How to Memorize Songs

How do you memorize songs and/or play by ear (on the fly)?

The discussion below is taken from a thread launched by Scotty Yee on the Synth Zone General Arranger forum. Click here to go to the original thread.

Scottyee
01-27-2003 09:36 AM

As a follow up to my topic on preferred keyboard playing methods (lead sheet/chord chart, sheet music, or solely by ear), I'd like now to initiate a discussion on how each of us tackles the task of song "memorization."

Here's what I do. I first memorize the chord progression, either by ear or with the help of a lead sheet. As "the Pro" pointed out so well earlier, lead sheets (and sheet music) don't necessarily reflect all the correct notes/chords actually played on the hit recording, so I may need to figure out some of the chords by ear, by listening to the original CD recording. The first thing I do when memorizing a song's chord progression is to look for commonly occurring chord patterns and cadences (II-V-I; IV-V-I; blues progressions, etc.) used on many songs.

Once I've memorized the chord changes, I'm then able to fairly easily pick out the melody (by ear) with my right hand, as the melody notes typically include the chord tones and/or its passing tones (chord scale). Probably the most difficult thing (for me) is retaining in memory all the many different chord changes to the hundreds of songs in my repertoire, making it often difficult for me to feel confident playing without a lead sheet, chord chart, or lyric sheet available to jog my memory if needed.

Some musicians are able to play any song "on the fly" that they can hear off the top of their head, and be able to flesh out the chord changes "in real time" as well. Who among us can do this?

In addition to finding out how others of you go about memorizing songs, I'm also interested in finding out how to master the technique of performing songs completely by ear "on the fly."

Scott

travlin'easy
01-27-2003 09:51 AM

"Some musicians are able to play any song 'on the fly' that they can hear off the top of their head, and be able to flesh out the chord changes 'in real time' as well. Who among us can do this?"

You mean there's another way of doing it?  Saw a bumper sticker the other day that says it best, ":I only do what the voices in my head tell me to do!"

There are times, however, when I will write the chord changes in the appropriate locations on some of the lyrics sheets. I still can't read, but I know what they sound like and what the book says they are.

As for the lyrics sheets, they all in loose-leaf binders, listed alphabetically by song name and printed in Times New Roman, Bold, 14-point font and have a 1.3 line spacing. Consequently, some songs, such as Devil Went To Georgia, may take up two sheets, but they're placed so they'll be side by side. With the addition of a 25-watt music stand light, you can read the lyrics from 10 feet away, even in a smoke filled barroom.

Cheers,
Gary

The Pro
01-27-2003 10:45 AM

While I rely on leadsheets for new songs and playing songs accurately that I haven't played in a long time, I believe that I also may use something I call "phonographic memory." It's like photographic memory but in an aural sense: I can replay in my mind what I have heard fairly precisely, probably from years of memorizing music. That's how I know when sheet music is wrong or incomplete: it doesn't match what I've heard.

I pretty much learn songs in the same manner as you do, but there's more to it that your next question hits on...

Some musicians are able to play any song 'on the fly' that they can hear off the top of their head, and be able to flesh out the chord changes 'in real time' as well. Who among us can do this? In addition to finding out how others of you go about memorizing songs, I'm also interested in finding out how to master the technique of performing songs completely by ear 'on the fly'.

I can play songs "on the fly" pretty much, though if I'm playing solo, I have to have heard the song in it's entirety at least once (and people coming up and humming it won't work even though they think it will). If jamming with a band, as long as I know what key we're in, I can pretty much delay my notes/chords ever so slightly to allow me to get the song idea and then I can play it.

Ear training usually comes down to chord and interval recognition. You have to be able to recognize note intervals and chord progressions to be able to relate them to the keyboard or whatever you play. Some do it by nature and I think I do it as a matter of experience. Then it comes down to logic -- what fits within the key and progression you are in and what doesn't. Eliminate all that doesn't and half the battle is over. The rest is intuition.

Then there is "the zone." That's what my wife calls it -- she can tell when I'm in it. It's a Zen-like state where you relax to the point of being on autopilot. Everything analytical that we learn and know can get in the way of pure music. One side of the brain hears the music while the other side is busy turning that into numbers/scales/logic and we kick the music back and forth between hemispheres, slowing us down and causing us to doubt ourselves. But if you can relax enough, you can play without all the number-crunching.  I look away from the keyboard and try to relax completely. One trick is to try some simple math like adding up the coins that are in your pocket while playing to tie up your analytical hemisphere. Or I could be full of crap but somehow I think this is part of the key.

