Musings – My Personal Tried-And True Method For Memorizing Music

A recent party set-up at our house. You'll just have to envision the other side of the stage, which looks nearly the same as "my" side, but with additional speakers for the guitar.

A recent party set-up at our house. You’ll just have to envision the other side of the stage, which looks nearly the same as “my” keyboards side, but with additional speakers for the guitar.

My sister Eileen is an author and blogs about dogs, dog training and learning, among other things. On December 19 she made a blog entry about learning theory and definitions. In it she discusses the differences between latent learning, the Eureka effect, and memory consolidation, all terms used to describe learning. You can read it here if you’d like.  Her writing made me think, as it often does, about my own learning modes and habits. Today I thought about memorizing music, and I’m sharing my thoughts here informally. I’ve tried not to use many technical musical terms for my readers.

When I’m learning a new song that we plan to add to our set list – only about three minutes long; the average length of a pop song you might hear on the radio – I’m learning “by ear” as opposed to reading written notes on paper and then memorizing.

First I listen to a recording of the song if one exists. Maybe I’ll listen to a couple of different recordings by different groups or performers. My job is to make a reasonably accurate re-creation of the original, on a synthesizer or a piano, replacing most but not all of the other people who might be playing in the band/group in the recording.

I usually learn the melodic line first (it’s pretty difficult to resist). Once I have a grasp of that I focus my attention to the bass line, rhythm and harmony, which gives me a more complete understanding of the harmonic structure than the melody alone, and I begin to put the melody, harmony and the bass line together. If I don’t have access to a keyboard I visualize myself playing along with the recording. The last thing I learn is the structure of the song. In popular songs it’s often a variation of  the outline below.

Instrumental introduction

Verse

Verse

Chorus (often the “high” or dramatic part) often based on the IV chord

Instrumental introduction 

Verse

Chorus

Bridge (optional)

Chorus

Instrumental “outro” (often identical to the introduction)

The two of us usually play it together. I make lots of mistakes, but receive guidance and prompts from C, who usually knows the song reasonably well, having heard it many more times than I have over the years. 

The structure of the song is often the last thing I learn. Sometimes I write it down in outline form as in the example above.

We play it a bunch of times – maybe eight times. My version improves during the rehearsal until I get it or I get frustrated and take a break. I estimate a “normal” first-time rehearsal for a brand new song takes about 45 minutes or more (time flies when you’re having fun.)

At the next rehearsal if it is later that same day or the next day, I often (usually!) can’t recall how the song begins (“How does it start again?”, and I ask C to sing me my part, or refer to the recording. I pretty much make the same mistakes I made at the last rehearsal, but remember to correct them faster.

At the next rehearsal, given the same parameters of time lapse between rehearsals, I play it better, but I still sometimes need a reminder, especially for the very beginning. If it starts off right, I usually play it the way I like it, but sometimes forget the structure. If the next rehearsal of the new song doesn’t take place for a week or two, I have to start over,  but the re-learning is usually rapid. If we have a few days without rehearsing, sections or connections slide out of my mind, and I have to rehearse, focus and work more. But sometimes over those few days, it gets better, “magically”, without practicing. 

What would you call that – just normal, everyday, B-flat learning? Memory consolidation? The Eureka effect, latent learning? Just plain-old, B-flat learning?

The most recent song I learned was “Enamorado”, a happy cumbia, from a group named Tropicalisimo Apache, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIUMfWDykOwI had never heard it before. We learned it last month,

A sample set-up on a small stage.

A sample set-up on a small stage. Battered keyboard, smaller speakers.

and now we’re playing it in our holiday gigs. I don’t sing the lead; only some minor backup. Please don’t assume that the structure/form outline above fits this song. It doesn’t, at least not in my mind.

Funnily enough, the first 8 notes of the introduction sometimes escape me in performance. (“HOW does it start, again?”) I think that may be because the first four notes are a very common combination in so many phrases of popular songs. Hah! They’re the first notes of those old-timey songs, “How Dry I Am”, and “Home On The Range”.

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