8 Tips for Quickly Memorizing a Piece of Music

Quickly memorizing songs for a gig is one of the primary "must have" abilities of a successful working guitar player... 

Memorizing songs means work, and a lot of hours work... When a new set-list comes your way, any song on the list (for which you are unfamiliar with), needs to become committed to your memory as fast as humanly possible. Your reputation depends on it.

For most guitar players, this ability of doing "speedy song recall" can be daunting. But, since guitar players need to develop this skill to a very high degree, I've compiled a list of 8 strategies that you can use right away to begin memorizing your songs a lot faster.

1. PLAY IT, SING IT, HEAR IT... One of the most common ways of memorizing music is to play music over and over. Eventually you will retain how to play the music by shear force of repetition.

Some people call it auditory muscular memory. However, it’s not your "ear-muscles" that remember music, but rather it is stored as neural pathways in your brain. Memorizing is as much about neurological recall as it is about auditory retention.

We often remember things better when we learn can connect it to something we are already familiar with. Therefore, once a song is repeated over and over in the mind and by the hands, the brain builds recall centers for that information.This is the first level of deep memory for the music you are studying.

2. VISUALIZATION... Using visualization to test your recall on the fingerboard is a way to program information even deeper. Rather than just testing your memory through playing, you can imagine yourself playing. This helps to bring your playing into a more mindful, focused state.

If you can;t remember exactly what you are supposed to be playing you can stop and review your notes, then prior to physically playing, mentally review yourself playing the part. This is probably the best tool that you can apply to assist with memorizing music quickly.

3. INVOLVE YOUR MIND and CONCENTRATE... Be mindful and concentrate on every section of the song you are studying. Try and practice mindfully, no distractions, (no TV set on, no radio on, nobody in the room with you).

Have an objective for each segment of the piece you are practicing and try and stay present when you are practicing. Stay engaged in the music and focus on what your hands and body is doing at all times. Ask questions about how the song is moving, what changes in the piece and what stays the same.

Be mindful of the songs flow. How many bars are in the Intro., the Verse and in the Bridge. What happens in the Chorus? How do the scales and harmony operate together. What "Other" scales or modes are in the piece?

Becoming very aware of the song brings tiny bits of relevant info to the surface that can be crucial to helping you commit the song as well as, recall parts of the song when needed.

4. STUDY IN SMALL CHUNKS... Break your study piece down into isolated sections; Intro., Verse, Bridge, Chorus, etc... You should be doing this to some degree when practicing anyway, but you can take the idea further by cutting the piece in to 2, 4, 6 or 8 bar sections.

You can decide how you want to learn the phrases consecutively, or you can put them in a random order. The main concept is to understand the details of each part and know how the parts interact with each other. The segments obviously flow, but what makes them flow smoothly? Take notice of the details of each segment, and when you put them all back together, you'll be able to rely on the unique variables of each of those differences.

5. MUSIC THEORY and ANALYSIS... Analyze the musical and rhythmic theory of the song and focus on the small details of the rhythm, harmony and melody. This will help your mind form more theory based connections relating to the piece. Can you take notice of questions regarding:

- tempo
- musical context and history
- articulation
- dynamics
- keys and modulations
- voicing and harmony

6. NOTATE THE SONG... Writing out the music in some manner will help immensely with the songs recall and it will provide a future reference as well.

You could do something as simple as take pencil to sheet-music paper and create a basic lead sheet. You could use a TAB program like "Guitar Pro" and notate a few of the more vital riffs. Or, you could use the default chart setting in "Finale" to create a one-page chart for the songs rhythm changes.

Any one of the above approaches will work, so long as you get the song notated in some manner. It isn't the end result (the finished chart) that makes the biggest difference. Rather, it's the time that you had spent creating the chart and organizing the songs 'flow' into a music chart that helps with your overall long-term memorization.

7. TRANSCRIPTION... Transcribing a song into a different key makes every musician think about the songs structure in a more analytical way and that brings the musician to understand the piece on a much deeper level.

If the song you're learning is in "D Major" move the piece to "Bb Major." If the song is in "F Minor," then take it to "A Minor." Relocate chords on the neck and play the piece in multiple areas along the fingerboard. After doing this work, you'll never look at that song the same again.

8. PLAY THE SONG ON ANOTHER INSTRUMENT... Try and play the music you are learning on a different instrument. If you only play guitar, you're stuck on this one. However, if you understand piano, bass or drums, be sure to spend some time at making a thorough study on your other instrument.

There will be a richer concept of the piece that you're working on by learning the song parts on piano, or bass. And, the groove will be more detailed to you if you sit down at your kit and play through the songs sections.

This type of "cross-platform" work does amazing things for your perception of the song and it helps you to understand the music in a completely different light.


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