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Practical Handbook for the Working Musician, Part 2: Learning Tunes Efficiently – Song Form
February 13, 2022

by Mike Mindel. This article was originally published on HVmusic around the year 2000.

One of the most practical skills a musician can develop is the ability to learn tunes as efficiently as possible. This is a skill that will make your musical life less frustrating regardless of what instrument you play or what style you play. These skills apply whether you play keyboards in a rock band or auto harp in your garage (no pun intended).

As with most anything else in life, things are learned most easily if they are broken down into logical steps, kind of a mental outline. First off, if your objective is to learn your instruments part on a recorded tune, break down the process into steps, and follow them. As a keyboard player, it is so easy to get sidetracked from learning your part by getting lost in sounds. There you are with pencil and paper in hand, ready to dive into your part, and the next thing you know, it's two hours later and you're still trying to figure out how to program your synth to get that cool sound in the intro. Don't do eet mon! At least not yet. It can be tedious enough to learn parts, so let's do it efficiently. The sooner you feel a sense of accomplishment in learning a tune, the less likely you'll become distracted and frustrated. The steps to efficiently learning a song are, in this order:

  1. Form: i.e. intro-verse-chorus, etc.
  2. chords and notes: learn your part.
  3. Sounds: getting the settings you want to use on the tune.
  4. Putting It All Together

To underscore the logic of the above steps, think of the process of learning a song like the process of building a house. First you need the blueprint, which in music is the form of the song.

 

1. Form

i.e. intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus-end. This first step can and should be done without your instrument in hand, or at hand for that matter. An architect will never draft a blueprint with a hammer any more than you should learn the form of a song with your axe. I often do my blueprinting while driving in my car. It's a great use of wasted time. Knowing how many verses and chorus and in what order the come gives you a big head start when you actually sit down to learn your part. It willhelp you in a variety of ways. One, if you're writing a chart, having the basic outline done first gives you the roadmap to then fill in when you learn the notes and chords. Two, seeing the form on paper, no matter what your style of hieroglyphics, gives you a visual of the entire song at a glance. Unfortunately, no matter how good your ear is, we can only hear one part at a time, but we can see the whole tune at once on paper. Three, getting accustomed to initially thinking of tunes in terms of their form, you will begin to recognize common patterns in songs. This will enable you to not only learn your material more quickly, but be able to memorize material easier. It's much easier to remember verse-chorus-verse, than to remember the entire string of chords and notes that comprises the song.

Next month, I'll detail step two, learning the notes and chords. I'll give you some good tricks to hear and recognize intervals and chords, as well as how to tune into your part on the record.

 

Musician Jokes:

How do you get a guitar player to play softer?
Give him a chart to read.

How do you make a trombone player's car more aerodynamic?
Remove the Domino's Pizza sign from the roof.

 

Mike Mindel has been a professional musician for over 40 years and is currently a member of The Bills Toupee Band.


 
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