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
- You look up the song on YouTube or listen to an mp3 file
- You try to play along
- The music goes to fast to follow, you have to put it on pause
- You try pressing space bar to pause the song, but instead the page scrolls down
- Eventually you find the pause button, and try to drag the slider 10 seconds back
- You press play, quickly grabbing your instrument
- You notice you should have dragged the slider back a little more
- 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.
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.
You can use this link from any browser, including mobile. The URL is www.talkingmusic.net/learn.
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.
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.
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.
- Press Ctrl-K to add a marker to the beginning of the track
- Press Space to start playback of the song
- On every first beat of a new section, press Ctrl-K again to add a marker
- 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.
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.
(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
The 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.