Playing by ear: How I can play a song after hearing it only once

I can clearly remember my high school parties. As I was about 2 years younger than the rest of my classmates, it used to be hard for me to get along sometimes. Usually I attended only the big parties where friends would invite just everyone from the school class. I surely had some fun, but there was one particular party that I will never forget.

As soon as I entered the place, I noticed there was a piano. I immediately knew this was an excellent opportunity for me to shine. After a while I found the courage – with the help of a bottle of something strong – and made my way to the instrument. I sat down and began to play. People kept talking, Kelly Clarkson was playing on the radio. But I hoped people would notice. And they did.

I’m not sure the exact songs I played that evening, but it probably was a mix of some classical and popular pieces, trying everything I could to impress my fellow classmates. As more people gathered around me and the piano, I was actually starting to have fun. But then I noticed my crush had entered the circle as well. I knew she loved to sing so I nervously asked her if she liked to do a song together. But she was just as shy as I was. When we finally convinced her, she said “Ok then.. I can sing Foolish Games by Jewel, can you play that song?”.

Damn! I don’t. I mean.. of course I know it! I must have played it someday in a piano lesson.. but I certainly can’t remember the chords anymore.. I was screwed. I disappointed her and looked stupid for not being able to play this simple song.

Playing by ear

This was about two years after I started playing piano, long before I’ve learned the techniques about playing by ear that I know now. If you would ask me to play this song, I would be able to play it, because I know the song. It may contain mistakes here and there, but I have heard it enough times on the radio to recall the basic structure, harmony, melody and rhythm. In fact it is entirely possible to play any song you have listened to enough times.

It’s all about memorization. To understand how that works, lets review an important memorization principle:

Memorization principle #1:

Memorization involves encoding, retainment and retrieval of information

It’s clear that you have to remember the song to be able to play it later. The principle teaches you that you can improve this at 3 points in time:

  1. when you learn it (encoding),
  2. when you don’t use it (retainment), and
  3. when you recall the information (retrieval).

The moment we recall is where we are most powerless – most you can do is just trying to remember really hard. It can help to try to think about associations you have with it. For example, when I tried to remember the chords of Foolish Games at the party, I could have thought about the video clip, the key of the song, the time period I’ve learned this song, venues I have played it, that particular room I had the lesson with the song, etc. The associations might trigger the original subject you try to remember.

It would have been better if I invested time in retainment. This is what I do nowadays with songs I’m actively trying to memorize – I have created a long list of songs and once in a while I play a random subset of them. This refreshes my memory of the song, and gives me the opportunity to fix parts I have forgotten. What’s interesting is that you sometimes forget the exact notes but you can still play it. Muscle memory tends to be stronger than theoretical memory. This means that there is a point that you are unable to recall the chords or melody, but your fingers still know how to do the trick. Often times you can then refresh your theoretical knowledge by just letting your fingers play and learn from them! Amazing, isn’t it.

But what about songs that I’m not actively trying to memorize? The only retainment of those is listening to them. And these are the moments you learn the song – the most powerful stage of memorization. This is the moment you can actively build associations, which works best by considering as many aspects of the music as possible.

There are not many aspects for a non-musician to discover other than lyrics, groove and feelings or memories associated with the song. But for us musicians, we listen to a song in a completely different way. We can clearly define chord progressions, instruments used, climax build-up or suspension etc. It’s a feature that we sometimes would like to turn off – especially when composing – but we have to deal with it. So let’s use it to our advantage. Because God how amazing can it be! All the knowledge we possess about music theory can enrich listening to music in so many ways.

The benefits of understanding music

Here is what applying theory to a song adds to the experience:

  • You can get surprised by an unexpected chord or break thinking “oh my god what happened there?!”
  • You have more empathy for the composer – you understand why a song turns in a certain way and the choices the writer made in the creative process
  • It adds reproducable ideas to your own creative palette

Yes, it might lose some of the ‘magic’ as well. But trying to deconstruct by knowledge might be just as exciting in a different way. It’s the same with food. Before I learned how to cook, a nice pasta was just a nice pasta and vegetables were just that. But since I studied some books on how to cook and tried special techniques in the kitchen, food has become a lot more interesting. Ordering a meal at a restaurant is a more exciting experience because I am curious about the way my dish will be prepared. When I eat I try to distinguish flavors. Without the knowledge I gained through books I would have never tasted the parsley in my Fettuccine Napolitana, let alone understood that this is a very uncommon pairing.