Leon
01-27-2003 12:57 PM

Interesting topic. I guess, if I hear something, I can always get the basic feel of the song or piece, but to be honest, if I'm using it in a solo gig, I don't really sweat the intricate stuff too much, basically because it's gone by in an instant and is it really worth the time and effort to get it exactly as intended? I can't say I use cheat sheets for chord progression, but I do have a small binder, about 6"x3" (pocket size) to which I've affixed a Velcro strip. This matches up with another strip on my top keyboard (T3). It's just got some key words and lyric lines to particularly long pieces, such as Don Henley or Billy Joel.

Getting back to the "On the Fly" topic...  I've found it fairly easy to work out the progressions in my head by using little "tricks." There are a lot of common everyday songs out there that we're all familiar with, i.e. House of the Rising Sun, Yesterday, heck, even Smooth.

If you're quite proficient in the knowledge that a particular melody follows a well-know progression, either in all, or in part, then it stands to reason that working out the chord progression without having a keyboard in front of you is relatively simple....

Alex K
01-27-2003 01:35 PM

...I think I fall in the category of the people who can play on the fly, though I used to be able to do it a lot better in my 20s, than I can now. Nonetheless, I was at a party two weeks ago where the conversation came up, and someone decided to test me. They sang a verse of the song, which I have never heard, and I was able to play it, chords and melody, for their second verse -- did it with three different songs.

Nobody's perfect, however.  I can not recall the lyrics for the life of me, especially when playing with the accompaniment turned on. Not that anyone would want me to sing anyway

Sander
01-27-2003 02:25 PM

Hey Scott,
This is really what's keeping me busy for the past few years, playing by ear and getting it right and realistic. My experience with it is that I sometimes can play the entire song right away, and sometimes I just can't get it right. In my room I don't have an audio device to listen to songs, so I have to play it solely by ear. Sometimes, I just can't get a song right, like Celebration from Kool and The Gang, so I bought the "deluxe" sheet music from Warner Brothers (for a stunning $14 - how about that, is that normal?!). Now it's sounding brilliant, because the VA-7 already contains a style specifically made for that song. After I got the sheet music, I listened to the song again, while looking at the sheet, and thought of some specific details of the song and implemented that while playing.

I also have to say that it's most of the time songs in C,F,G or Em and Am that I can play right away.

And tablatures always come in handy when you need chords for a certain songs.  Sometimes wrong tabs get spread on the net and that's awful. For example: All I Want For Christmas by Mariah Carey, found on several tabsites. My 2 cents'.

Uncle Dave
01-27-2003 08:33 PM

My 2 dollars ( )
First of all - the better the song, the easier to remember it.  A song that's well written, with meaningful changes and lyrics makes much more sense, and is easier to stick in MY mind.

My method is simple -- I prioritize:

  1. Vocals - Read the words, out loud. Don't sing, read the words, in a spoken voice. This forces the brain to "listen" to the lips. If the words make sense, they will stay with you longer.
  2. Chords/bass - equally important. In my case, I hear the bass lines easier, because I spent many years as a bass player. Laying down the "foundation" makes it much easier to add the chords and embellish lines afterwards. If the vocals and bass are right, you're almost there. Bass, vocals and drums are a complete tune. The rest is "fluff" and we all love our fluff !
  3. Write the chart out. This is very effective. Something "clicks" in my brain when I write. I don't read on stage. I just write it out as I practice the tune. It really "cements" the song in my head. Makes a mental "snapshot" of the page, I guess.
  4. Imagine the song as a short play. If you "get into character," you'll associate with the song meaning and it'll speak to you. If it means something, you'll want to remember it! Our brains remember tons of numbers, names, faces that are trivial to our lives. Imagine how easy it will be to remember stuff that is important or personal to you! Act out each song as if it were a play and you'll get so much more from it.

