How to memorize songs

We have mentioned in the past that building a repertoire is a good thing to do, especially if you now know a good number of songs. Later, when you have a big list of songs you might be asking yourself, “How the hell am I supposed to remember all of them?”, especially when playing live, when the nerves kick in.

Have you thought about how artists can make it? Take Elton John for example, He plays a show for at least 2 hours with what… 12 to 18 songs? How does he remember all of them?
I have seen some artists have the lyrics on a screen in front of them, but what about the Piano chords or progressions?

Essential but not easy…

Playing by memory is essential for every player but is not easy for some. But the answer is simple. How did you manage to pass your geography tests in school? No, not by sitting next to the smartest girl in the classroom. How did you study? You probably read the text from beginning to end and then read it again. Perhaps you highlighted the most important words and then read all of them a few times until you could remember them without looking. But what happens now if you try to remember those topics? Fail! Why? Simply because you haven’t been using – living and breathing those topics. And that is why artists can remember their songs.

Practice makes perfect!

Let’s say that you learned a new song today, you can play it smoothly from beginning to the end but tomorrow when you try to play it again you can’t remember a section of it. How can you solve this? By practicing it over and over again.
When you have a repertoire and you are gigging quite often, you will be playing all those songs every night and that will help you memorize them. After a few shows you will be playing them smoothly by memory and perhaps even improvising because you will know exactly how the song goes, you will be confident enough to add something new to it.

Having problems memorizing songs?

Yes, there are smart people, and not so smart people… for some people it’s easier to remember things, for others it isn’t, me included. (I was that one sitting next to the smartest girl in class)

What to do for a better “study” of the songs you want to play?

  • Practice a lot but don’t rush your practice. Take it easy! There is no rush in learning all of your songs in one go. Focus on one song at a time, or even on parts of a song..
  • Pay attention to what you practice. Focus on what you’re doing, think about the song you are playing, not on the soccer match or what you will be doing on the weekend.
  • Divide the song into sections. Each song is naturally sectioned by intro, verse, chorus, etc. Practice section by section. Repeat the intro a few times and then go on with the verse, chorus and so on. Spend more time on the section that is hardest for you.

We are not in school anymore, but playing the piano and learning songs can be approached in the same way. Practicing at home is your study, playing live is your final test. The difference? You could have a song book or music sheet in front of you for each song if you wanted to, there isn’t a teacher who can catch you doing this… It is good and sometimes necessary to have that song book with you, especially if you are just starting to play live, you will see that the more often you play the more you will be playing by memory.

So there is nothing else to do besides practicing… and perhaps a little more practicing!