between just words and Music.

They have a rhythm and a melody.

They evoke feelings that aren't captured in the words.

Learning by heart brings you closer to them.

It's a conscious effort to slow down, repeat, and reject this notion of constant productivity in favor of deep contemplation.

When it comes to music, playing by heart is a different experience than playing just from the sheet.


Since I was three years old, I've been trained to know how a note on the sheet translates to the guitar. The processing of which finger to place where is quite instant for most pieces that aren't crazy complex in their positions.

So technically, I could limit myself to just those, play them off the sheet, and be done with it.

But I still have a few pieces I'm working to learn by heart.

And whenever I've managed, something interesting happens.

If I leave the sheet out to "glance at it" while I play in case I forget a phrase, it confuses me profoundly whenever I am slightly insecure and try to find the passage I'm at.

A similar thing happens the second I start thinking about the actual score.

I get lost.

That's funny, no?

When I've actually memorized something, it's not like I see the score in my inner eye. It's more like muscle memory? My fingers do their thing, and the mind can wander.

It helps that most pieces for guitar aren't crazy long like for Cello or Violin.

A violinist once showed me the scrabble he made to memorize an entire 50-minute concert. It might as well have been hieroglyphs.

He told me that the important thing was to have it so deeply ingrained there are no questions left.

When there are no questions left, you can stop thinking.

Learn by heart, and your heart takes over.

Isn't that one of the best ways to increase the joy we get from the conditio humana?

Thanks for reading. 💚

You can listen to me playing Heitor Villa Lobos Prelude No. 1 by heart here.

In terms of poetry, I've learned Erlkönig, which Schubert greatly facilitated by setting it to music, and Mondnacht, a romantic German classic by Eichendorff.

Then there are some poems by Franz Hodjak, and Kästner in my notebook, waiting to be memorized. Plus I really like this hymn to time by Ursula K. Le Guin.

If you have recommendations, send them my way!

German and English ones, ideally 😄

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