Doesn’t it seem amazing when you go watch a live performance and the musicians playing on stage can seamlessly play through so many songs without having to look at sheet music or tabs? How can their brains hold on to this much information?
Musicians can memorize many songs for a performance through massive repetition and by having a deep understanding of how the chords, melodies, and lyrics all work together in unison. This is especially true if the musician was involved in the songwriting process.
It is truly amazing the amount of information that the human brain can retain when purposeful action is taken to commit the information to memory. You may have never paid much attention to it, but how does your brain memorize the thousands of words you use in your daily speaking language? It happens through repetition. Let’s take a deeper look at how musicians can memorize so many songs.
Repetition is the key to memorizing songs, chords, melodies, and lyrics.
If you do any activity enough times, you will eventually start to burn the specifics and details of what you are doing into memory. This applies well to the memorization of music.
With that being said, there is a bit of a caveat because many musicians rely on site-reading to play music. Have you ever noticed when you see a live orchestra that many or all of the musicians have a music stand sitting in front of them with the sheet music they can read along with while playing?
If these musicians play the songs enough times with the sheet music, they will eventually begin to commit the music to memory, but that may not be their intent. They are practicing in a way that keeps them reliant on the written music instead of purposefully committing the music into memory.
This is not to downplay the discipline of sight-reading, as it is an amazing skill that has a very appropriate purpose. A talented site reading musician can sit down with his instrument or voice and literally play through an entire piece of music without ever hearing it. Crazy right?
This allows a musician with this skill level to play any piece of music, any day, with any group, and often requires little to no rehearsal time. So, site reading definitely has its place. Just not in this article.
It is impractical for some musicians to carry around a stack of sheet music to set up and play at every event. I mean, imagine Slash from Guns ‘n Roses standing on stage in front of a music stand trying to flip through pages while ripping through a face-melting guitar solo in front of a packed football stadium full of people. Seems a little silly, right?
Music can be memorized, and some specific practice methods can be applied to make this happen effectively. One of those methods is straight up, brutal repetition, or rote memorization. If the musician learns the chords, melodies, and lyrics of a song through some medium and practices what he has learned repeatedly, it will become committed to memory.
It definitely can seem like pure drudgery when first attempting to memorize a piece of music. Especially if the part you are learning is particularly challenging for you to play. If you have trouble getting through the music, then it is much more difficult to solidify it into your memory as you may be more focused on how much you are struggling.
One way to get through this is to break the piece of music up into smaller, more manageable pieces. You work on each piece separately and then put them all together after the pieces don’t feel so overwhelming. However, the main key here is still repetition.
If a musician wants to learn a set of songs to play in a performance, the most effective way to memorize the set is to learn each song, write down the set, and practice the entire set over and over and over again.
It’s still good practice to play each song on its own, but if a musician wants to play twenty songs in his set, it would be a terrible idea to choose the moment he steps on stage as the first time he plays straight through all twenty songs from start to finish.
If this musician were to have practiced the entire set multiple times over, he would be much more confident in his ability to recall all of the parts he needs to play from memory.
Learn the songs and play them over and over and over while putting effort into looking at a reference of the music as minimally as possible. This will commit these songs to memory.
Learning songs by ear helps burn the songs deeper into memory.
There really is something special about learning music by ear. It gives the musician a much deeper connection to the structure of the song. When there is a bit of struggle to learn something, the human brain seems to hold on to that knowledge with a tighter grip.
It kind of works similar to traveling in a car. Have you ever taken the same trip multiple times while sitting in the passenger seat and then attempted to drive yourself but couldn’t remember what streets to turn on?
You didn’t commit the street names or visual monuments to memory because you weren’t the one responsible for making the turns. The driver had to see the sign, read it, and then react by turning the car on to that street and therefore had a deeper connection to the trip in his brain than you did from the passenger seat.
This works the same when attempting to learn/memorize a piece of music. If the musician learns the piece of music on his own by ear, the song gets committed to memory much faster than if he reads it from a book or lesson.
The act of listening to a piece of music repeatedly and attempting to transcribe that through an instrument is a great musical exercise. This is especially true if the musician listens to the song, transcribes it, and then writes it down in some format. Even if that is just scratching out the basic chord progression onto a piece of paper.
Matching the chords of a song to the lyrics or certain melody.
Another great way to memorize a song is to match chord changes to a specific lyric or melody. I remember discovering this specifically when I was learning the song Disarm by The Smashing Pumpkins. Many of the chord changes in this song land at precisely the same moment of a lyric being sung.
Many songs follow this pattern, as it is much easier for someone playing an instrument and singing simultaneously to change chords and lyrics all on the same beat. Otherwise, playing and singing can be complicated and feel much like juggling flaming chainsaws while riding a unicycle on a tightrope (this could be a slight exaggeration…..).
Realizing the relationship between chords, melodies, and lyrics and how they move, change, and relate to each other can pay massive dividends when attempting to commit a piece of music to memory. It really helps to have some kind of reference to rely on when playing through a piece of music. Even if that reference is only in your mind.
A basic understanding of Music Theory helps to simplify the memorization of music.
Understanding the basics of Music Theory helps to simplify the structure of a song. This may start to sound a little technical, but I will keep it as simple as possible.
Music is made up of scales, and within those scales, a musician can find chords that sound great to the listener’s ears when played together. Let’s use the opening chord progression of the popular song “Sweet Home Alabama.” This song starts off with a D major to C major to G major chord progression.
If you are a guitar player, you know that these are some of the basic beginner chords that are learned on the guitar. What you may not know is that these chords come out of the G major scale. In Music Theory, chords are represented with roman numerals, and these chords are the respective V, IV, and I chords.
As far as memorization goes, the musician playing this song doesn’t even have to remember the exact chords that the song is made up of. In fact, once a player gains a deeper knowledge of music theory, it is actually simpler to just memorize that this song is in the Key of G (the G major scale) and the chords are the V, IV, and I chords of that scale. But that’s enough music nerd talk for this article.
In my experience, the memorization of a song really comes down to understanding the structure of the song as deeply as your musical sophistication allows and then playing that song repeatedly until you don’t even have to think while playing. Eventually, it becomes second nature, similar to riding a bike or driving a car. Both of these seemed difficult at the first attempt and then became easier with practice. Keep learning new things, and every song will get easier and easier along the journey.