Memorising songs can be easy, but you need to know the best approach: which is to understand the music!
The wrong way to memorise songs
If you try to simply remember the chords to a song by sheer repetition, you will make slow progress. Any guitar player who’s learned some new songs only to find they struggle to play the ones they were working on a few weeks back from memory knows this! It’s not a limitation of the brain’s capacity for information, but simply that the musician hasn’t memorised the song the right way to begin with.
You can make this kind of “memorisation by repetition” more effective, by breaking the song down into parts and memorising each part in turn, gradually building up your ability to play the song from memory.
However, even this approach breaks down once you’re trying to remember dozens or even hundreds of songs.
A better way to memorise music
The key to memorising songs more easily is to understand what you’re trying to memorise.
The powerful idea here is that it’s easier to remember understanding something, than to remember repeating it.
It’s like the difference between learning how to multiply numbers, and memorising your multiplication tables. Once you understand how to multiply two numbers, it’s something you never forget. You might get slower at doing it if you don’t practice in a while, but you’ll always be able to do it. On the other hand, the multiplication tables you learned by repetition took an awful lot of repeating to drill them into your head, and if you had to remember now what 7 x 9 was, it might take you a moment. In fact, you might even fall back on your understanding of how multiplication works to check you were remembering it right.
The same is true in music.
If you look at the chord sheet for a song and simply see it as a series of letters (e.g. C, C, F, G) then memorising it becomes a slow process of repetition, and the memory will need periodic refreshing if you want to remember it in the long term.
But if you look at that chord sheet and understand the underlying chord progression, you see that it’s a I, I, IV, V sequence, and that’s just like many other such sequences, and you can relate it to the other chord sequences used in the song.
By understanding the progression of chords in terms of their musical meaning, you don’t need to remember the chord letters. If you can hear the song in your head (and you’ve done some chord progressions ear training) you can simply work out the chords in any key whenever you need to.
Ear training is what connects the written music on the page with the way it sounds, and the way you can imagine hearing it in your head. A little bit of chord progressions ear training can therefore save you an awful lot of dull repetitive memorising and leave you with a more flexible ability to play that song.
So next time you’re about to start memorising the guitar chords for a song, STOP!
Instead, spend a little time figuring out the chord progression being used, do some chord progressions ear training, and you’ll never need to remember that song again – because now you understand it instead.