How to Memorize Guitar Songs | Hub Guitar

How to Memorize Guitar Songs

One of the shortcomings that advancing guitar players often suffer from is the tendency to forget music they should have memorized long ago. For every one musician with a good memory, it seems there are a dozen whose list of memorized repertoire is the same length as it always was.

Before we talk about how to memorize music, let’s talk about why you should do it in the first place. After all, without a clear understanding of the reason behind memorizing music, your motivation to do it will never be enough.

Misconceptions about Memorization

Especially for guitar players who can effectively read tab and standard notation, it can seem a little unnecessary to memorize the music. But you will not always have the sheet music, and as long as you’re looking at the music, you’re not looking at your technique.

Reasons to Memorize Music

  • Improved technique. You will not be able to use your repertoire to build technique effectively until the music is memorized.
  • Better tone. Music that you have memorized will often sound better, because you can focus on hearing it instead of on reading it.
  • Better concentration. You may find that you can give more life to a performance that exists in your mind and is drawn out into the real world than you can to a performance of music read from a page.
  • Performance opportunities. Unless you are extremely diligent about bringing all of your music with you everywhere you go, you will often find that you don’t have any music to play when you are asked to perform. This can be embarrassing and awkward. And the more time you’ve spent developing as a player, the more embarrassed you feel when you can’t even play one little tune when someone asks you to play.
  • Professional opportunities. The ideal performing solo guitar player has a long list of repertoire that can fill hours of time. In fact, if your goal is to do this kind of work, it’s ideal to be able to play 2-3 hours of memorized music in multiple styles.

Consequences of Not Memorizing Music

  • Forgotten repertoire. No matter how long you spend learning a piece of music, unless you memorize it, you only know it 80%. Putting in that extra 20%, and reviewing the tune at least once or twice per month will help you hold on to the music forever.
  • Moving backwards. If you fail to practice (or if you practice unproductively) for a period of time, it is easy to get rusty. This makes your technique feel sloppy. But technique comes back quickly. What can be more discouraging is how little you remember of the songs you used to be able to play. Especially if you are just getting back into it after a period of absence, inability to remember your music will be very demotivating. For some this is a killing blow. After a few months of little practice, they feel they can’t play anymore and then they just want to give up. It’s an illusion, so don’t let it happen. It will come back quickly.

How to Memorize Music

Repetition is not enough.

You can lift a heavy stone over your head every day and never gain the strength to throw it three yards. You can also play tunes from a book every day for 50 years and never memorize one of them—if you don’t try.

Memorizing means making a habit of closing the book.

Commit to Memorize

Know the importance of memorization and commit to memorizing your repertoire. The best way to do this is simply to consider any music which you can’t play from memory to be music that you haven’t learned yet. And if you’ve been playing for 10 years, that idea can be a little uncomfortable.

Divide and Conquer

Psychologists studying memory have established that humans tend to remember the first items and the last items in a list. This is called the serial position effect[1]. In music that means we tend to remember how to play the beginning and the end. Sound familiar? You can beat this by dividing the piece into smaller sections and focus on memorizing those bit by bit. You can also play it backwards: last measure, last two measures, last four measures, until you’ve memorized the whole thing. Remember: it gets easier with practice.

Reduce Larger Pieces to Smaller Excerpts

Unless you’re auditioning for a symphony orchestra, nobody will fault you for having memorized the first section but not the second of a larger body of music. And 99% of the people who hear it will not be familiar enough with it to know that they are hearing an excerpt. And nobody cares. Divide larger pieces into smaller excerpts, and give yourself credit for having learned and memorized them, because it is perfectly alright to play excerpts as performance pieces.

Focus on Methods

If your goal is really to memorize music, develop methods that help you do so. If one method doesn’t work, throw it out and try another.

If Possible, Put Yourself to the Test

Any advanced-level guitar player should be able to use his or her guitar to entertain. And finding a small gig to play a few tunes is a great way to run through your repertoire in a real-life situation. It’s also a lot of fun. The smaller the gig the better. The owner of a small restaurant with a few seats would likely be happy to have free entertainment.

Set Goals and Quantify Them

How many tunes should you be able to play from memory? For how many minutes would you like to be able to play from memory? How many tunes can you play from memory now? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, your chances of memorizing a lot of music are not high.

Choose What to Memorize

You don’t have to memorize every single piece of music you ever play. Memorization is a conscious decision. If the music isn’t interesting or useful enough, forget it! You can keep a “B list” of un-memorized music in a personal PDF or printed book for supplementing your set list.

Last and Most Important: Review!

This is difficult, but you must find a way to conquer this challenge. If you do not review your repertoire, you will forget it all and fall back down to the bottom of the totem pole.

Order matters: The way you organize your practice makes a difference. If you run through the list in the same order, you’re not practicing repertoire, you’re practicing a whole set, and you’ll likely remember it in that order. And the last one will be the weakest. How many times is something going to happen that prevents you from getting all the way to the end? We start out with good intentions but follow-through is difficult. Consider organizing your repertoire practice in a better way. You want a random order, and an even review process.

Repertoire Review Methods

Brute force method: if you’re serious about solo guitar, you can simply make a point of reviewing all of your memorized repertoire at least once per week. Just remember this commitment is only as large as your set list. If you’ve memorized 30 minutes of music, your weekly commitment is only 30 minutes. Once your list is too long to review in a week, you can review each piece once every two weeks, and so on.

Spaced-repetition method: if you’re more pressed for time, and don’t want to devote yourself to the life of the solo guitar player, you can use some spaced-repetition reminders to tell you when a piece needs reviewing again. Spaced repetition works by testing your memory at an increasingly expanding interval. So in the beginning, you will review each piece once per day, but as your confidence goes up, the interval will get bigger and bigger, until it’s a year long. If you can remember a tune from start to finish 365 days after the last time you’ve played it, you might just be on to something.

Carousel method: This method helps avoid the danger of practicing in the same order every time, but is also very simple. Just maintain a simple text list of your repertoire. Even once your repertoire gets extensive, there is probably no real need to divide it into categories. Now, each time you add a new piece, add it to the top. And each time you review, start from the top. Once a piece is reviewed, move it to the bottom. The result is that you will always review each piece once before repeating any item on the list.

For more information about spaced repetition, check out Anki. Adding your repertoire to an Anki flashcard deck would be very, very easy. Just add the title of each piece, and then every day when you practice, you have to recite from memory any flashcard due that day.

Coda

Many musicians who failed to memorize their repertoire have fallen victims to themselves. Memorizing music doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming, but you do need to commit to making it a part of your process.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_position_effect

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