Learning new songs is a great way to learn music. You can dig into the songwriting and can appreciate the lyrics, form and all parts of songwriting at a deeper level. You also are often learning new chords, strumming patterns and techniques and the whole time you’re working at getting those new tools under your belt you’re gaining a new piece of rep you love.
Here are the steps I take and some of the techniques and things I’ve done to learn a new song going all the way back to my first violin and piano lessons, my opera studies in college and even now as a full time singer/songwriter. Whenever I learn a new piece of music these steps have stood me well and helped me master lots of new and potentially difficult songs.
Check out different versions of the song you want to learn. There’s a lot you can find on YouTube just putting in the song you want to learn and listening to different renditions of the same piece. See what different people did with the song you want to learn and if it gives you perspective on what you would like to do with it.
2. Choose a Key
If you’ll be singing the song you’ll want to find a key that’s good for your voice. Try singing along with the original and especially paying attention to the highest and lowest sections. If they feel easy or in your range then you are good to go. If not, you may want to try lowering or raising the key.
I personally usually look up the chord progression or tab’s for the song at this point with a quick Google search of the “song x chord chart” to get a starting point. Maybe websites have a transpose tool you can use to raise or lower the key or you could use your capo to try different keys and find one you like. As you try this out, again, just pay attention to the highest and lowest sections, you don’t have to really know the song yet or play the full song.
3. Break It Down
Once you have a key you like it’s time to dig into learning the song. I usually copy the lyrics and chords I like over into a new document to save them and start going through the song. I’ll also mark off the sections; verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge etc., to help get a perspective on the overall song.
When you start playing through something you might have noticed there’s a new chord or a series of quick changes that you don’t know or you’re not great at yet. This is when you really want to break the song down. Even going back to when I first started playing music It can be really helpful to just play one measure or little section at a time. Get that part down or those chord changes down and then move onto the next one.
Look up the chord if you need to. If you find a video online of the artists playing their song live you may be able to watch what they do in that section and copy them. Sometimes you can even find YouTube tutorials just for the song you want to learn and in the key you want to learn it in but not always so don’t rely on this.
One of my tricks is to play a small section I’m having trouble with 10 times to get it under my fingers or to get a melody or rhythm in my voice. It’s a little way to get in some repetition without feeling like you will be there all day. If you still don’t have it consistent after 10 times you can come back to it the next day and do the same thing and I promise you, you will get better.
4. Play it to a Click Track
It’s best to start slow and learn the song correctly the first time then to be sloppy and have to go back and fix bad habits and things you learned incorrectly. Practice the song slower then you plan to play it but making sure to have good tone and clarity in your playing and then you can gradually speed up the song as you get more comfortable.
I like to use the “Tempo” app for my tempos, it lets you click and figure out what tempo your play at and adjust the click sound so it’s more pleasant to play with. There are lots of free apps too though. Playing to the click will highlight the sections you might still need to work on if you hear yourself struggling to keep tempo.
You can even try playing it super fast just for fun to test yourself once you know it really well!
It’s not totally necessary to memorize your new songs but it can give you a freedom with the song to explore more and I recommend that you try to memorize the song if you can.
The biggest helpful thing to do when you’re trying to memorize the chords if you didn’t develop a muscle memory as you were learning the song is to look over the song and notice the patterns. There’s often patterns in the chord progressions and overall form and if you look at it and create a mental map of the song you may be a lot further along in your memorization then you think.
The best thing I’ve found for learning and memorizing lyrics is to read them out loud and also handwrite or type them out. It’s also good to think about the story your telling or what you’re really singing about. When I sang in foreign languages a lot as an opera singer I was required to translate and know what I was singing about and often that really helped me connect with the words and get the song memorized. You probably already speak the language you’re learning a song in but maybe don’t have a personal reference for the lyrics. See if you can connect with them more deeply by imparting your own meaning to the song and if that helps you memorize the lyric.
Bonus. Continued Learning and Consistency
This is the most important... Keep at it. If you practice a little everyday and regularly add new songs to your repertoire you will only get better and notice that you can learn covers even faster as you learn more chords and an understanding of your instrument. Try to set small goals for your practice, learning a new song every month or every time you play a gig – whatever makes sense to you. With consistent small steps you’ll be surprised with how much you’ll learn and the songs you’ll be able to master!
Happy music making!