My band, DeadPhish Orchestra, has something like 250 songs in our repertoire. It’s not uncommon for people to ask me, “how the hell do you memorize all that music?” Definitely a legitimate question. And sometimes I wonder about it myself–there was a time in my life when I had a hard time remembering where I was in a 12-bar blues.
Out of all of the articles, books, etc. in the world that are devoted to music and musicianship, memorization is not a topic that you read about very often. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read about it anywhere. I will say that it did come up for me in music school, and to a great extent I credit my classical guitar teacher at the University of Denver, Masa Ito, with helping me. I was surprised, in fact, at how much he had to teach me about the issue, and many of the ideas on this page can be attributed to him.
In general, I also found that playing jazz standards and trying to learn them from memory improved my overall memorization skills because it forced me to learn to use my ears above all. As I have stated elsewhere on this site, playing jazz songs is good practice in all kinds of ways.
Another very important thing that I should add is that you have to make an effort to memorize music. It does not just happen. You could play a song a thousand times with the sheet music in front of you, but if you haven’t made a conscious effort to memorize it, you’re very likely to forget it on the 1,001st time if you put the sheet music away. And I’ll also point out that you’re probably making plenty of mistakes anyway, even with the sheet music in front of you, and you’ll play whatever it is much better and more consistently if you just memorize it. Plus, I find it a lot of work to read sheet music while I’m playing anyway…it’s much easier to put in the work memorizing a tune for a little while; then you can put away the sheet music for good and just play the tune. But to do this, you have to consciously say to yourself, “I’m going to memorize this thing,” and really make an effort to do it.
Another thing I notice is that I can think I have something memorized after spending some time working on it, but then if I put it down for a day or two, when I go back to it, I’ve forgotten it all over again. So when you think you’re done memorizing something, keep in mind that you might not be as done as you think.
By the way, this article is COMPLETELY unscientific.
As I see it, the memorization of music happens on three different levels:
• Aural (how it sounds)
• Intellectual (the theory behind it)
• Physical (the fingerings and movements required to play it)
These are all related, of course, and there is quite a bit of overlap between them, but if you can separate these three aspects and work on each of them individually, you will find that you can memorize complex musical passages with surprising ease. On top of that, you will also find yourself making far fewer “dumb” mistakes because when one of the three aspects breaks down on you, the other two are there to back it up.
Let’s take a look at how each of these three aspects of memorization works, and how you can practice them.
The word “aural,” far too easily confused (aurally) with the word “oral”, means “pertaining to the ears or hearing.” When musicians refer to being able to “hear” something, they are really talking about the ability to recognize what they are hearing, musically. If I had to rank the three aspects of memorization, I would say that this is the most important, and in fact as I write this piece, I realize that all three of these methods really point back, in some way, to your aural skills, a.k.a. your “ears.”
The best musicians have amazing ears. A great jazz improviser can hear a melody and instantly play it back to you, as well as instantly recognize a chord (or chord progression) and come up with melodies to fit it on the spot. A great classical conductor can look at a musical score and instantly be able to imagine what it sounds like; a composer can envision what all kinds of different instruments will sound like layered on top of one another. Look at Beethoven for example…the guy wrote his 9th symphony, all 75 minutes of it, complete with full symphony AND full choir (it takes over a hundred people to perform it), while he was stone deaf. So, yes, you should be able to learn to hear a G chord change to a C chord. And, yes, it’s possible to be stone deaf and still have good “ears”.
And by the way, once in a while somebody will try to tell me that they are “tone deaf.” I doubt this condition even exists; if it does, I have never seen it, and I’ve taught a LOT of different people. Some people might have a little more ablility than others in this area; some are just good at it while others have to work at it. But I’m fairly certain that ANYONE can learn it. But I digress…
In general, good “ears,” combined with a solid knowledge of how the sounds are laid out on the fretboard, make it much easier to remember a piece of music.
How to practice it
One of the best ways I have found to practice my ear training is to try to play melodies that I hear…TV, radio, Christmas songs, anything. Phish fans may have already noted that Trey Anastasio has often spoken of this as being a valuable practice tool. It helps you learn to recognize intervals, and it also helps you be more creative with your own melodic ideas because it breaks you out of the usual guitaristic patterns. Try this little exercise: Pick a random note in the middle register of your guitar, and try to figure out the melody to “Happy Birthday” starting with that note. Or pick any other song that’s extremely familiar to you. If you haven’t done this kind of thing before, you might be surprised at how hard it actually is. But like anything else, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.
Another useful thing to practice is recognizing the chords to a song as you listen to it. Start with simpler songs, such as folk songs, bluegrass songs, early rock songs. Try to think of the chords in “roman numerals;” learn to recognize the sound of the I, IV, and V chords first and foremost. But eventually you should learn to recognize the other chords from the key, as well as chords that fall outside of the key of the song. Start of by doing this with guitar in hand, but eventually, you should try to be able to recognize chords completely by ear alone.
