While working on the last bits of Scotch and Soda I came across a question on Facebook that the instructor in me really stuck onto: “Hey there… Any tips on memorizing songs besides repetition?”
My initial response was, no. Then I thought on the question for a minute and came back to reply again. But first, I needed to reframe the question so that I could get at what the asker was really getting at.
What are some tips for maximizing memorization while repeating/practicing a song?
So here we go: 4 Tips for Maximizing Memorization
Tip 1: Patterns
As a musician, you need to pay attention to patterns. Whether it is chord changes or melodies, patterns are very prevalent in music. The more you recognize patterns as you go along, the quicker you will learn new tunes as those patterns will repeat from song to song.
A good example is knowing your major scale well since most melodies are based off of it or at least use it A LOT. Beyond that, you want to begin to recognize intervals. Scales and intervals can be daunting at first, but the more you work with them, the more you will find them in the songs you are playing.
Another example is chord progressions. Consider the ii-V-I progression in Jazz (i.e.: Dm-G7-C). Almost every jazz tune uses it, so you will want to be very familiar with recognizing it and its derivatives. Another well used pattern in folk music is I-IV-I-V (i.e.: C-F-C-G). Look for those patterns in large groups or in small segments/measures. They are everywhere!
Tip 2: Baby Steps
Break songs up into chunks. Work on each part separately and then bring it all together. If one part in particular is not “gelling” well, work on that part a lot.
Typically, I start out learning the basic chord progression of a tune, then I move onto the melody. After those are under my fingers (or my voice), I move onto intros and outros. Finally, I will work on more advanced technique like chord melodies and bass lines. By the time I’ve done all that, I may have played each part a few hundred times. Repetition.
One respondent to the original post on Facebook suggested playing a song from the beginning until you messed up and start over. I advise against this. All that does is reinforce mistakes. Once you find a spot you are having trouble with or you are forgetting, break that chunk of the song off and work on it. Play a little before and a little after to frame it together. Once you have it down, then try to play it altogether again.
Tip 3: Listen
This is probably the most overlooked part of being a musician (ironically).
Listen to recordings and imagine playing along (and then play along). This is amazing useful for covering a song (obviously), but still very, very useful for developing your own interpretation. Try listening to individual instruments or parts of the tune not just all of the tune at once. For instance, listen to the way the bass line moves and imagine playing that. Or listen to the licks the guitar is playing and imagine playing that. Do some air guitar for good measure there…
Tip 4: Put the Music Away
Stop looking at the music. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Mistakes are where creativity is born.
As a musician long before I picked up a ukulele, I found that after a while, I started only using the music as a reference (even in high school band). Even if you feel like you need the music, every subsequent run-through is done more and more from memory. Eventually, you won’t need it no matter what. The best thing is to get that music out of your eyes as quickly as possible!
Keep playing, keep trying. The more you play a song, the more it sticks in your head. I’ve forgotten so many great songs that I worked so hard on to learn and memorize simply because I stopped playing them.
Repetition is a necessity as a musician. Even if you are repeating to memorize, you still need to repeat to practice. Remember: Every time you play, you are building muscle memory for next time.