How and why to memorize the songs you learn

By | April 12, 2015

Being able to play a tune with your eyes closed allows the half of your brain that would focus on reading the music to focus instead on playing it.

Danno from Uke Song of the Month wrote a post recently about memorizing songs that reminded me of this important topic. He suggests that memorization is a useful tool to build a stable of licks to draw on when improvising, to notice and take in the small interesting bits of a song.

The other night I went to a neighborhood house party and a teenage girl sat down at the piano and entertained us for about a half hour. I was impressed at her ability to play so many songs without using any sheet music.

The truth is, you don’t bring your sheet music or iPad everywhere with you, and having to fuss with and stare at it while playing certainly takes away from the experience for both the player and audience. But to me the greatest benefit of memorization is that being able to play a tune with your eyes closed allows the half of your brain that would focus on reading the music to focus instead on playing it. This creates a lot of mental bandwidth for expression and refinement that would otherwise be wasted.

I originally started this site as a motivational tool to keep learning and memorizing new songs by posting them here. The list of songs I used to keep on my wall is somehow gone and I don’t know where it is, so I needed this reminder to refocus.

Keep a List of the Songs You’ve Memorized

memorized-songsYesterday I made a new list of the songs I can play readily from memory. It has grown a good bit longer since I last did this, but I also identified several songs that I have learned very well and played a lot but haven’t fully committed to memory. I put a star next to these as songs to focus on playing from memory during practice. As I am able to play each from memory over a week or so, I will remove its star.

The whole list provides a quick reminder of songs to play during practice to keep them fresh. Playing these songs regularly is an important part of maintaining the ability to play them smoothly on demand.

As you learn new songs, add them to the list with a star or some other indication that you know it but haven’t yet fully memorized it. These are the songs to focus on during practice until you can confidently remove that star. I’ve also found that its easy to get overwhelmed if I learn too many songs without memorizing them. So I try to keep the number of new songs I’m working on at any given time – whether learning or memorizing – to 2 or 3.

How to Memorize a Song

Memorizing a song can feel like an impossible task, but its easy if you are patient and break the song down into smaller parts. Here’s what I do:

  1. First, I learn the song from sheet music until I know it well. I must be able to rattle off the song easily and without mistakes looking at the sheet music before going further. Doing this allows me to focus solely on memorizing the song instead of also trying to teach my fingers to play it.
  2. All songs are made up of phrases, and I memorize the song one phrase at a time. The boundaries of a phrase depend the song, but they are typically each 3-5 measures long. Don’t stress over this – just pick an arbitrary short bit of the song at a time if you’re unsure.
  3. Start at the beginning and play the first phrase looking at the music. Then look away from the music and play it. If you need to look back, do that, but repeat this process until you can play it 3 or more times in a row without looking at the music.
  4. Now play the next phrase and do the same thing. I find it helps to play a few phrases before the new one to practice them and also learn the new phrase in context. Do this without looking at the music! If you must look, do so, and then try again without looking.
  5. Repeat step 4 until you’ve worked through the entire song. Play the song from the beginning, without looking at the music, at least three times in a row before adding each phrase.
  6. Once you can passably get through the song without the music, its important to keep playing it from memory every day for several days to really let it sink into long term memory.
  7. Finally, keep the song on your list of memorized songs and be sure to play it once in a while to keep it from getting rusty.

If the song is long or you find it start to get difficult to remember more phrases, stop and come back to it the next day. I find sometimes my brain just gets “full” and giving it a day’s rest lets what I’ve learned sink in and free up space to keep going.

After successfully memorizing a song, I work on learning a new song next rather than trying to immediately memorize another song. I gather that learning a new song and memorizing a song use different parts of my brain, and it seems to work better if I alternate these tasks.

Hopefully these tips will help you over the hurdle of memorizing the songs you most enjoy playing. If you have any other tips or strategies, drop a comment here and share them.

One thought on “How and why to memorize the songs you learn

  1. Darlene Mercer

    Thanks for this post. I’ve started using it and am already working on memorizing my 3rd song!


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