All in all, I think it is important to be able to sing any melody that you play, and play any melody that you sing. It follows, too, that if you can’t sing a melody that you are planning on playing, you probably can’t play it very well either. Practicing this helps you make a much quicker connection between what you “hear” in your head, and what you actually play on your guitar. It follows, then, that if you can really memorize what a song sounds like down to the minute details, you can memorize how to play it.
I should also add that there is ear training software out there, which is KINDA helpful (see the link on the HCG Links page). It’s not bad, but I’m not 100% convinced that it alone would make you “hear” better. Still, it’s free so it’s worth a try.
When I refer to the “intellectual” aspect of memorizing, I am referring to the math behind the music, i.e. the theory behind it. What are the chords? What is chord progression? If the part you are memorizing is melodic, are there chords implied in the melody? What are the interval leaps within the melody? What scale(s) does the melody come from? This is all information you can use to help you memorize a complex piece of music. This is probably the one aspect of memorization that most of us do already…we memorize chords, we memorize melodies. It’s basically what could be considered “rote” memorization. But, speaking for myself anyway, this rote memorization is far from foolproof, and breaks down easily if it isn’t backed up by your ears and your fingers.
How to practice it
In music school, one thing I had to do frequently was to memorize jazz standards. When I was actively studying jazz, I maybe knew the chords and melodies to 40-some tunes off the top of my head, which is NOTHING compared to a true jazz musician, most of whom could probably play you a couple hundred different tunes on the spot (bluegrass players are like this too).
As an additional tool to help us memorize the songs, they would have us transpose them into different keys from memory, without sheet music. In a 32-bar song where the chords change every measure, or even half a measure, this can get pretty complicated. It would be virtually impossible to do this on sheer memorization alone. Instead, you begin to look at the chords in terms of Roman numerals (the I chord, the V chord, etc.). You also begin to think in terms of intervals, rather than just chord names. And finally, when you start to get good at it, you just start to “hear” the chord change in your head–and when you get to this point you often don’t even have to really think about what key you’re in, or even what chord you’re playing, you just “hear” the chord and play it. So again, the issue of “hearing” comes into play. But until you can develop that skill, it can still be incredibly useful to think in these mathematical, intervallic terms. Just don’t ever forget to pay attention to what these chords and chord changes sound like while you practice them.
And of course, this doesn’t only work with jazz standards. You can do it with pop tunes, country tunes, anything really. In fact, in some ways it can be quite challenging to memorize bluegrass songs, despite their relative simplicity, because so many of them are so similar (I will never not confuse the B sections of Salt Creek and Red-Haried Boy). Take songs that you think you know well, and play the chords in a different key (without writing them down!). Start simple, with I-IV-V progressions and that kind of thing, then go to more complex songs. Again, you might be surprised how difficult it is if you haven’t done it much before, but the more you do it the better you get at it.
The physical aspect of memorization has to do with the fingerings, fretboard positions, and hand movements required to play a given part. Sometimes we call this “muscle memory.” Here’s a weird thing I’ve noticed (and you may have too): sometimes, when practicing a difficult piece that I have started to memorize, I’ll get totally stumped on a part somewhere in the middle of the piece that I’ve played just fine a hundred times before. In order to figure it out, I have to back up and approach the part in question from a few measures earlier, or even just go back and start the piece all over. Then, sooner or later, the correct part just comes back to you and you suddenly just play it right, almost by accident. I think that’s muscle memory in action.
How to practice it
One thing to pay attention to when you are praciticing a difficult passage: Make absolutely sure that you are practicing it the exact same way every time. If you’re paying attention, you might catch yourself using a slightly different fingering on consectutive passes through the same part (and I’ll bet that those are often the EXACT spots where you are making mistakes). This will certainly impede your muscle memory progress.
Also, when you find yourself consistently stumbling over a certain part, make sure you practice that part starting from a measure or two earlier; very often when we have problems with fingerings, the problems are starting during the approach to that point in the music, and not just at that point itself.
Here is a strange, but very cool, method for practicing a difficult passage that you are working on: Mute your strings with your picking hand so that they don’t produce any sound at all, even when you hammer your other hand’s fingers onto the fretboard. Now, just play the fingerings, not actually sounding the notes. If you have not tried this before, I think you’ll be surprised at how difficult it is to play a part without being able to hear it. An analogous way for a keyboard player to practice this would be to use an electronic keyboard with the power turned off. This forces you, first of all, to memorize the exact finger movements because you won’t have the sound of a wrong note to tell you that you’ve screwed up. It also forces you to imagine the sound of what you are playing, and to associate the sound you are imagining with what your fingers are doing on the fretboard (again, going back to aural skills).