A Guide to Memorizing Tunes

Q: Do you have any tips on how to memorize tunes? I have the hardest time remembering tunes!

A: I’ve been there. But a few years ago, I discovered the key: repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition…

For years, I’ve always been a chart reader on gigs. I never understood how people could memorize so much music. Then one day I got a gig and was forced to memorize a large number of difficult arrangements. Forced into it, I had to find a way.

Two weeks before the first date, I simply ran through the set over and over again. I made charts, used them for days on end and eventually those parts sank in. I then swapped out the charts with cheat sheets to remind me about the song structure. Slowly but surely, I whittled down the amount of visual information I was relying on until I had the tunes under my belt.

Another trick: take the music with you. So even when you don’t have the bass in hand, you can get really familiar with the songs and their structure. Listen while you’re driving, walking around, doing the dishes… any chance you get.

I realized that my problem with learning standards in college was simply the amount of time I devoted to it in conjunction with the fact that I was not listening to jazz in my down time, so I was not internalizing th sound and feel of the music. You really just need to fully absorb yourself in the process and the music.

Like everything with music, there are no short cuts, just hard work and time. Be patient, be diligent and you’ll find success.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Dean Wise

    I’m lucky in this regard because I can listen (actively!) to something once and then play it, barring unusual complexity of course. I used to be strictly a chart reader like yourself, but, in order to work, I ended up playing in lots of rock/top 40/funk and even country bands and discovered that I could pretty much play what I heard. That said, when I want to learn something quickly, I break it down into the individual sections head/chorus/bridge (a-b-c) and then just memorize the pattern numerically i.e. a, b, a, b, c, a X 2 etc…. Seems to work for me!

  2. Here’s where it really gets interesting and why learning and internalizing intervals is so important. I play in a heavy R&B Gospel Band and almost always you find gospel singers who sing in many different keys. It means you have to transpose on the fly so when you get locked down into particular notes/chords for a given song, you set yourself up for a bad surprise. By consistently practicing your scales WITH a metronome, you constanty LOCK in your time in 4/4, 5/4/, 3/4 and whatever else pops up. Work out different fingering patterns for each scale and call out the intervals as you play them. Many times, we have to work without charts to begin with. Our keyboard player cannot read chord charts or notation though has near perfect pitch so he can learn things extremely quickly. I cannot rely on him to tell me anything, so by being so locked in with the intervals and consistent practice (disciplined practice) I can lock it in quick.

  3. how can I learn a song without chords in front of me. I am a huge tully kennedy fan. bassist for jason aldean and I have a hard tine learning his stuff.

  4. Repetition is essential, as you said. Another thing I’ve found useful is that, as soon as I learn the basic parts of a song (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, outro), I convert to a cheat sheet that lays out the parts – and *nothing else. I will then write out the “map” – as small as humnaly possible while still being able to read it – five times in a row. This is a trick I learned from my father that has helped me in many different learning situations.

    Another useful idea is to set the music to my right so that it isn’t right in front of me. Then, while attempting to play from memory, I can refer to music if I have to, but am not staring at it all the time.

    Finally, if possible, I will play along with a recording of the song – without notes of any kind. I find that it’s as close as I can get to playing the song with a band.

    Hope this helps! ~ Lane on Bass – http://www.LaneOnBass.com.

  5. Thanks so much for this! I struggle with this at school at North Texas (of all places) and in the country band I am in. The book has over 50+ tunes and we don’t play them all the time. Sometimes I forget a chord a chord change here and there. I have only been with the group 4 months! Between all the standards I need to have memorized, the tunes I need to have memorized for my lessons and the Country Band tunes…I struggle to say the least. It is starting to affect my confidence and I have been playing Bass over 30 years! I will try the methods you and the others have outlined and pray for some success. Thanks again!


  6. Good advice and it came right on time.

  7. Repitition IS absolutely essential. 1st thing I’d recommend is a LOT of ear training. Get used to hearing intervals and be able to hum melodies and bass lines.

    Then start learning basic forms of songs: intro, verse, pre-chorus, bridge, breakdown, double chorus out etc.

    While you’re listening to the song practice things related to the chord structure: play root/5th/10th to all the chords. Find passing tones, things that make one chord logically go to the next.

    Find the relation between the melody and chords. Many times you can remember by association the chords by what the melody is doing. Rock-bot has 500+ songs, it takes a while to learn but it isn’t impossible at all.

  8. I might also add that the more you memorize songs and structures, the easier it gets over time (whichever mnemonic trick you choose to use) so it’s even worth it in the long run!

  9. Something else to consider is to learn the harmony (chord changes) from the ‘inside’ ie dig into it on a functional level – learn the melody of the tune, the meanings of the chords and how the progression sounds. Once you understand the functional progression eg ‘it’s chord 1 going to 5 going to 6 going to a 2 -5’ it’s a lot easier to memorize as you then have an understanding of the relationships between the chords and the necessary knowledge required to relate the piece you are learning to other things you may be familiar with already. There is almost ALWAYS something you know that is similar to the thing you are trying to learn. I think sometimes people look at charts as a string of letters of the alphabet that they have to learn rather than on a slightly deeper (but way more musical) level that ultimately should make more sense.

  10. I do all that was said in the article.. I would only add that I’ll listen to the song then turn it off and run the song down in my head. Then I find what I haven’t memorized yet. go back listen and then repeat the process till I can run the whole song in my head.
    I memorize numbers not letters. It’s easier to memorize a pattern than the individual chords (e.g. verse is 1625 chorus is 251.rather than 1 , 6, 2, then 5). If I have to quick learn a bunch of songs (esp when subbing), I use the same fingerings so I have a motor memory of the song.
    Finally, a good practice is to take a basic chart from a fake book, look at it once… look for the patterns (e.g. 1 6 2 5,) look at landmarks, where it goes at chorus, bridge etc, then run the song once. Then immediately run the song again without looking at the chart, maybe glancing only a couple of times, then run a 3rd time without looking at all.