Learning the Song – Part 1: Breaking It Down for Performance

Set listIt’s time for a real life gig story. I was recently given a set list for an upcoming gig… two sets, roughly 25 tunes, mostly classic rock and soul. Glancing over the set list, I saw many tunes that I already knew, so I figured I’d be fine, right?

Guess again.

As it turns out, a couple of the tunes that I knew were different versions of what was actually being called (or they were entirely different songs). As the “newbie” on the gig, I hadn’t known otherwise and was in for a big surprise. Who knew that so many different songs could have the same song title? The band rehearsed the material the night before the gig, so I was able to follow along and make notes regarding arrangements. Thankfully, I had a good enough grasp on the songs that I knew and I was able to adapt to the bands’ version.

The next day, I hit the woodshed to learn more about the tunes that I wasn’t comfortable with.

This experience reminded me of a few very important lessons:

  1. When you learn a tune, try to “internalize” it. You want to understand the flow of the song well enough to allow for different interpretations or flexibility in the arrangement.
  2. If there are different versions of the same tune, it is worthwhile to learn from all of them.
  3. When receiving a new set list, ask the bandleader to clarify which version of a tune they are planning on doing (even if you’re sure that you know) or if they have a specific arrangement.

Lesson #3 is certainly an example of “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve,” but lessons one and two allude to a greater challenge when it comes to learning. That said, this two-part series will focus on key elements of learning and internalizing a song.

Today, we’ll discuss how to break down and learn parts of the song so that you can be prepared to play it like the record or be flexible enough with your knowledge of the song to allow for unique arrangements.

Part two (in two weeks) will highlight the benefits of comparing and contrasting multiple versions of a tune. Whether you’re learning a pop hit, a jazz standard, or a jam tune, familiarizing yourself with different approaches will challenge your ears and your mind.

When you learn a tune, you want to distill it down to some of the “essentials.” This includes:

  1. The key. The key of the song will define the harmony and the chord progression. Sometimes, singers may want to jump up, call a tune, and not define the key… they’ll just expect you to play it like the record. For example, you may be on a bandstand and someone will call “My Girl,” expecting it to sound like the recording. Aside from knowing this iconic bass line, you should be able to tell the rest of the band that you’re in the key of C. Also be aware of key changes within a song, if that applies.
  2. The chord progression(s). Some songs have the same chord progression for the entire song. 12-bar blues tunes, classic songs such as “House of the Rising Sun,” or certain jazz standards will have one set chord progression. Most pop or rock songs will have a few different progressions to mark the separate sections of the song. Usually, the chord progressions will stay true to the overall harmony of the song, but the chords used (or the order of the chords) will change.
  3. The form or arrangement of the song. Intro, Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, bridge, chorus, chorus, outro.
  4. The duration of the different parts of the song. Make sure you know how long each section of the song is (especially the solo, if it’s an iconic, “sing along” solo). Usually, with pop or rock tunes, the sections will have an even number of bars, such as 4 or 8, but each song is different. Be aware of common song-writing tendencies, such as a double-length first verse or a double-length final chorus.
  5. A specific bass groove. This is usually what our “bass driven” ears pick up on. Some songs have very obvious bass grooves, such as “Brick House” or “The Joker,” while other tunes have more subtle bass lines. Regardless of whether it’s a funk tune, a walking bass line, or an 8th note driven rock song, the groove is the groove.
  6. Important “licks.” Some tunes will feature licks that you’ll be expected to play along with the other band members. Think about the lick in “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder or the groove for “Cissy Strut.” Since all of the instruments are playing the same thing, it will be obvious if you’re not with the rest of the band.
  7. Important cues. Sometimes, different transitions within the song are marked by vocal cues or by drum fills. Make a mental note of these things, especially if the chord progression in the song remains the same.
  8. Beginnings, endings, and stops. Know when to come in, when to drop out, and how to end the song.
  9. Dynamics. This can separate a good performance of a song from a great performance of a song. The rhythm section plays a huge part in defining the musical ups and downs, so listen closely to the drummer. The density of what you play (quarter notes vs. eighth notes), the intensity with which you play, your volume, and your articulation, all influence dynamics. If you’re learning a song from a recording, make notes on the different parts of the song and how “intense” they seem. Take a listen to a Tom Petty song, such as “Free Fallin” and identify how much bigger or more dynamic the song seems by comparing the presence of the bass in the quiet verses and in the final choruses.

Once you have a good handle on these elements of a song, you’ll be able to play along with the record, jam on it with some friends, or adapt to a live band’s version of the tune. It’s great to learn a bass line note for note, but picking up on these other musical elements with enhance your relationship with the music. Plus, if you’re playing with other musicians and you have some freedom with your bass line, you’ll be better equipped to improvise and put your own spin on a song. If you’re playing a song that you’ve never played before, keep these ideas in the back of your mind and make mental notes of chord progressions, cues, licks, and dynamics.

Next time, we’ll learn about comparing different versions of the same tune and how that exercise can contribute to your musical knowledge and encyclopedia of grooves.

How about you? Any real-life gig stories or tips you want to share? Tell us in the comments.

Photo by Vince Kmeron

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. If a particular song isn’t going too well, with incorrect lyrics, notes, etc, make sure to make eye contact with the rest of the band in order to get back on track, maybe help out with vocals, lip sync upcoming progression/chord changes, etc..simple communicative gestures do wonders when the song isn’t going as planned.

  2. Ric, you definatly did not rite this.

  3. Yeah, that’s why it says “By Ryan”… because Ric did not write it.

  4. I have been trying to ween myself off using a music stand , with notes that I have taken of charted out Mp3’s that the bandleader has given to me. How do you feel about showing up to a gig with a music stand , notes , and using them, or having them out as a just in case kind if thing.. Damien?

    • I never make excuses for using a music stand. I will try to be as inconspicuous as possible with it though and not keep my eyes totally glued to the paper. If it can be kept just offstage but still in sight if needed all the better.

  5. very good food for thought. cant wait for the second part.

  6. So much of this should be obvious. It’s still amazing to me when I rediscover that it’s not obvious to some folks.

  7. that bass guy

    A few years ago I was invited sit in for a long standing local jazz/funk band. The gig was opening night of a new club on New Years Eve – so no pressure there, just be prepared to play 3 or 4 hours with people you’ve never played with as a group. I might mention that this band was renown for improvising tunes on the spot, things like a jazz/rockabilly version of Superstition. Anyway, I received a set list a couple of days before, so with no rehearsals and only YouTube to play with and get song keys, I took a crash course. For the gig I brought a Real Book along as everybody (except the drummer) could read. We wound up only using the book for a couple of songs.

    The gig went well enough that I became the new bassplayer on the spot and played with the band for 3 more years. Moral of the story: practice, know your scales and fingerboard, know how to improvise in a variety of styles, know how to watch for cues and if you get a chance go listen to the guys you’ll be playing with.

  8. Trey Smith

    Great article…and very timely for me as I just joined a new band and have 37 songs to learn! One of my pet peeves is not having the key on the set list! In this new band they tune to Eb but they don’t do every song down a half step (original fingering, with the detuned instruments), some they play in the original key (thus different fingering)! The logic for when they do or don’t change the key of the song is pretty inconsistent. Essentially they will use the original key if the new fingering on detuned instruments makes it easier for the guitar player, but that is pretty subjective, and the set list doesn’t indicate keys so I live in fear that I’ve learned something in the wrong key, we still haven’t rehearsed yet.