Learning by listening

So when you learned how to memorize a song while listening (I’ll talk about how to do that in a minute), the second skill you require is to apply musical knowledge when you play. You are not going to remember all details, and it should not be the goal. You want to memorize just enough of the song to be able to play it so that people will recognize it and be able to sing along. The parts you forget will need to be ‘filled in the gaps’. A skill that is very similar to improvisation.

So, how should you listen to songs? First and foremost, don’t push yourself to make every song an exercise – you should still be able to enjoy listening to music. However, the better you become at this, the easier it will be to focus on the elements you need to memorize. Let’s recall the 5 basic elements of music:

Song principle #1: A song is characterized by its Structure, Melody, Harmony, Rhythm and Timbre

These are the 5 points you want to focus on in this process. I use the following steps when I try to deconstruct a song by listening:

  1. Start focussing on chord progessions.
    There are a few reasons why harmony is the best choice to begin to focus on. At first, melody and rhythm are often too ambigious. If I sing you a random melody, it is hard to memorize it without context. Same with rhythm – there are actually not that many differentiating factors in rhythm and for many songs it’s not a defining factor (except for ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ maybe). So you need to create a basic understanding of the context, that is, the harmony of the song. Figuring out chord progessions is a skill that takes practice (an article on daily practice routines will be published soon – a big part of that is focussed on chords and progressions).

    1. Focus on the first chord of the chorus. Find out if it’s major or minor. If you are unsure, here’s a trick you can try. If you think the chord is major, try to imagine the minor version in your head. You’ll find out that you will be unable to do that if the chord was already minor.
    2. Try to determine the second chord of the chorus. Initially only if it’s major or minor, but ultimately you want to find its relationship with the first chord. Start simple:
      1. Imagine the first chord was C if it was major or Am if it was minor. Also, imagine playing them on your instrument. It often helps to think about real chords and leave the abstract. Imagine yourself with your instrument. Sometimes you feel your hands go to the next chord by itself, thanks to the connection between music- and muscle memory.
      2. You can also listen to what the bass is doing: the chords themselves might be played using inversions. This means the pitch can go up while the chord is actually lower on the scale. The bass (usally) plays the root note so if you can find out where it goes, you found the root note of your second chord. This does require familiarity with intervals, but that’s an easy skill to acquire.
      3. If the bass can not help you, try to figure out if the second chord is major or minor as well. If the progression doesn’t sound too strange, you can assume the chord is close to the original chord on the circle of fifths. Let me give an example of how that goes:

        You’ve figured out that the first chord was major and you think the second chord is probably major as well. You imagine the first chord to be C (even though it might be something else). Being the first chord of the chorus, there is a high probability the song is written in C major. The only other major chords in this scale are F and G. Indeed, these are the two chords closest to C on the circle of fifths.

        circle_of_fifths_c_fg
        Circle of fifths – Sub-dominant and dominant chords F and G are closest to root chord C

        Although less likely, the song may have been written in F major or G major as well. C would then be the 5th or 4th chord respectively and the second chords chould be Bb or D. As you can see, these are the next chords in the circle, and this goes on all the way to F#. A progression from C to F# would be highly unlikely – in fact I’ve never heard such a progression. If you did, please tell me the name of that song in the comments.. that would be highly interesting!

        circle_of_fifths_c_fis
        Circle of fifths – C and F# are furthest apart from one another

        The whole process works similar with minor chords and mixes of major or minor. For example, when the first chord is major but the second one is minor, in order of likeliness the second chord will be: Am, Dm or Em, Gm or Bm, etc.

