Rants & Raves

(Don Chance)

Thoughts on How to Learn a Song


Playing music almost always ultimately involves learning a song, to the point where you can actually perform it, either alone or in front of someone.  The main goal in that performance is to deliver it flawlessly.  In some cases, the song involves only playing an instrument and in some it involves playing an instrument and singing.  I suppose in some cases, it can involve only singing, but you do generally need musical accompaniment.  Yet, I suspect that most people do not really know how to learn a song.  Let me give you some tips.

Iíll be the first to admit that I have trouble memorizing lyrics.  I can memorize music, but I struggle with lyrics.  This is a longstanding deficiency of mine, some kind of attention deficit disability in which I memorize a sequence of words and then when I have to rehash it, my mind drifts off somewhere else.  I recall struggling with this problem while having to memorize some poems in high school, such as Edgar Allen Poeís Annabel Lee.  Now, I cannot think of a more useless assignment for a high school student than rote memorization of a poem.  Interpretation of the poem is something in which I can see value, but the sheer recitation of the poem does not in my opinion do anything but waste time and result in an immediate dislike of the poem that will stay with the person for decades.  As it has for me.

But memorization of some things is important.  We must memorize our multiplication tables.  Football players must memorize a play book.  Actors must memorize lines.  And of course, some musicians must memorize songs.  (Iíll comment later on musicians who do not memorize songs.)

Hereís the trick to memorizing the lyrics of a song.  Play the recording at least 20 times or at least until the song is stuck in your head.  That does not mean 20 consecutive times.  For me, 20 times over a period of a few days will do it.  At that point, the song is inexorably ingrained in my gray matter, to the point at which I am on the borderline of detesting the song.  When you get to that point, you will know the lyrics.  (I am, of course, assuming the lyrics are either intelligible or you have a printed copy of the lyrics.)

What is happening here is the same thing that happens when children memorize the alphabet, the Pledge of Allegiance, or a song like Jingle Bells.  The letters and words may mean nothing, but the sequence is ingrained.

OK, that should suffice to memorize the words, but to play the music and actually put on a performance requires that you practice the piece at least 20 times.

So, now weíre talking about hearing and/or playing a song 40-50 times.  Then you should have it.  That certainly sounds like a lot, but executing something consistently without flaw requires that much repetition.  If you want to do it right, you should figure on having to do that many times.

In addition, you need to continue to practice it, even though you might think, ďIíve got it now.Ē  I believe that thinking ďIíve got itĒ is one of the biggest mistakes a musician can make.  It would be like Drew Brees throwing a perfect strike 20 yards downfield time after time and then thinking, ďIíve got it.  Next time I have to do that in a game, Iíll nail it.Ē  So he stops practicing that pass.  Of course, we all know he wonít stop practicing that pass, just as Lebron James will not stop practicing his jump shot and Roger Federer wonít stop practicing his serve.  So keep practicing that song, even though you may have performed it accurately 100 times.

Finally, let me say a word about musicians who use notes on stage or full musical scores on stage.  I have little respect for them, especially if I am paying money to hear them.  Letís say I go to a play.  The actors learned all of their lines for a roughly two-hour performance and are expected to deliver those lines flawlessly for the entire performance.  Unless a recording is used, down in the orchestra pit is a bunch of musicians who are using sheet music.  Why do the musicians get a break and the actors donít?  Iíve never understood this. 

I think the orchestral music profession has somehow gotten it ingrained that it is alright for musicians to read their music during the performance. I disagree completely.  Anyone can memorize their music.  Even two solid hours of music can be memorized.  While I admire the acoustic beauty of a well-delivered orchestral performance, I cannot help thinking that these people are not willing to put in the same effort that stage actors or even a rock band does.

So thatís my take on learning a song.



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Last updated: May 27, 2011