How to Memorize Songs

Topics: Guitar, How To, Music, Skills

A few years ago my girlfriend invited me to a barbecue in her backyard. Her uncle brought a Gibson acoustic from the ’50s or ’60s, and was playing all these nostalgic backwoods guitar tunes. He must have played 10 or so songs in a row with perfect execution, no mistakes, and remembered all the verses of every song just as easy as buttering bread. It wasn’t really my style of music, but he was nevertheless exploding my mind to pieces. I was amazed at how he was able to remember everything so easily. Then my girlfriend blurted out “John plays guitar, and he’s pretty good too!” The lofty Uncle Gibson himself proceeded to hand me the guitar in eager expectation “Let’s hear it then son!”

“Uhhhhh……”

Now I had been playing diligently for about 3 years at the time, and *thought* I was pretty good. I could play just about anything (aside from wicked fast solos), was writing music all the time, and my band had won first place in the talent show the year before. I knew I was no virtuoso, but I seriously thought I was a “good” guitarist. Funny how pride sneaks in unnoticed huh?

So he handed me the guitar, and I was lost. I knew riffs, and played the riffs; I knew parts of songs, played parts of songs; I knew some interesting solos too, and played them but fumbled horribly. I realized that I couldn’t play a single complete song from memory. It was one of those points where reality hits your right smack in the face, knocks you on the floor, and yells “Wake up you big ugly bloke!”.

From that point on I decided to commit myself to memorizing complete songs, and developed a strategy to accomplish this. A few years after that incident, I spent some time in Japan studying Japanese and learned some seriously intense methods for memorization which helped to refine my strategy for memorizing songs. This strategy will work for any type of musical memorization. May it be complex lyrical landscapes, piano concertos, intensive guitar solos, drum parts, or anything else, you can memorize it and feel more confident playing in front of others.

OBB’s Strategy for Memorizing Songs

When you learn a song for the first time:

  1. Correctness is key. This is especially important for difficult parts of a song, where we often have a habit of “letting things slide”. Don’t settle for those “fake” books they sell in stores just because they’re easier.
  2. Use mnemonics and emotional triggers for vocals. Lyrics by themselves can be difficult to memorize, but our brain often remembers better when we associate them with other, “outside” information if you will. For me, I’ve noticed the most difficult part of memorizing lyrics is the first part of verses. To combat this, I often use mnemonic tricks and emotional triggers to help my brain remember. This might involve acronyms or stories with an emotional plot involving the lyrics. I’ll give an example: In The Beatles song “Hey Jude” the verses are all very similar, and I kept mixing them up until I assigned a mnemonic (in this case, just a single letter) to each of them. Taking the first letter of the key word in each verse, we can make BAD (Bad, Afraid, Down). Needless to say, I don’t have problems remembering it anymore.
  3. Practice the harder parts more often. Our tendency as humans is to go through the path of least resistance and play the easy parts of a song. You have to make a conscious effort to play the hard parts more often.
  4. Practice until you can play the song completely through without any aids. Then stop, and do the same thing tomorrow. Maybe you have the time to play it more, and maybe even the willpower, but if we’re talking about efficiency then more practice won’t do you any good at this point. Why? Read the next number.

After learning for the first time:

