How to memorise chord sequences?

I’ve got some songs that I can play along quite comfortably in the JG app or with a chord sheet in front of me, but trying to play from memory is a real struggle.

The chord sequences just don’t stick in my brain. I’m always stuck wondering things like “is this next section C - D - Am - G, or was it C - G - Am - D?” I don’t know, and I couldn’t tell you unless I look it up, no matter how many times I have played it.

The chord names themselves have zero mnemonic value for me. It’s no different than trying to memorise an arbitrary sequence of numbers.

Some songs, it’s just the same sequence of 3 or 4 chords repeating for the whole song, and I can handle that. But if there are variations scattered around the song that really throws me off.

Any tips on how to improve this, or work around it?

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When it comes to songs on the app, I can definitely relate. Most of the songs that I play there are songs that I don’t know that well and the versions on the app lack some of the dynamics that would clue you in to an upcoming change in the song. There are songs that I’ve played dozens of times where I know there is a different change in there somewhere and even when I’m waiting for it will still take me by surprise.

For other songs that I have learned on my own, it starts with knowing the song really well, knowing the words and having a feel for when the section of the song changes.

Then I break the song into sections (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc) and then play through and memorize each of the sections.

Once I have those memorized and can play through consistently, then I can put them all together to play the full song. It’s super helpful if I have memorized the lyrics and can sing or think through them as I play.

With some songs, I was able to easily play them from memory quite quickly, while with others I still need the chord chart in front of me, even though I’ve been playing them for a very long time. Since it really doesn’t matter to me (I don’t perform with or for others, just play to fill time every afternoon) I’ve never concerned myself with why.

It isn’t just the complexity of the songs, either. For example, I only used the chart for Sounds of Silence a few times before it was completely instinctive, while other much simpler progressions escape me.

Hey Brendan,

One suggestion I can give you is to pick a few of your favourite songs and physically write them out in your own songbook ( eg an A4 notebook) and make them personal.
Using as many senses as possible is of great benefit, and not just for guitar playing. The personalised nature of your own songbook will assist greatly with memorisation.
As well, over time, in the natural course of playing, you’ll start to ‘hear’ the sounds of certain chords and notes in songs before you actually play them.

All the best,
Cheers, Shane

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What helpes me, is to practice these 4 chords in the correct order as a 1min chord change exercise (without any rhythm or timing) and really get them into the muscle memory.

What also helpes is the opposite - playing them slowly and focusing on the sound they make until you are be able to hear the 4 chords in your inner ear. In case you forget a chord, you can just try a bunch out, until you get the right sound, then double check with what you have written down to make sure it is correct.

Hope these helps :wink:

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Cheers Shane, I haven’t had a go at writing the chord sheet out by hand yet. I think Justin gave that advice in one of the lessons too. I’ll give it a try.

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I’m an accidental singer, I didn’t expect to play and sing. My wife sung the first song I learned and after she sung it maybe 50 or 60 times I started singing along accidentally. Why am I telling you this?

Because once I started singing the lyrics helped me mentally keep track of where I was in the song and which chord came next.

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A couple of things that I do, especially when trying to memorize app songs.

  1. At first I’ll play the song in the app a couple of times through. This gives me an idea of the general Chord sequences but I won’t be able to play out side the app yet.

  2. Then I’ll write down the chord sequences for each section (intro, verse, bridge, chorus, etc). You’ll find that these are repeated often in the song so if you memorize verse 1 likely all the other verse parts will use the same chords.

  3. This is the important part. Memorize by playing each section outside of the app over and over. You’ll find that eventually you won’t be thinking “okay next is a g chord” any more but you’ll be thinking “okay to the chorus again”.

Anyway that’s how I do it, hope this helps.

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This is the best answer to learning song structure. Even if you’re not singing knowing the words and singing in your head works as well.

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This is something I’m struggling too, but I’m finding a strategy that works for me. Basically I think we need to train our ears to know what chord comes next. Our ears can remember, we’re talking about sound after all, so It’s up to them. I found this nice J.U.S.T.I.N. method idea in the Intermediate Method Book: Just Use Sound To Improve Now. What I do is printing the lyrics neatly so you can see the structure of the song. And then guitar and pencil I write down the chords that sound correct. It’s not super easy, especially at the beginning, but it works for memorising and I think it’s a good ear training exercise :slight_smile: Hope this is of some help…

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Cheers Silvia. I like the concept, I think my ear training is perhaps at too primitive of a level to use this technique right away, but will keep it in mind for the future.