      4. If you have a little more ear training with recognizing chord functions, it will help a lot. This is the technique I use most often to quickly determine the chord progression. The big advantage is the fact that it is insensitive to pitch. For example, if you imagine the first chord to be C and the next chord is actually a Bm that is played higher than the first C, it’s hard to imagine the progression is actually going down.
        The Bm chord is played in first inversion, so it sounds higher than the C chord. Click the play button for a sound example.
        The Bm chord is played in first inversion, so it sounds higher than the C chord. Click the play button for a sound example.

        See? You’d think the second chord is above C somewhere. However, if you’ve listened to the function of the chords, you might recognize this as a IV-iii progression. I want to emphasize that a higher level of ear training is needed, but all is possible with proper training. This is true because you can gradually increase difficulty (definition of trainable), and start by learning to recognize the most basic progression I-IV-V-I and build from there.

    3. Continue hopping from chord to chord to find individual relations. Try to notice anything exceptional, like strange tones (blue note? dorian?), modulations and unsuspected minor chords (iv6?)
  2. Pay attention to structure.
    Now this can be a tough one. I’ve always found it hard to memorize the amount of measures per line, lines per verse, verses before the chorus, etc. Even the songs I’ve listened to a million times – if I had to play those without a lead sheet or any accompanion, I’d be lost in how many times to repeat the verse and chorus or when the bridge should begin. This means there is no unconciousness memorization going on like there is with melody and rhythm. You have to pay attention. The way I like to tackle this is to memorize the deviations from the usual pattern: V C V C B C. A lot of songs have this structure, so there is nothing to memorize if this is the structure of the song you are trying to learn. Any irregularity stands out and should be actively memorized.

    Lets take a difficult example. The song Fantasy by Earth Wind & Fire has the following structure: I V P V P C I C C C C C C. Highly irregular with all the verses and pre-chorusses in the beginning of the song, and all the chorusses at the end. This anomaly by itself makes me able to memorize the song better, because it’s something special and out of the ordinary. When hearing a song for the first time, it’s nearly impossible to first find out the structure, and then remember it. Luckily, in most situations it’s okay if you don’t have the structure exactly right. The other band members or vocalist might guide you into the right direction.

    For the adventurous

    The way I would tackle this is to find patterns and groups.
    ‘Fantasy’ can be splitted in 3 groups: I2(VP) – CICC – 4(C*).
    – The intro and verses, the buildup part
    – Three times the chorus with a repetition of the intro in between
    – A modulation with another four chorusses.

  3. Melody and rhythm (almost) go by themselves.
    Memorization requires some sort of algorithm based on associations. As a musician, you have one of the best algorithms already available: the music. Maybe you know a lot of songs already. Don’t you think it’s amazing that you can memorize something abstract as a chord progression for so many different songs? It’s only 7 letters wich are repeated in many different orders and variations. Still you know which progression is linked to which song.

    It’s because you associate them with the sound of the song, which is a very strong differentitating factor. Melody and rhythm can have even stronger associations than chords, thanks to lyrics and phrasing. Even non-musicians can memorize songs – the challenge for the musician is to translate what is heard to notes. It’s one of the most basic (though not simple!) solfege exercises: being able to repeat a melody on your instrument after you’ve heard it. By now you’ve figured out the chords, so the first thing you should think about is where the first note is in relation to the chord. Take for example ‘Someone like You’ by Adele. The first chord of the verse is the tonic (I), a major chord which we envision to be C to make things easy. Now in theory, there are 12 notes that Adele can sing. But we can rule out many of them at once: popular music uses only notes inside the scale, sometimes with the addition of the blue note (b3) or the dominant 7 (b7). So we’re left with

    keyboard_notes_likeliness
    In the key of C, it is unlikely for a pop song melody to contain C# (b2), F# (b4) or G# (b6). Color intensity represent likeliness of a note to be in the melody.

    That’s still 9 possible notes. Luckily, the start of a phrase is almost always with a note inside the chord. That’s either C, E or G. C is the easiest to recognize, because it strengthens the tonic quality. If you listen closely to the first word Adele sings, ‘I’, you notice it does that. If that would be the only thing she sang, the song could end there. That is a strong indicator that the note is the tonic. Each of the 9 notes have their own characteristic, which you can practice and study. For example, the 3 emphasizes the major quality, while the 5 sounds like an exclamation.