  1. Memories fade quickly, but get stronger over time with practice. The first time you learn a song, your memory of it will fade quickly. Very quickly, as in – completely gone the next day – quickly. But thankfully our brains will strengthen that memory when we practice again the next day. This is why practicing a song 100 times in a single day is actually not very productive … unless you have a show the next day. You’re much better off practicing 20 songs one time than one song 20 times.
  2. Make a list of songs to practice. Not only does your brain forget parts of songs, but it forgets that you even learned a song in the first place. I’ve been in jam sessions with other people, and they started playing a song that I knew, but I had completely forgotten about it for years! What a waste! I could have been playing that song all these years, but it got lost in the abyss. So here is what I do, and you can do the same if you want, adapt as you see fit: Make a list of songs that you know in their entirety, and use this as a guide for practicing. Go through the list and play each song one time, but no more. If you encounter problems, solve them quickly. Have those solutions close at hand too – internet, song books, tabs, lyrics, whatever. Do whatever you need to get the song back to correct. If you do this I promise (pinky swear if you want!) you’ll get more out of your practice time.
  3. Continue to practice the difficult parts more often. Pursue those leeches like a rabid wolf! You are the predator not the prey. Don’t let difficult or confusing parts continue to get the best of you. Sometimes it’s not even a skill issue; you can play the part easily skill-wise, but something is just strange in the tempo or you keep forgetting what comes next. These are problems as well and need just as much attention as the (quote-unquote) “difficult” parts.
  4. There are few valid excuses for being old. (If you aren’t old, then disregard this comment. Ha ho, apologies to old people for the blatant nature of my comments.)  Studies have shown that old brains have just as much spunk as young ones, and even the dumbest brains show extremely good resilience. You keep forgetting stuff because it happened a long (and getting longer) time ago, NOT because your brain is getting fried like scrambled eggs from old age. Repeat the tasks you once did, and it will all come right back like a flash, Scout’s honor. Don’t blame age when the real problem is lack of practice (or lack of proper practice methods).
  5. I was a Boy Scout for like 2 months. That counts doesn’t it?
  6. Don’t use crutches when your legs are good. I’m talking about lyric sheets, tabs, sheet music, fake books, and playing to your stereo. They are not necessary. You don’t need them. Learn to deal without them because they won’t always be there to lean on. And besides, what would you think if your favorite artist came up on stage with a big book full of music and lyrics, and instead of making eye contact with the audience, he was looking at his music every … second … of … the … entire … show? Lame, is it not? Granted, crutches are necessary when you are starting out or forget something, but they are a means to an end – that end being full on memorization.

For those who need a more intense memorization plan (Lyrics Only):

Look yourself into something called SRS (Spaced Repetition Software). This is something that I used to study Japanese and other things, and I still use it almost everyday. SuperMemo is the original SRS program – complete with some great articles about memory and SRSing, but it’s quite old and costs money. So, I use a different program called Anki (Japanese for “memorize”), and it does virtually the same thing as SuperMemo at the cost of ~ free (無料だよ!). Using SRS, cloze deletion and some mnemonics you can memorize songs at the highest level of efficiency and effectiveness.

Conclusion

Memorization can be a seriously difficult task for some, but I feel that I’ve address solutions for just about any problems that you might encounter. These solutions are not an excuse to practice less, but a way to practice better. In fact, I feel like this should make practice more fun for some people since you get more time for learning songs, and a strategy for remembering them at the same time. Remember, the goal here is to have the songs written on your heart and not in some song book. Hopefully you don’t have any more excuses for not memorizing your songs, but if you do, post a comment below so I can (probably) prove you wrong. Also, do you have any other tips for remembering songs? Tell me about it, I’m eager to hear what angles other people have taken to tackle this problem.

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7 Responses to “How to Memorize Songs”

  1. Jeff says:

    Hey John, sweet article. Your story shakes my faith in my guitar skills though! 😉

    I took Spanish I this semester primarily because I wanted to put your highly recommended Anki software to the test.

    I’m learning/relearning the language crazy fast, have been able to review 100+ sentence cards in easily less than 30 min, and create about 80 new cards during each class period. I showed the software to the professor last week and he had me give the link to the class so they could download my cards to study for our exam tonight.

    I highly recommend this software as a memorization tool.

  2. Nomota says:

    I’m learning Piano, as well as many languages. My problem is exactly this one – I cannot play without the sheets.
    You pointed out two staged strategy. Good.
    My finding is that ‘playing with eyes closed’ might be very helpful for the first part. I had succeeded a few times, by using this method.
    The second part… I had never succeeded even a single song. I had learned more than 50 songs… but I remember nothing.
    Thank you for the good experience. Now I would do the same thing.
    I’m an enthusiastic Anki-user, too. Why not use it for my Piano?

  3. John says:

    I have actually been thinking about how one would go about doing that. It seems like you would have to set up a specific deck, and only study it when you are at your instrument. However, one of the biggest rules for making flashcards is to study the smallest chunks of information possible, which is quite difficult if you’re trying to practice full songs. If you have any more thoughts let me know.

  4. Matt says:

    regarding the piano… I know this is off subject, but it seems that when people learn the piano, they are taught to only read music. If you want to be a good and versatile pianist, learn what you can and then start looking on youtube at various patterns and riffs and how to improvise with in the song. Most performing musicians never play anything note for note, even stuff they wrote! Learn the signature riff then just let it happen.

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