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I understand you, ear training is definetely one of the most challenging area of practice! A good start for me has been choosing only A-D-E chord songs and just get my ear aware where the chord changed without the music sheet but only the lyrics. This might be not to difficult, only 2 or 3 chords songs, just to get our ears used to awareness. Cheers and best wishes :slight_smile:

Definitely. Being able to sing along to the song even if its just in your head helps solidify the song structure.

When learning a new song the first thing I do is familiarise myself with the song and produce a chord and lyric sheet with the strumming patterns. Then learn it in chunks intro, verse, chorus, link, outro.

Repetition is the key to memorising. Even when you’ve learned a song, you still need to keep going back to it from time to time to move it from the short term memory to the long term memory.

With the app you are not really learning the song unless you had the capability to loop the sections.

@direvus
Brendon

Plenty of good advice above.

This how I am dealing with it.

I am just coming to the end of grade 1 and working on the five songs. I think I have given my self a bit more of challenge as I want to sing as well, but see later.

The first two songs I have mastered are, Brown Eyed Girl and Bad Moon Rising, both of which have easy chord sequences to remember. I followed Justin’s advice and his 10 steps, learnt the chords and lyrics separately and then put them together at the end.

I am now onto third song Take me Home Country Roads where the verse and chorus have the same chords but different order, which makes remembering them more difficult. The bridge has completely different sequence. I have tried a different method, I know all the words and have typed the chord sequence for each line and I am memorising that and keep testing myself by having to write them out. This is where the singing comes when I am started practicing playing the chord sequence I am singing as well and this seems to help as I know when to change and what chords go with the words. I know it is not Justin method but if it works that’s fine.

Overall I did start playing along with the app to start with, then learnt the song and after that gone back to the app to get the tempo right.

To sum up unfortunately it just comes down to hard work with plenty of practice and getting that chord sequence fixed in your memory, a bit like the spelling tests you used to have in school, not sure they do that now.

Hope that helps

Michael :grinning:

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You may be on to something here. I find I can sometimes hear the next chord in my head…but it’s very inconsistent and unpredictable.

As far as ear training goes, chord identification seems like a much more valuable skill for most of us at the beginner/intermediate level. As far as I can tell, most ear training starts with identifying intervals, which I don’t find helpful for identifying chords…but maybe I’m missing something.

If you have any more tips, I’d be very interested!

Hey Michael, they did do spelling tests when I was at school (can’t speak for whether they do it now), but because of the slightly weird way my brain works, I never had to intentionally memorise the spelling of any words. Spelling just “clicks” for me. Chord sequences, on the other hand, do not click.

As you say, it’s a matter of hard work, but it’s a type of hard work where I am not sure what kind of training will be most effective for me. There’s a bunch of good ideas on this thread, I will have to try them out and see what works.

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I have a related issue, which I call “Muscle Memory Considered Harmful” (some of you software dev folks might get the reference :slight_smile:)

I’ll be practicing a song, and maybe looping a particularly difficult chord change. Then I’ll start practicing a different song, with a different change, but my hands will automatically do the change from the previous song.

I solve this - sort of - by “thinking ahead of my hands” … anticipating the next change a bar or a few beats ahead of the change. But that assumes I’ve memorized the chords - which isn’t always the case.

Anybody else have this experience?

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As far as showing the whole song structure, Philip came up with an interesting format:

Brendon
I am sure you will find a solution.

My Mentioning spelling test brought back bad memories, I was absolutely hopeless at it and also remembering poetry. Scientific formula and the like no problem at all.
So when it came to learning the lyrics that was really really hard work. I decided to learn the words for all five songs before I started to learn the chords. It is one thing to sing along with the app and quite another to turn the vocals off and sing just you but it is very helpful to getting a feel for the song.
Michael :notes:

I found that writing down the chord sequences of the song in your notebook helps in addition to playing the whole song through from beginning to an end.

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