  4. Timbre is about details. Many songs are recognizable on whichever instrument they are played, however using the right sound and dynamics can make it sound much more like the original. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and you need to be creative. In a piano version of Lucy in the sky with Diamonds (The Beatles), I might replace the vibrato of the guitar melody with slightly delayed octaves to get a similar effect.If you have more colors to choose from, you should use that opportunity to get closer to the original. Examples would be using synthesizers or effect pedals for guitar. Now it makes sense to pay attention to instrument details when listening to a song. When the time comes to reproduce the song, you want to know what the original instruments and effects are.

When it’s time to play

So you did your job, you’ve listened closely to the song and now it’s time to recall what you still know. It starts with deciding on the key. If you’ve remembered the original key – either by ear or from sheet music – that helps. But any key can work, because you’ve memorized relationships – not the actual chord names.

In the next video I’ve recorded myself learning a song I’ve never heard before. I will talk you through all of the thought patterns related with the steps I described above.

I encourage you to listen more closely the next time you listen to the radio. There is a LOT to discover in songs that goes unnoticed by most people. The added benefit is that you will be able to recall the song much better later on. Might save you a date.

 

Rehearsals: Don’t waste your time in the practice room

Rehearsals. You either love them or hate them. I’ve always had a mixed relationship with rehearsing. In one way it’s exciting to create new songs, play together, try things out. But it could also be very tiresome to practice the same songs over and over again, working on the details while you just want to play and have fun with music.

I’m convinced rehearsals should be fun, always. It should be a good mix of the joy of making music and working hard on improving/creating new songs. If the hard work is challenging, then that is fun as well.

How to make hard work challenging and FUN

The hard work usually contains a lot of decision-making. What to do with the bridge; shall we leave the solo in or out; what kind of sound would fit here; the guitarist should be silent here but he does not agree; etc. This leads to decision fatigue, which in turn leads to bad decisions. To make this process easier, work as follows:

3 step Decision-making Process

  1. Propose an idea for change
  2. Without discussion, try out the idea
  3. Vote if it was an improvement. If not, discard.

The reason why this works so well is that you remove discussion – a source for disagreement and tension within the group. The creator of the idea will make sure he expresses it very clear and convincing, as he knows there is no further discussion possible and once voted down, it’s discarded.

Rehearsals involve a lot of decision making. Path of arrows.

On the other hand, it requires that everyone gets the opportunity to propose their ideas without fear of rejection or disapproval. Pay attention to the more shy people in your group and actively ask them if they have ideas.

You will find that an open environment where everybody’s input is appreciated to be nice to work in. The ‘hard work’ of practicing the same song over and over is no longer boring, and becomes an active process that invites you to come up with ideas. If everybody can play the song and is out of ideas, it makes no sense to practice that song anyways. Which brings me to the next very important element in having fun with rehearsals: doing it efficiently and effectively. Nobody wants to waste their time, right?

How to make rehearsals effective and FUN

It all starts with a proper setup. In my studio, I have seen many bands that come in unprepared:

  • They don’t know what gear / cables / stands are available in the room
  • There is no plan
  • They spend a large amount of their time unpacking and hooking up their instruments

The first point should be tackled by a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. Once you’ve done many gigs you’ve learned this principle the hard way: basic stuff isn’t available or the stuff you have breaks the moment you need it. Prepare a kit with extra cables, spare strings, extra adapter, etc. Take that same kit to your rehearsals, because – you won’t believe it – stuff breaks there too.

So you come in and you start unpacking, right? Not so fast buddy. Pay attention to your line up. It’s a good idea to always stand in the same formation – it will teach you to instinctively look to your left when you need to contact the drummer, for example. Find your spot and unpack. Hardware first, cables last.

