Category Archives: popular songs in Spanish

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



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

Instrumental introduction 



Bridge (optional)


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 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”.

Doña Julia’s Birthday Party

We were invited to a family party in El Toro. Our friend Ana, the person who schedules and manages things at the small church is a friend of ours, and asked us to come and celebrate her mother-in-law’s seventy-first birthday.

Here’s Doña Julia in front of her house. I’ve described the construction of the vast majority of homes in Mexico, and hers is the same – brick and mortar. Hers has a useful design, with several bedrooms and two bathrooms, side by side. Gotta love that!


We were honored to be invited, as every other person there was part of her family. I’m not sure how many sons and daughters she has, but there were at least four sons and four daughters at the party, with their husbands, wives and children, including Ana’s daughters. Here are two of them, both beauties.


We had a guitar with us, and we sang las mañanitas, and a few other songs, including Eres Tu, originally performed by Mocedades from Spain, and Solamente Una Vez, by the great Mexican songwriter Agustin Lara.


The food was wonderful – Toñio, Ana’s husband and Doña Julia’s son, prepared tacos. There was a variety of meats including carne asada and chorizo, served up with grilled onions and smallish yellow chiles stuffed with cheese (excellent, and a new dish for me).

Naturally there was a cake, accompanied by a gorgeous gelatina with fresh fruit, which is every bit as important as a birthday cake in our part of Mexico.


This guy had his very own table!


Rain was threatening when we left for home, but Ana’s teenaged daughters were wangling a ride to nearby Tecuan for a “big, big dance” complete with two popular bandas. And Doña Julia sent me home with a snippet of a climbing version of corona de Cristo, a spiny plant with red flowers. I hope it wants to live at our house.

The Radio

Not every house has a TV, but it seems like just about everyone has a radio.  
Doña Elena next door has a radio that she turns on around  6:30 a.m.  Because of the design of her kitchen, the sound is amplified and is easily heard on the street, for the morning sweeping ritual. She turns it off at 8 because the progamming changes from the rancheras that she likes, to a different style. In fact, when the programming changes to “banda”, she ruthlessly turns off the radio mid-phrase. Doña Elena has a favorite song, Que Me Lleve El Diablo, and whenever it is played, she sings – very loudly, and tunelessly – in her yard.

The radio stations in Mexico are of different types, just like in the US.  There are stations that play modern pop, some that play banda music (imagine a German tuba band playing music in Spanish), rap and dance music, cumbias and other Latin dance music, mariachi music, talk stations (mostly pro-goverment), etc.  The  style of music that I most like to hear  on the  radio is ranchera.  There are beautiful songs and some very good voices, from the forties and later.  Another wonderful genre is trio music from the forties and fifties.  The songs are very much like what are called standards in the US, with gorgeous extended harmonies. They are composed and performed by male trios with very, very  good guitar playing.

The sixties and seventies in Mexico produced excellent pop music. Much of it originated in the States. Imagine hearing, in Spanish, Twist and Shout, Going To The Chapel,  Tan Shoes With Pink Shoelaces, The Name Game, With Just A Hundred Pounds Of Flesh, I’ll Do My Crying In The Rain, Won’t You Be My Baby!  I recently heard Neal Sedaka sing in Spanish Next Door To An Angel! Many excellent songs were written during these years in Mexico, Spain and other Latin American countries, as well as Italy.

There were many good Mexican actors and actresses, too, from that era, some of whom came to the US to make films.  (Dolores Del Rio, Anthony Quinn, and El Indio Fernandez are some that are known in the US.)

After Doña Elena turns off her radio, we turn ours on, and at about 8:20 every day there is a dramatic serial called Porfirio Cadena – El Ojo De Vidrio, from the fifties.  Imagine the announcer with lots of echo and effect introducing the program.  The story is described as “violent, audacious, etc.” It is an episodic story about a (in)famous (imaginary) bandit.  He is called El Ojo De Vidrio because he has a glass eye.  His entire family was killed by a traitorous acquaintances when he was a child.  He saw the killings, and afterwards the killers tortured him by cutting out his eye with a sharp branch.  Porfirio  lives to take his revenge on his powerful enemies, and accumulates an enormous treasure. The character seems to soften as he ages, but when he is young, and beginning his career as an outlaw, he is cruel and violent, although fair, wreaking his own concept of justice.

