In this article, I'll show you the way to memorize a song that will help you play with more confidence, expression, creativity, accuracy and enjoyment than ever before.
Seven Simple Steps to Memorizing Songs Successfully
Learn to play the melody of a song with your right hand. Be sure to play with correct timing using with effective fingering-use the same fingering every time you play the song
Write the chords of a song on an index card in 4 measure sections
Play the accompaniment of the song while reading the chords on the index card
Practice playing the song with both hands following the chords on the index card
Keep your index card with you and memorize the chords away from the piano
Learn 4 measures sections of the song at a time while thinking of the chord names as you play
Play the entire song from memory at least 2X every day
In one of my other blog articles, I've mentioned the importance of focusing on the left hand accompaniment as the secret to playing with good timing and rhythm. When it comes to memorizing songs, the left hand accompaniment part i.e. the chords, is actually the key to memorizing a song successfully. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.
Why Is It So Important to Memorize the Chords of a Song?
Years ago, a guitarist friend of mine was working with a jazz organist, named Walter, who played exclusively by ear. They would rehearse the songs for an upcoming performance a few days ahead of time. On the night of the gig, when they were on the band stand, my friend said "Walter, let's play I Could Write a Book". The Walter would silently sing through the song at a fast speed in his head and reply, "no". My friend was in shock. What he eventually learned and shared with me was that the organist could "hear" every chord of the song in his head. IF there was even one measure of the song when Walter couldn't "hear" the correct chord, he would not play the song because it meant he would have to "fudge it" in that spot.
With this new knowledge in mind, I discussed this situation with my composition teacher, William Thomas McKinley, who was also an incredible jazz pianist. To my amazement, Tom told me that he felt the same way that Walter the organist did. The only difference was that Tom was an extremely knowledgeable and educated musician who knew music inside and out. Yet, if Tom was on a gig leading his jazz trio with bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Billy Hart, he would NOT play a song if there was a spot where he could clearly "see" the chord(s) of the song.
How to Apply the Seven Steps to Memorizing a Song Successfully
Here are 4 index cards. Each card contains all of the chords in one song.
Keep a few cards with you at all times.
When you have a free moments, review a few measures of a song.
Follow These Seven Steps to Memorize a Song
When it comes to playing the right hand melody by heart, Muscle Memory is the key to accuracy. If you use the SAME fingers every time you play a piece of music, your fingers fall into place each time. Be sure your fingering is effective though (that's where a good teacher can really help). Over the years, students have come to me and said, "I don't know anything about music after 8 years of piano lessons, but I can still play my recital piece." That IS truly muscle memory. Your musical ear will also help you to memorize and help you locate the notes.
Most standards from the Great American Songbook are 32 measure long and most of the these songs include repeats. As a result, it's easy to fit the chords for 4 measures on each line, marking the repeats.
When you put the index card on the piano and start playing the song, you'll be amazed at how much simpler the song looks compared to the sheet music you've been reading. Get used to connecting the names of the chords (and eventually the chord progressions that they represent) with the actual style and notes of the left hand accompaniment that you are playing (muscle memory again), so that you'll begin to internalize what you are playing.
Although it may be challenging at first, you will eventually become comfortable playing the song with both hands while reading the chord names on the index card. This process will take several days and even a couple of weeks of consistent practice, but it will pay off.
Since 3 x 5 index cards are close to the size of a cell phone, you can easily slip them into your pocket or purse for quick reference. The idea is to work on memorizing the chords in song order when you are AWAY from the piano. This ensures true memorization without the fingers and sound there to help you. Where you are waiting for a table at a restaurant, sitting in the salon waiting to be called for your hair cut, bored with commercials while watching TV, you can take a few moments to work on memorizing four measures of your song.
Get back to the piano and without the index card in front of you, try to play the first four measures of the song completely from memory. You may need to go back and forth from the index card, but make it your goal for a couple of days to truly memorize the first four measures of the song while thinking of the chord names as you play. You can then play the rest of the song following the chords on the index card to keep it in shape until you eventually complete the memorizing-4-measures-at-a time process.
Once you have your song completely memorized, play it 2x per day, every single day. This will imprint the song in your musical memory. But make sure to think of the names of each chord in your head while you play the song. Remember, how organist Walter responded to my friend and what Tom McKinley said about his performing. YOU want to KNOW your songs.
Want help learning to memorize your favorite songs? Taking piano lessons with Diana Mascari will certainly accelerate your learning process.
Diana Mascari has taught piano to hundreds of adults and children for more than 40 years. She holds two Masters of Music degrees from New England Conservatory and taught keyboard harmony to music majors while pursuing doctoral studies at Boston University. Her work as music director for a multi-cultural Presbyterian Church has continued for four decades, and her jazz and classical compositions have been performed worldwide. Diana has been performing for more than 50 years. From solo jazz piano (her first love) to commercial groups touring the East Coast to leading her own jazz ensembles at many colleges and jazz clubs throughout New England.