SOUNDCHECK

Once everything is prepared it’s time for the soundcheck. Also in rehearsal rooms, it is important to do a serious soundcheck:

  • You will gain experience with how to adjust volume and effects
  • You learn to pay attention to how everything sounds together
  • You are able to hear yourself and the other band members well

Usually there is no monitoring available in a rehearsal room. If your band has in-ear monitoring that is great, but if not it will be hard for everybody to hear themselves and the other players well. Let’s dissect the problems that arise for a regular band (drummer, bass player, guitarist, vocalist) when they enter a room without (enough) monitors available.

For the vocalist it is crucial to be able to hear their own voice. Without monitoring, this has to come from the PA which means the vocals need to be mixed with a higher volume than the rest of the music. The guitarists can use their own amplifiers as monitors for themselves. If the amp is pointed straight towards the guitarist, but away from the rest of the band, the guitarist can hear himself well while the others are not blown away by the guitar sound. Finally the drummer needs to make sure he can actually hear the rest of the band from behind his loud instrument. This can be achieved if we place the speakers of the PA behind the drummer, and the amps of the guitarists towards the drummer as well.

Image of the best possible line up for rehearsals in practice rooms when there are no monitors. Guitar amps are pointed towards the drummer and the guitarists, but away from the vocalist and other members. P.A. is behind the drummer so he can hear the vocalist well.
The best line up when there are no monitors. Guitar amps pointed towards the guitarists and drummer, P.A. behind the drummer. This image was made by using third-party objects.

Now its time to try a short section of one of your most powerful songs to make sure everyone can hear each other well. Check? Lets do the warm-up

WARM UP

Most of us musicians just love to play. The more the better, right? So it makes sense to release some tension after the setup phase. Unpacking and sound checking can be boring and frustrating at times. I prefer to warm up with a jam, if that’s what your band is in for. It boosts creativity and openness, which is the right way to start an effective and joyful session.

THE PLAN

So, each band member knows their parts and the songs that will be practiced today. No?

Work on a plan

This part should already have been prepared before you entered the practice room and each band member should have been familiar with it. It’s surprising how many bands come together to practice while they have no idea what they are going to play – how the hell can you prepare for that? A well structured plan is crucial for so many reasons. But let’s start with the practical side of things: How should you create a plan?

  1. Every once in a while (every 3 – 6 months), organize a band meeting. Let every member communicate:
    1. Their ideas for the band
    2. Their feelings about how things are progressing
    3. Achievements and goals
  2. With these ideas and goals, draft together a global plan to reach the goal.
  3. Break the plan in smaller chunks: a rehearsal plan.

Let’s take an example. A band wants to add 10 cover songs to their repertoire before November (week 44). They’re also working on their first album, which they plan to release by the end of this year. Oh and then there’s a gig coming up November 8th. Their global plan looks like this:


Schedule for planning rehearsals

Now they need to think about the amount of rehearsals they need to achieve their goals. Most bands prefer to pick a fixed day and time every week – the amount of rehearsals is fixed and they distribute their goals along the available time. I’m not opposed to doing it this way, but there are two pitfalls:

  • You spread too small amounts of work on too many rehearsals, thereby wasting time
  • Rehearsing becomes a dull routine when you do it weekly at set times

A fixed day and time has the advantage of easier scheduling, and that may outweigh the disadvantages for your group. Just make sure to keep these pitfalls in mind. With a fixed schedule I suggest you adjust the amount of work to the available practice time: study 12 cover songs instead of 10 or advance the album release. Don’t spread just because you have the time.

As this band is an advanced group of musicians, they understand practising cover songs is mostly self-practice. Therefore they schedule rehearsals only once every two weeks. At time of rehearsal, they make sure they can play their parts flawlessly – all that’s left to do in the practice room is to make their parts fit together.

Realizing they need to practice for the gig as well, they make a more detailed plan for the first 10 weeks:


Schedule for planning rehearsals

Notice how the workload is kept as constant as possible. By recognizing time is needed to practice the gig setlist and to review previous studied cover songs, they plan to learn more new covers in the first rehearsals. If they have issues with a particular song, or lack behind, they have the ability to plan an additional rehearsal in the odd-numbered weeks in-between.