At night, at 10:30 p.m. the same station plays another serial adventure called Caliman, El Hombre Increible, the incredible man. The current story is called The Black Widow.

The voices of the actors are quite dramatic, typical of the fifties,  and both serials are very entertaining.  The sound effects and the incidental music are wonderful. After each episode ends we speculate about how Porforio or Caliman will escape from his most recent capture or predicament, and what is happening with the other characters.

There are annoying commercials, just like on the radio stations in the US.  I particularly dislike hearing childrens’ voices say “Wow!” and continue in Spanish. The government touts itself in endless commercials, bragging about “transparency”, “equality” and “fairness”.  There are many ads for drug stores, and for natural health products, which are very popular here.

Learning Spanish As An Adult

I admit it – I have been learning Spanish for about 25  years, although I was never truly focused on that goal until recently (necessity being a strong motivator). 

And I’ll explain here a sort of pet peeve. Beginning of soapbox: I think it’s an odd way to discuss learning languages by using the term “my” French, or “my” Japanese. I’m quite sure I used that term before, (when I was but a child!) but now it seems annoying to me to describe a language as belonging to you when what you are really discussing is your fluency and skills. 
I also feel strongly that if a person chooses to live in a country with a different national language, he or she should strive to learn the language. The citizens of the US practically demand it of immigrants, and in Mexico, I have noticed that people in general really appreciate it when I try to converse with them, even though I make lots and lots of mistakes. Lots! End of soapbox.
Somehow I thought that I would wait, silently learning, until I could speak nearly perfectly to start trying. That is not a satisfactory method of learning. (Duh! As a teacher, I surely should have known better!) Now I just jump in, and I probably make one or more mistakes in every other sentence. Everything is different – the sounds, and the word order: nouns have genders in Spanish, too.
Anyway, I began to learn Spanish, I would have to say, from singing songs in Spanish – and, by the way, it was hard for me to believe that so much music had been so completely unknown to me. There was an entire repertoire of popular music in Spanish that I was completely unaware of! I had heard two popular Spanish songs in the seventies that made a deep impression on me. I even remember where I was when I first heard them. 
Beginning of ramble:
The first of the two songs was performed by a singer named Jose Jose (although I didn’t know his name at the time). It was called La Barca Del Olvido. One reason I think I liked it so much was that I could understand a lot of the chorus, probably from singing in Italian. The chorus lyrics begin 
Espera un poco, un poquito mas,
Para llevarte mi felicidad.
and I would say that means
Wait a little, just a little more,
To take away my happiness.
The memorable part of the chorus employs a musical device called melodic sequence, the repetition of a melodic phrase at different levels of pitch. 
The other song was by a group called Mocedades, from Spain. It is a very beautiful, famous, meaningful love song, and won a world-level prize in a songwriting competition. Its title is Eres Tu, and it is still very well-known. The beginning of the chorus, roughly translated, is
You are like the water in my fountain,
You are the flame in my hearth,
You are the wheat in m y bread,
Hmm – it’s so much more beautiful in Spanish!! No wonder I’ve never heard an English translation!
End of rambling aside.
I began to sing and perform songs in Spanish in the mid-eighties. From my traditional music training I knew that it was essential not just to sing the sounds of the language, but to understand them, and I translated every word, with Chon’s patient help. I learned and performed many songs. 
But the first time I visited Mexico I didn’t understand anything at all. I could speak “food” pretty well, with reasonably good pronunciation, and that was it. In our house Chon and I only spoke English, so I really never praticed speaking Spanish unless I was in Mexico, and that was only for one, two, or three weeks every year. I tried, though, and Chon’s family was patient, too. They didn’t have much choice, really, and they always treated me extremely well. There are very few people in our little town even now who speak English. And something I have noticed is that even though students here take classes in English, they do not learn to speak it. There seems to be no “Conversational English” offered. Even students who get high grades in English only can read it (a little).
In case you have never thought about it, an English speaker must learn to use different muscles to correctly pronounce Spanish, so for many English speakers our speech will always have a big, fat accent, and we sound to Spanish speakers just as many adults who learn English sound to us English speakers. (Congratulations if you were able to follow that sentence!)
Anyway, I’d like to encourage anyone to learn a new language. If it interests you, or if you are motivated for some reason, give it a try! There are lots of good classes in the states. If you learn some beginning Spanish, your hispanic friends will enjoy your efforts, and it’s probably really good exercise for the brain.