Courtesy of Elyadeen Anbar
Memorizing music is invaluable in the eternal quest of learning and growth as a musician...
From strengthening your ears to widening your understanding of composition and song structure to recognizing common musical patterns, there's no quicker way to develop into a well-rounded musician than to leave your charts at home and memorize the music you play, practice, and perform.
Why study how to memorize music? For one thing, you can’t truly know a song until you no longer need to read it off of a piece of paper. As rhythm players, once you can get off the page, you’ll be able to anticipate changes and sit comfortably in the groove, instead of reconciling your trouble spots and letting them dominate you.
As lead players, a song won’t really come alive until you’re able to weave your way through the changes without constantly having to look at a piece of paper for a roadmap – when the song is under your fingers and in your ears you will be "at one" with the piece.
So here are five tips on how to quickly memorize any piece of music.
1. Understand the whole piece
Never try and jump into learning a composition piecemeal if you aren’t familiar with it yet. The learning process will be smoother if you know how things come together in the long run. Do this by listening to recordings of the piece first – no instrument required. Just listen.
Hear the drums, the bass, the guitar parts. Listen to where everything is located in the mix of the recording. Listen for "where" the punches are an how the rhythm guitar has been placed in and around the beats. Visualize where on the guitar neck it "might" be performed.
And, once you're on your 2nd and 3rd listens, start to anticipate which song sections are going to be coming up next. This period is essential for your familiarization. It is sometimes called, "critical listening." And, is vital for understanding the general form of the piece.
2. Identify a song’s basic form and changes first
You’ll want to familiarize yourself with all the moments when the song changes, or where you hear repeated /thematic material. Here’s where you really get to put your ears to work.
NOTE: For those of you who aren’t familiar with reading music, if you are interested in starting to learn to read traditional notation, check out the material of the Creative Guitar Studio: Introductory and Intermediate courses, as well as, the Music Reading Comprehensive program.
If you do have a chart, the form of the piece will be quick to understand. Read along to see what you can use from the written material. Is there anything unique about the form? Or, is the song a simple "Verse and Chorus?" Is the Chorus almost identical to the Verse? Which chords are different? Is there a guitar solo? Will you play the album version of the solo, or will you just improvise something? Is there anything unique in the piece, like a breakdown or instrumental section? All of these song section concepts are quickly recognized if a chart is readily available. And, if there is no chart, make a quick "Lead Sheet or Lyric Sheet," of your own.
More complicated musical style, such as jazz standards, will often have charts with the melody and the chords written upon a "Lead Sheet," and to truly understand the song, there’s no substitute for knowing both parts. In fact, it is highly recommended.
Is the song in verse-chorus form, or an AABA, or a 12-bar or 8-bar blues of some sort? The more you can quickly recognize these types of song structures for yourself, the easier it will be to keep learning new music.And, to learn new music faster.
3. Don’t always start memorizing music from the beginning
In fact, you can start learning a song at wherever in a song, or in whatever section of a song that you want! If you've already worked through a song using the guide above, you will understand the basic form, and you can work within the road-map of the material.
If there’s a hook that’s already in your head, or just a few bars of the chord changes that you happen to recognize, you can start there. You’ll be chopping up the music anyhow, so don’t worry about that yet – in a short time, you’ll know it all like the back of your hand. and, once you’re done learning all the pieces, your intuition will always pull you along through the piece. It's amazing what a little time and concentrated rehearsal can do.
4. Break it up into small, manageable blocks
Treat each block of a song as its own unit to be learned, understood, and explored in a highly detailed manner. Let’s say, for example, that you’re setting out to learn a piece of music like the Miles Davis classic, "Tune Up."
This was one of the first jazz standards I ever learned. A quick listen to the song gives you the basic gist of the form and melody, and then looking through the chords and melody on paper will provide you with some great clues for how to think your way through it. Here’s a chart to follow along with.
First of all, according to the chart, this is a 16-bar piece. No bridges, no first or second endings. We begin with a melody line and a harmonic pattern, the classic ii-V-I progression, which starts in the key of D for the first four bars, and then repeats in the second four-bar phrase, but down a whole step to the key of C.
The third set of four bars is very similar to the first two, but introducing some variation to the melody – and briefly, in the harmony. The last four bars function as a turnaround, to bring us back home to the top of the tune, with the chords to be played as a soloist improvises, weaving through the harmony.
Just understanding the functions of these chords will help to improve your understanding of a piece like this, and while "Tune Up" isn’t the most complicated jazz standard, using this type of “break-it-down-and-put-it-back-together” mentality will help in the deciphering of other great composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
5. Put it all together like a jigsaw puzzle!
When the tune is in your head. You can leave the music at home. Use your ears. If there are discrepancies between band-mates on what the correct chords or melody are, the recordings always trump sheet music.
But in the end, what’s most important is how you decide to do these pieces of the learning strategy together. If you comprehend the sections, layout and flow of the piece, you know the foundation of the song and you can become a strong asset to your band, while continuing to develop your own learning and musical growth! And that’s what it should be all about.
If you don’t yet know how to read music, don’t be discouraged. Of course, some of the greatest players didn’t have a clue about how to decipher tiny black dots on a page. But if you’re looking for a quick shot of inspiration, start by marveling at the fact that humans created and developed a system of communicating sound and rhythm, from paper. Without needing to know any language, only the occasional markings to specify dynamics, two people who have absolutely nothing in common culturally and linguistically can learn the same composition from the same piece of paper. Music truly is the language of the heart – why not learn to speak it?
Elyadeen Anbar is a guitarist, writer, and educator residing in Los Angeles, CA. He has had the pleasure of contributing music and production to some of his favorite artists, and graced stages the world over.