If you don’t take the time to sit down with pencil and paper to draft such a plan, you are not going to spend your time as efficient as possible. Moreover, your work load is spread unbalanced over the available time and you risk not getting things done. Take 10 minutes each band meeting (2-4 times a year) and make a plan. Thank me later.

Once you’ve all agreed on the global plan, you should create more concrete plans for each rehearsal. The way I prefer to do this is to have the band leader decide on the actual songs to be prepared for next session, at the end of each rehearsal. So for example, at the end of the rehearsal in week 38, the band leader repeats the plan for week 40: ‘2 new cover songs and rehearsal of the previous 6 cover songs’, and the band decides which cover songs they want to play (you may decide all of this upfront during the band meetings, but in my experience it keeps it more exciting to leave things undecided and to not blindly follow a fully defined plan. Fix the global plan, fill in details later on.)

It’s a good idea to have a band leader. Someone who cuts ties in hard decisions. I prefer the vocalist to fulfill this role, as he/she:

  • Has to carry out the main message to the public, and therefore needs to fully agree with it
  • Doesn’t have to spend a lot of time during packing/unpacking: the perfect moment to chitchat about the plan and focus while the other members are getting their instruments ready

So, back to the rehearsal room. The band members decided last time they want to practice Stairway to Heaven and Summer of ‘69 today, and work out a new idea of the guitarist. Everyone practiced their parts at home and today they work on the songs together.

PRACTICE

We are at the core of the rehearsal session. As we have planned to study 3 songs today, it’s tempting to divide the 3-hour session into three 1-hour parts. Don’t do that. Just start with one of the three songs (Stairway to Heaven, Summer of ‘69, new song) and see where it will take you. Sometimes it’s easy and you’re done within 20 minutes. Move on to the next song, because that one might take you 2 hours. If you run out of time, continue the next rehearsal session. At some point you will get caught up, or you will find your planning was too tight. In that case, you might be able to plan an extra rehearsal. In any case, don’t rush just to keep aligned with the planning.

Efficient practice requires intense focus. Making music can give you a tremendous lot of energy, but it still makes sense to spend time on recovery as well. Don’t fear to take a break in your session. It might bother you that time in the rehearsal room is expensive, but it pays back to start the second part of your rehearsal with a fresh mind.

You notice I advice to spend a considerable amount of time on ‘overhead’: build up gear, sound check, taking breaks. The time this takes is constant per session, so it makes sense to book longer sessions. Three hours is sort of the usual de-facto rehearsal time, but it would be better to book one 6-hour session instead of two 3-hour sessions. Here are the reasons why:

  • It saves you one build-up break-down cycle, and a sound check. That’s 30 minutes (almost 10%!)
  • A 6-hour time period is a considerable amount of someone’s day – it makes the band members more devoted to the session, as opposed to a 3-hour session in the evening which is just one of many daily tasks someone has.
  • You feel less pressure to spend your time well all the time. Suddenly taking a break feels normal.
  • Often you can get a discount for longer sessions

FIXING ERRORS

Band practice is much like individual practice. The same principles of effective practice apply, for example:

  • Don’t mindlessly play songs over and over
  • Spend most of your time on
    • parts that contain errors
    • transitions
    • intros/outros

The added component is the group interactions. If you apply my 3-step decision-making process, you will tackle any issues on that part.

EVALUATION

At the end of rehearsals – you can do this while packing your gear – talk to each other. Is everybody happy with the progress (both individual and of the band)? It is a good idea to record your full sessions and share them afterwards. Nobody is going to relisten 3 hours of rehearsal footage, but you will capture new ideas that otherwise might be forgotten.

Can rehearsing be FUN?

What do you think? Share this article with other members in your band and talk about it. It takes everyone’s understanding to create an effective and productive practice session. Practice makes progress!


Why I learn a new song every day (and why you should too)

What excites me most about playing the piano – or any instrument for that matter – is being able to play a song in my own way. My favorite songs, all of those beautiful, deeply moving songs, those I associate a lot of emotions with. It’s something that can be experienced by just listening, but when you play the song it is like you really tap in to it. The video equivalent would be stepping inside a movie – not only can you move around, you are able to change the story to whatever you imagine.

