How to learn songs by heart

If you learn your songs from tabs or standard notation, you might be struggling with learning them by heart. I remember that when I was beginning, my sight reading was so poor that I had no other choice but to memorize the material. What I see in my students (especially playing easier pieces) is that they keep on reading from the paper no matter what. The way I try to get around that is to make them learn and practice a song bar by bar. And it’s much easier to memorize it that way.

When you take up a new song you probably play through it couple of times. Oftentimes that’s how people keep practising – just playing the whole thing in a rugged way and hoping that it gets better. Practising smaller beats is much more effective but the quickest way to learn the song and to free yourself from the tyranny of paper is to make the bit you work on as short as possible. Learn just one bar (two at the most). Practice it without looking at the notes until it flows. Than practice next bar the same way. Then join them etc… Practice that way until you complete a single phrase. Than play this phrase over and over again until you don’t have to think about correct notes or fingers.

The funny thing is you have to do this work either way. But by doing those small bits by heart you’ll end up with well practised and memorized song. If you put the memorization work in from the beginning you’ll barely notice it. The alternative is you can learn the whole thing from the notes and only than start memorizing it. But than you’ll have a lot of unpleasant work to do.

If you practice with the notes in front of you, the temptation of looking at them might be too strong. Consider putting the notes at the other side of the room so that you have to get up every time you forget what you have to play. That way you’ll have much more motivation to remember what’s next. Also whenever you struggle to remember something, when you finally do it on your own it’s written much better into your brain. On the other hand, if you just look at the paper, the brain learns that it doesn’t have to remember because the paper is available. So once you read the piece you want to practice, use the notes only as a last resort.

Is it OK to simplify?

It happens pretty often. You choose a song to learn, go through it and notice that some part of it is simply beyond your reach. Or even worse, you spend a lot of time learning first half of the song only to notice that in the second half there is a part that is impossible (or too costly to learn) for you. All this time spent and you aren’t able to finish the song. If you were a classical guitarist there would be very little room to manoeuvre. Classical discipline usually requires fidelity to the musical text. However, since we are playing fingerstyle, which is light music, our reality is more forgiving. Of course some people preach that any changes in the original are bad. But ask yourself this: would you rather play the song you like with couple simplifications or not play it at all?

I firmly believe in compromise approach. Whenever I simplify a song, it’s not because of my laziness. It’s because I know learning it 100% accurate is impossible orĀ  it would take too much time that I could use elsewhere. Of course the ultimate goal is to learn a song in it’s entirety. But it’s not always possible or practical for me. I could do it if I spent very long time practising but at the moment I can’t afford it.

Does it mean it’s OK to simplify? No. It’s not OK. Simplifying becomes addictive and if you don’t watch yourself it can become your second nature. An easy way around things you have to work on. So I think a musician should always treat it as evil… It’s just that it’s sometimes necessary and lesser evil.

One last thing. Try to keep track of all the changes you made to the original. Once in a while, check if your abilities have grown to the level at which you can tackle the difficult part. You can also consider creating simplified version for occasions when you want to just play the piece for someone,while patiently practising the difficult original.