Memorizing music is invaluable in the eternal quest of learning and growth. From strengthening your ears to widening your understanding of compositional structure and recognizing patterns, there is no quicker way to develop into a well-rounded musician than to leave your charts at home and memorize the music you play, practice, and perform.
Why write about how to memorize music? For one thing, I am of the belief that you can’t truly know a song until you no longer need to read it off of a piece of a paper. As rhythm players, once you can get off the page, you’ll be able to anticipate changes and sit comfortably in the groove, instead of reconciling your trouble spots and letting them dominate you. And as lead players, a song won’t really come alive until you’re able to weave your way through the changes without constantly having to look at a piece of paper for a roadmap — it’s in your ears.
So here are my five steps on how to memorize any piece of music.
1. Understand the whole piece.
Never try and jump into learning a composition piecemeal if you aren’t familiar with it yet. The learning process will be smoother if you know how things come together in the long run. Do this by listening to recordings of the piece first — no instrument required.
2. Identify a song’s basic form and changes first.
You’ll want to familiarize yourself with all the moments when the song changes, or where you hear repeated/thematic material. Here’s where you get to put your ears to work, for those who aren’t familiar with reading music (if you are interested in starting to read music, here’s a free online course). But if you do have a chart, read along to see what you can use from the written material. More complicated music, such as jazz standards, will often have charts with the melody and the chords written, and to truly understand the song, there’s no substitute for knowing both. Is the song in verse-chorus form, or an AABA, or a blues of some sort? The more you can recognize these types of structures for yourself, the easier it will be to keep learning new music.
3. Don’t always start memorizing music from the beginning.
In fact, you can start wherever you want! By now you understand the form, and you can work within the roadmap of the material, if there’s a hook that’s already in your head, or just a few bars of the chord changes that you happen to recognize, you can start there. You’ll be chopping up the music anyhow, so don’t worry about that yet — you’ll know it all like the back of your hand (does anyone actually know the back of their own hand?) once you’re done learning all the pieces.
4. Break it up into small, manageable blocks.
Treat each block as its own unit to be learned, understood and explored. Let’s say, for example, that you’re setting out to learn a piece of music like the old Miles Davis classic song “Tune Up.”
This was one of the first jazz standards I ever learned. A quick listen to the song gives you the basic gist of the form and melody, and then looking through the chords and melody on paper provide some great clues for how to think your way through it. Here’s a chart to follow along with.
First of all, according to the chart, this is a 16-bar piece. No bridges, no first or second endings. We begin with a melody line and a harmonic pattern, the classic ii-V-I progression, that starts in the key of D for the first four bars, and then repeats in the second four-bar phrase, but down a whole step to the key of C. The third set of four bars is very similar to the first two, but introducing some variation to the melody — and briefly, in the harmony. The last four bars function as a turnaround, to bring us back home to the top of the tune, with the chords to be played as a soloist improvises, weaving through the harmony. Just understanding the functions of these chords will help to improve your understanding of a piece like this, and while “Tune Up” isn’t the most complicated jazz standard, using this type of “break-it-down-and-put-it-back-together” mentality will help in the deciphering of other great composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
+ Learn more with Soundfly: Explore the influence of the blues in Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” in our free course, A Conversation with the Blues, which investigates the history, legacy, and mechanics of this uniquely American musical form.
5. Then put it all together like a jigsaw puzzle!
Now the tune is in your head. You can leave the music at home. Use your ears. If there are discrepancies between bandmates on what the correct chords or melody are, the recordings always trump sheet music, but in the end what’s most important is what you decide to do together. Now you know the song and you can be an asset to your band, while continuing to develop your own learning and musical growth! And that’s what it should be all about.
If you don’t yet know how to read music, don’t be discouraged. Of course, some of the greatest players didn’t have a clue about how to decipher tiny black dots on a page. But if you’re looking for a quick shot of inspiration, start by marveling at the fact that humans created and developed a system of communicating sound and rhythm, from paper. Without needing to know any language, only the occasional markings to specify dynamics, two people who have absolutely nothing in common culturally and linguistically can learn the same composition from the same piece of paper. Music truly is the language of the heart — why not learn to speak it?
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