Playing around with cover songs is just a lot of fun. It might not be the best way to improve your technique – you tend to fall back to techniques you are familiar with. I’ve found Jazz or Classical studies with sheet music to be far more effective for studying technique. It does however improve your improvisation skill and overall creativity. In some way you need to translate a song you know, to a transcription for your instrument only.

But learning a song takes time. Memorizing them even more. A clear sign that it’s a good idea to think about how to improve that process. Memorization techniques deserve their own article, so  in this one I will focus on the other parts of the process: eliminating overhead, and how to create a comfortable environment to study.

The usual process of learning a song

  1. You look up the song on YouTube or listen to an mp3 file
  2. You try to play along
  3. The music goes to fast to follow, you have to put it on pause
  4. You try pressing space bar to pause the song, but instead the page scrolls down
  5. Eventually you find the pause button, and try to drag the slider 10 seconds back
  6. You press play, quickly grabbing your instrument
  7. You notice you should have dragged the slider back a little more
  8. You try to press pause again…

Looks familiar? Furthermore, you tend to focus on the chords. As long as you have the chords in mind, the melody will follow from memory, you think. Also, you try to memorize those chords like a string of letters, ‘C Am F G’, without noticing the relationship. Maybe you pay attention to the overall rhythm, but specific bass patterns are ignored. Oh and noticing structure? Ain’t got time for that.

Is this how you approach learning a new song? STOP. With a little less effort but following a structured process, you will be able to learn a song much faster – and memorize it better afterwards as well.

  1. Download the song
    Don’t listen to it using the crappy YouTube web player or on your smartphone. Those interfaces are not user-friendly when you are sitting behind your instrument. You need a player that you can control with your keyboard: navigating the mouse from a bad position is stressful, hitting shortcuts on the keyboard is not. I recommend you load the song into Ocenaudio. That program is free, multi-platform (Windows, OSX, Linux), and has excellent features to navigate through the song by keyboard. Also just a really nice program to have for quick and simple audio edits – it certainly belongs to the toolkit of any serious musician. You can use any other audio editor you like, but make sure it allows you to place markers, navigate by keyboard, and has realtime effect preview capability. I haven’t found any other editor that can do all of that, but I’d be happy to hear about it if you do!

    I use streaming services to listen to music nowadays, so I don’t have much .mp3 files laying around anymore. My usual source for music is YouTube. How to get a song from YouTube into Ocenaudio? You have to browse to youtube, search for the song, await the advertisment, copy the URL to a YouTube downloader website, click the download button.. Still not the most efficient method. So that’s why I decided to write a YouTube downloader! And I’m sharing it with you.

    song_finder_screenshot

    You can use this link from any browser, including mobile. The URL is www.talkingmusic.net/learn.

  2. Look up the chords (but only if you need to)
    There’s a lot of crap out there on the internet. I’m confident in saying that most of the tabs and chords you find online are not 100% accurate. I’m making up numbers here, but it seems about one fifth are just plain wrong. Now this doesn’t mean you should not look up chords and tabs, but you should be aware that they could contain mistakes. It’s perfectly normal if you depend on them if your ear training is not good enough yet to figure out the chords by yourself. But do the best you can to verify if they are correct. Is the chord written down really what you hear in the song? As my ear improved, I started moving away from tabs and chord sheets. However, I still check them every now and then, just to see if there’s not something weird I might have missed. For example, I’ve played the wrong bass notes in Africa (Toto) for years, until I saw a chord sheet with all those slash chords. Even though the sheet was wrong for another chord, it helped me figure out the right chords for the verse. So, what resources do I suggest? I just Google. It’s hard to mention one particular website for chords, because not a single one has all songs in their database. Just use Google and pick the most promising one.

  3. Split the screen
    If you have two monitors, that’s great. Ocenaudio on the left, chords on the right. If you have only one screen, or a small laptop, we need a different approach. You can either split the two windows in half by using Win+left and Win+right, or use Alt-Tab to switch between Ocenaudio and the browser.

  4. Mark sections in Ocenaudio
    There are dozens of audio editors, but what makes Ocenaudio amazing is that it allows you to place markers and control them by keyboard.

