Step 1 – Four Measure Phrase Segmentation

Break the song down to four measure segments and take one segment to memorize each practice session. Just like when we eat a meal we don’t shove it all in our mouth, we eat pieces of each dish slowly and taste the flavors and textures of the food. Learning a song takes the same concentration and focus. By breaking down a piece of music into smaller segments, we can learn the nuances of a piece and notice the reason and meaning behind the composer’s choices for the melodic accompaniment.

Step 2 – Match the Melody With the Chords

Notice which note of the chord that the melody is accentuating. If the segment you are learning has one note per chord you can just remember which note of the chord is in the melody, but if the melody has several notes per chord, you can see what chordal tone the melody is accentuating. Normally they are upper or lower neighbors and chromatic leading tones.

Step 3 – Look for Repetition/Learn the Form

Most songs have a recognized form they follow. If it’s a traditional jazz tune it may be AABA form or if it’s a pop tune you most likely have a verse/chorus format. Within the form there is usually repetition of the same chord changes and once you’ve learned that segment all you have to remember is to repeat that section.

For instance, AABA form is a 32 bar form made of 8 measure segments. Each “A” section is the same and there is an 8 measure “B” section that is different. All you have to do to memorize the chord changes to a tune in this format is memorize 16 measures (the 8 measure “A” section and the 8 measure “B” section) and you have the whole tune.

Step 4 – Transpose the Song

To really know that you have memorized a song’s changes you need to change the key and see if you can play the song in that new key. This exercise forces your mind to think about the intervals as opposed to the actual chord names. It bridges both hemispheres of your brain and gives you another tool to use to remember the changes. Similar to the way some people remember exits on a highway by the numbers and other people remember the name of the exit, if you practice both, you will have mental “backup” in case you are distracted at a performance.