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Learn a song by heart

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It's cool to know how to play the guitar, but it's even better to know songs by heart! If you don't, the next time someone asks you to play a song, you'll have a hard time if you're not at home with your tabs at hand.

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When one plays music, sooner or later one has to learn a song by heart. And that may be a bit challenging for beginners. This tutorial will give you a training method and a few tips to help you memorize what you play. So you won't have to be glued to your sheet and you'll be able to focus on how you play.

Training method

What is memory?

In order to learn a song by heart, you need to use your memory. This is the same memory you use to learn texts or phone numbers by heart. If you can remember those tough classes in high school where you had to memorize poems by heart, then you'll realize that we are going to apply the same concepts.

Memory is something you need to work on, to practice. If you're not required to memorize things in your daily life, then your memory could be a bit atrophied, so you may need to practice in order to boost it. It will be challenging in the beginning, but don't panic, you'll make it with a bit of practice.

Split your song

First thing for you to do to learn a song by heart is splitting it up in several parts. Unless you have an outstanding memory, don't try to learn it all at once. As you learn a poem by heart one stanza at a time, you want to learn your song one part at a time.

Fortunately, the modern music songs to practice are already "pre-split". There is usually a sequence of verses, chorus, bridges, intro etc… So let's stick to these parts to learn them one at a time, and once you have memorized each of these parts, you'll just have to play them in the right sequence.

So choose a part of the song, the verse for instance, and learn it by heart. Practice it for several days and don't move on to another part of the song before you know it like the back of your hand.

Use your memory

Now that you've picked a part to learn, start by making sure that you know how to play it well. if you still encounter technical issues, chords you find challenging, or a rhythm you don't master, then don't try to learn it by heart.

Once you can play it, take your written notes (paper, screen, etc..) and play it three-four times in a row. Then comes the most important step: stop reading it. Get rid of the paper, stop looking at your screen and try playing it using your memory.

Let me stress that, because it's key: you need to use your memory. If you just play over and over again reading your paper, you are not training your memory. You have to force yourself to play it without having anything in front of you. You won't be successful immediately. You will probably have hesitations, make mistakes, have brain farts. It's totally normal, as you still don't know your song by heart. Keep on practicing!

When you make a mistake, you will notice it, it will not sound right. Dig into your memory to find which one is the right chord, or the right note. Try that specific part again, play around, try some random chords. Try hard as much as you can without checking on your paper. And if you still really don't remember what you should play after having tried multiple times, then you can look on your paper. But you should use this option as a last resort only.

Do it every day

Do it for several minutes every day. It is essential that you repeat it every day, as your short-term memory is not going to turn into long-term memory overnight. If one day you know a whole part by heart, you may not remember every thing the next day. Go over the same practice, over and over again, and after a while, you will know the song by heart, and you will not forget it for a long time.

A few additional tips

If you follow the method described above, then you won't have issues memorizing a song. It will just require practice and training. However, there are a few other tips that may help you, especially in the beginning.

Practice on easy songs

First tip: train your memory on easy songs. the easier the song is - technically speaking (for chord sequence, rhythm etc..), the better you will be able to focus on memorizing it.

Once you get more comfortable with this training method and once you have trained your memory, you will be way more prepared to learn songs that are technically more challenging.

Listen to the song you are learning

Second tip: listen to the song that you want to learn. I mean, carefully listening to it, and not doing anything else than listening to the song, not just playing it as a background music while you are showering or talking to someone.

Listen to it 10 times, 20 times, 50 times. Listen to it until you know it by heart. This will help you memorize the song, as the original version will immediately come to your mind when you play it. You will notice immediately the slightest mistake you may make and it will be way easier for you to guess the right chords and/or notes.

Study harmony

This is a tip that will not please everyone, and that may even be surprising, but studying harmony can greatly help memorizing a song. After all, harmony is a set of rules explaining relations between notes, chords, etc and this will explain to you why this or that chord sound great in such sequence.

Imagine you are learning a poem in russian (and that you don't speak russian). You can perfectly learn the poem phonetically, syllable by syllable, but you'll have a hard time if you don't know what it is about. However, learning a poem in english is way easier because you understand the meaning of the poem. Well, you usually do.

Mastering harmony gives a meaning to music. And it's way easier to memorize something that's meaningful rather than learning a sequence of chords you don't understand.

Write down the song

Last tip to help you in your quest to memorizing: write down the song you are learning. I don't mean writing it while reading an existing written version. I mean taking a blank piece of paper, a pen and nothing else, and trying to write down the entire part, relying only on your memory.

This will not only push you to dig into your memory (which is a good thing, as mentioned previously), but it will also develop your visual memory of the song. If you do that several times, you will "see" the written version of the song come to your mind while you play it, coming straight from your memory. This will be an extra help in case you're not sure at some point.

Good luck!

That's it, you know it all on this topic. All you have to do now is practice, memorize songs, over and over again, and in no time you'll manage to memorize very complex songs in minutes. You could even memorize songs you've listened to only once. And that is pretty awesome.

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Without music life would be a mistake.
(Nietzsche)