    1. Press Ctrl-K to add a marker to the beginning of the track
    2. Press Space to start playback of the song
    3. On every first beat of a new section, press Ctrl-K again to add a marker
    4. When done, click Edit > Split Audio at Markers

    When you place a marker you are able type a name (e.g.  ‘verse 1’, ‘bridge’, etc.). This is useful later when you need to browse sections, which will appear in the left pane.

  5. Loop sections and play what you hear
    Press Ctrl-L to activate loop. Each section will be played indefinitely so you can listen and find out the right notes on your instrument. If you need to divide your section into even smaller sections, you can repeat the process.

  6. (Optional) Use the equalizer to filter your instrument
    Sometimes it is really difficult to find out the exact notes being played because there are so many other instruments in the mix. You can use an equalizer to boost the frequencies of the instrument you want to hear, and fade the others. This takes a little practice. The equalizer can be found under Effects > Equalization > 11-Band Graphic Equalizer. Make sure to click the wheel icon and select ‘Playback Loop’. One of the unique features of Ocenaudio is that you you have realtime preview of the equalizer; something that Audacity for example does not have. On the other hand, A dacity can slow down tracks which is a feature that is missing from Ocenaudio. However, when trying to understand fast sequences I find it to be sufficient to just create very short sections and listen them one by one.

One final note about Ocenaudio is that you are able to define your own keyboard shortcuts Edit > Preferences > Key Bindings. So you can assign a shortcut to the split function (I use Ctrl-Q) and the equalizer (I use Ctrl-E). Remember, you want to control this program with your keyboard. For more navigation tips, watch the video where I explain this process in detail.

Memorizing the song

Sheet musicThe above workflow allows you to study a song quickly, but you will need some extra effort to retain the music in memory (but only if you want to. This article suggets a musician can only memorize 5 to 10 hours of music!). Explaining the best way to memorize requires many another articles, but let me share the most important steps with you which are often ignored:

  • Now you’ve studied the song, look back and pay attention to the structure. That means, the sequence of verses and chords and any special sections likes breaks and modulations.  Having a clear structure in your mind helps to memorize. It’s like creating a closet in your brain where each sequence of chords is put in its own drawer.
  • Determine the harmonic function of each chord, and try to understand their relationship. You should at least find the tonic. Do this for each section and for the song as a whole. This is crucial for any type of improvisation or transposition you would like to do later on.
  • Play the song again tomorrow. Revisit parts you are struggling with. If you can still play it well, play it again one week later. You can keep lengthening the intervals, but make sure to repeat or you will forget the song eventually.
  • If you like to play the melody as well (e.g. on piano), beware. It’s often hard to get it exactly right because there are many variations on the same theme. For example the second verse might have the same structure as the first one, but the words are of slightly different length so the melody is slightly different as well. Remembering those details can be done, but requires more practice. The best advice I can give you here is to learn the lyrics, as they are a guideline to the melody.

I will dive deep into the why and how of many of these memorization techniques in later articles.

Do it every day

By learning a new song every day, daily practice becomes something you look forward to. You create a routine for yourself that is fun and you train yourself in listening, music theory and instrument practice, all at once. Of course some songs take way longer to completely master, but that’s not the goal here. You are training to play a new song as best as you can with limited time. You can always later decide to do a deeper study on the song.

From experience I know that the likelihood of sticking to a new routine is much bigger when it’s easy to get started and setting yourself up can be done quickly without too much of an effort. Overcoming the first hurdle of taking action. Every tool that can make that process easier is helpful, so that’s why I created the Talking Music Song Finder. Drag that link to your bookmark bar, so you can click it whenever you want to learn a new song! All you have to do is enter the title and artist, and the song finder will:

  • Find 4 YouTube videos
  • Play the YouTube video you like on the page itself
  • Download the mp3 of a video with 1 click!
  • Find the chords

All together in one page. Feel free to share the song finder with other musicians as well.

Good luck with studying and have fun along the way!

P.s. You have no clue and need some inspiration what song to learn? Toto is always great fun to play.