Song Memorization

An elephant never forgets. I am not an elephant.

Our annual Christmas concert is approaching quickly and I have 20 songs to memorize. Again. In five weeks. I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in the woodshed.

One word comes to mind: eek.

How to memorize 20 songs?

I would never memorize a story by learning all of the letters in each of the words in sequential order. I would identify the theme and create an outline of events where I would use my own vocabulary to recreate the story.

Music is a story.

I begin with the basics: tempo and key.

I review the covers of the song to get a sense as to how another guitarist approached the part. I am looking at things like tone, dynamics, interesting guitar parts and musical themes.

I then create the song structure by breaking the song into sections usually like A A B A or Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse. All of a sudden, the song is less difficult to memorize. Most songs have repeating sections, often quite a few repeating sections.

Each section will have a series of chords. Chords typically have a strong relationship to predictable patterns of progressions like I – IV – V (G to C to D) or I – IIm – IV – V (G to Am to C to D). Again, this helps to reduce to challenge of memorization.

Once I have the structure and the chord progression in hand, I go deeper into the musical elements of the song. I consider the phrases, riffs and arpeggios that I will use on the song. And I practice those elements over and over until the muscle memory holds firm (which seems to take longer now as I get older).

With the tempo, key, structure, chord progression and elements for a song firmly in hand, I play the song repeatedly until it becomes automatic. Memorization of 20 songs will take about 40 to 50 hours of practice.

Getting on a stage without charts adds a bit more excitement when playing songs that you only play a few times a year.

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