Doesn’t it feel that the overwhelming amount of shared information in this day and age travels faster than the speed of light? We as humans, are required to learn everything faster than ever before. For instance, with streaming platforms such as Youtube, Spotify, Apple Music and a million others, musicians have no more excuses when it comes to learning new songs. No need to own albums anymore, just go on Youtube and nearly all the music produced on this planet is there all at your fingertips.
Yet, how are we supposed to learn new music in such a short amount of time? Being a session musician myself, I am asked to learn new music all the time and I have been in situations where I had to perform songs that I only listened to for the first time just 1hr before the gig started. However, through the years I have discovered and developed a few techniques that have helped me feel more at ease even during these stressful situations.
There are different methods and techniques that give you the chance to memorise tunes quickly. It all depends on how much time you have at your disposal. Therefore, I have divided the following sections in 2 parts or possible scenarios :
-LONG TIME (For example 20 songs to be learnt in 1month or more)
-SHORT TIME (For example 20 songs to be learnt between 3 and 5 days)
Regardless of how much time you have to prepare before your gig, the first thing to do is to create a playlist of the songs you are about to learn. Add that playlist to your phone, iPod or any device that you use to listen to music. Then, listen to these tunes until you are “sick of them”. Literally, listen to them while you have breakfast, or when you go for a run, while you shower…you need to know every little detail of each song. You are not required to, but if you can memorise the lyrics, even better!
Other than using our ears, our brain remembers mostly images. Therefore, writing down on a piece of paper what we are about to learn has various benefits. It clears out our brain, it clarifies what are the most essential parts to remember and most importantly, we can associate the music to what we have written down.
No matter if you are learning a classical piece or a pop song, the first rule is to divide the music into chunks.
If I have a long time to learn a set of songs, I might write down everything note by note. For example, if there is a drum fill I like, I will transcribe each note one by one and learn it until I feel super conformable playing it. Here’s a picture of something I transcribed pretty much note by note:
If I don’t have much time however, I will use a different method that helps me go quickly through the song, without having to spend too much time to transcribe it. Here’s an example of how you can catalog parts of a song quickly: V stands for Verse, C for Chorus, B for Bridge, PC for PreChorus, I for Intro, O for Outro. If I am transcribing jazz or classical music, I like to divide everything in alphabetical order. For example AABA, or ABCD etc. Then, once I am ready to transcribe, I count how many bars each section (or chunk) lasts for. For example, if the Verse is 8bars long, I would write down V 8X. If the Chorus is 4 bars, C 4x etc. Here is a picture to give you an idea:
Transcribing doesn’t have to be super precise, it’s just a tool that helps memorise songs quicker than by using only our ears. Sometimes it can feel tedious, but once you start doing it often, it gets easier and faster every time.
When it comes to actually practicing the songs, there are again 2 ways I like to go about it, an again, it all depends on how much time I have at my disposal.
If I have a month to learn 20 songs, I will start learning 1 or 2 songs per day. At first, I play along with the song at least 3 times following the transcription I previously noted down. Once I feel comfortable, I play along with the music 3 more times, but at this point without using any transcriptions. Then, I will practice 3 more times using only my transcription and no music. The last step is the hardest, but probably the most effective one. I practice without any music or notes. I count off and imagine I am playing the song with the rest of the band. I sing it in my head while I am playing drums.
QUICK RECAP STEP BY STEP:
-3x Play Along with Music + Transcription
-3x Play Along with Music + NO Transcription
-3x Play Along NO Music + Transcription
-3x Play Along NO Music + NO Transcription
If for example I have only 3 days or less to learn a set of 20 songs, the process needs to be way quicker. I always write down a chart or a short transcription, like the one described previously. This is how I usually go about it:
-On DAY 1- I go over the whole set using my notes and write down the songs I am struggling with the most. I create a chart and put each song in order from the hardest to the easiest. I make sure I practice the hardest songs first. Once I feel comfortable with those, I move on to the easier ones.
-On DAY 2- I practice first the hardest songs once to “refresh” my memory and then I play through the whole setlist. I take a long break (e.g. I go out for lunch, or I go see a friend). Then I come back and I go over the setlist again without stopping in between songs and I try not to look at my notes .
-On DAY 3- I go over the set, but I mix up the songs. I put the whole setlist in shuffle mode and whatever song comes on I need to be ready for it. After I take another long break. Then, I will play the whole set one final time without using my notes.
-On DAY 4- I feel ready for the gig!
QUICK RECAP STEP BY STEP:
– Learn songs from hardest to easiest
– Review hardest songs // Go through setlist 2x
-Go through set in shuffle mode // Go through setlist NO Notes
This is the methods I usually use to memorise songs and they have helped a lot over the years. I’m curious to know if anyone else uses different techniques that are even quicker than the ones described in this article. Please, feel free to share in the comment section below.
’till next time!