I've said many times, the only time that you truly "own" a performance is when you can do it from memory. You need all your concentration to "sell" a number, and if you are expending energy reading a chart, you are being distracted. It's a fact of life. Road maps, cheat sheets, call them what you will, but leave them in the car, or on the floor. I'd rather flub a word or two than have my eyes glued (yeah, yeah -- even for a second!) to a page. People are starved for real energy in live performances these days. Superstars "lip Sync," and sequencers "play" the band's parts, and little by little we are taking the musician out of the music.

I strongly urge you all to memorize as much as possible, and see what I mean. It's one thing to read a special wedding song, or an obscure request, but C'mon folks ...... I have a friend who still reads the words to "Misty" after 30 years !!!! AAGH !

MacAllcock
01-28-2003 01:37 AM

I'm in the "on the fly" club.  In fact, I now play a number of songs regularly that I'd never considered before getting the request and playing the song!  Given time to analyze, I hear bass and melody / harmony lines first, then pick up the chord structure.

Mosiqaar
01-28-2003 02:21 AM

The only way I do know how to play music is "by ear" and often I would learn a song by listening to it in my car on the way to the party, and I play it live that night. I try not to always do that as my hardest thing is not the music or the playing, its memorizing the lyrics.

I love catching things on the fly, and for me it comes easy.  I would love to learn a systematic way as Scottyee was talking about chord progression, blues progression and other stuff that sounds so systematic and once you learn it you will be able to recognize it. Maybe one day I will dedicate sometime into getting to learn theory of music and how to read notes.

Vic01
01-28-2003 05:05 AM

Uncle Dave: I strongly urge you all to memorize as much as possible, and see what I mean....... I have a friend who still reads the words to "Misty" after 30 years !!!! AAGH !

They say your memory is the second thing that goes. I just can't seem to remember what the first thing was.

trtjazz
01-28-2003 05:47 AM

Quote From U Dave: I've said many times, the only time that you truly "own" a performance is when you can do it from memory. You need all your concentration to "sell" a number, and if you are expending energy reading a chart, you are being distracted. It's a fact of life. Road maps, cheat sheets, call them what you will, but leave them in the car, or on the floor. I'd rather flub a word or two than have my eyes glued (yeah, yeah -- even for a second!) to a page. People are starved for real energy in live performances these days. Superstars "lip Sync," and sequencers "play" the band's parts, and little by little we are taking the musician out of the music .

Dave you and I sure agree on this philosophy. Every performance I have ever seen including great classical players, who are reading from charts. (was) technically perfect, but totally lacking in human interpretation and feeling. The emotional side of a performance if you will....way too busy concentrating on reading the chart.

Watch Perlman, or MA or Miduri play sometime.  The orchestra players (who are amongst the best in the world) are all reading charts and the soloists are going from memory. Although in this instance, I do understand that an orchestra needs charts, to all be on the same page (note) at the same time. But it also sounds like it too, while the soloist is floating above it all, it's the emotion of their interpretation to me.

tony mads usa
01-28-2003 06:39 AM

I have to admit that I have never given this topic much thought.  I do have the music (lead sheet/lyrics with chords/fake book copy/whatever) for a lot of the songs I perform sitting in front of me, and often I don't even look at it.  But after reflecting on this, I would have to agree that the best performances come from tunes that I don't have to be "'thinking" about the lyrics or chords... Thanks

Terry, I don't think it is the role of the orchestra player to "interpret" his/her individual part.  The interpretation of the orchestration should come only from the conductor, and the audience should be able to feel that. Also, the soloist wants no "surprises" from the orchestra.  And, of course, the soloist should be soaring above the orchestra, letting us feel his/her interpretation of the piece, otherwise the soloist only becomes another orchestra member.  But many great classical artists give fabulous performances even if the music is in front of them.  I often wonder if they are actually reading it, or if it just a "comfort" piece for them.  I do agree however, that I do not think I've ever seen a "pop" artist give a heartfelt rendition of a song lyric while reading it

Leon
01-28-2003 08:27 AM   

Your point about thinking of the song as a play in your head was bang on. If the "story line" is interesting, then lyrics are relatively easy to learn. That may be why I've always enjoyed doing Mark Knopler material. His poetry is really incredible.  The same can be said for Billy Joel, i.e.: Piano Man , put yourself in the first person and be the story teller.
Very good point U.D.