Memorizing songs

I don’t know if everyone else struggles with this same thing, but I have a hard time playing without looking at the song book. I know Justin has mentioned on more than one lesson about finding your top ten go to songs you can play on cue. For a while I didn’t even have one. As of October I finally had one down. I was playing at the beach Saturday night and finally made it up to 4… well three and one I got after a short struggle. I’m curious if anyone else has ideas how to master memorizing the top ten go to songs. My eleven year old memorized the one we worked on together in less than 2 weeks. Puts me to shame lol .

If curious the 4 I can do from memory are: Self Esteem-Offspring, Time Of Your Life-Green Day, Never Say Goodbye-Bon Jovi, and Why Don’t You Get A Job- Offspring. I guess 4 is better than zero. I was at zero in the start of October so progress I guess.

Thanks for any new ideas. The goal is playing while singing and looking straight ahead at the camera or audience .


Jeff, I had no problem memorizing the chord progressions, but had problems memorizing the lyrics. I put the lyrics into my iPhone and repeating the words for a verse in the song over and over as I went on walks. At 68 years old, memorizing lyrics is certainly harder than it would be for a child. Four songs is a good start and you will have to repeat the songs at timely intervals as Justin suggests to make it permanent in your memory. Over time you will add to your repertoire. Of course, I don’t see anything wrong with playing from song sheets for songs you haven’t memorize. I’ll never be able to memorize everything. :slight_smile:

I think it helps a lot if they are songs you already know pretty well (not from playing, but having listened to a lot by the original artist). Most of the songs I’ve learned fall under that category, not because I was looking for low-hanging fruit, necessarily, but because they’re songs that I really like, and have listened to a lot for that reason.

For the couple of songs I’ve learned that were new-to-me or ones I didn’t know well, what helped was practicing the guitar part of it during my practice sessions, and then separately, listening to the song a couple times a day on repeat in the car or shower enough times to learn the lyrics and sing along to it. I think the main risk here is getting sick to death of the song, but having enough repetition of each component (singing and playing, separately at first) to somewhat automate them both before uniting them in practice has worked for me.

*edit - grammar

I have no idea how it works. Some songs I can play without the chord sheet after only a couple of times, yet there are many that I’ve been playing for years that I still need the chord sheet in front of me.

Since I only play for myself, and don’t “perform,” I really don’t let it bother me, but it’s strange.

Hey Jeff,

My tip? Get physical with that song :nerd_face:.

In other words, utilise pen and paper. Write out the lyrics, the chords the strummimg pattern etc, if you like. And any other info that is relevant to you. Put it in your own songbook and make it your own.

Now, I’m as much a lover of technology as anyone, but the physical/sensory aspect of doing this I believe is very conducive for learning songs/ music in general. Superior, in this aspect, to any fancy digitalised version I reckon.

Cheers, Shane


A very good question Jeff. I’ve only to date taken on a song I know they lyrics to, so I’m already kind of cutting out one part of the process.

Maybe have a look at some songs you already know the lyrics to and see how you get on?

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I find it easier to remember chord progressions than lyrics (maybe because that’s physical rather than purely mental effort), so I don’t tend to learn the lyrics until I can “automate” the guitar part of a song, I guess I’ve only got enough brain power to learn one thing at a time!

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The way the brain stores things is interesting, but essentially, if you keep referring back to the book your brain doesn’t bother even trying to store that information away. You need to go through the pain of trying to dredge up something that you’ve only partially remembered so that your brain decides it’s worthwhile recording it properly.

So next time you think “I don’t remember how to play song x”, instead of reaching for the songbook, spend a few minutes trying to work it out, singing “la la la” for the line of lyrics you forgot, and you might be surprised how much you do remember, and that “dammit I knew that” annoyance you get when you eventually resort to the book to fill in the gaps is what triggers the learning process.


Jeff @SDKissFan

I don’t think there is an easy or quick answer, it just comes down to hard work and plenty of practice. Also you need to keep going back to them, every so often, I am sure Justin mentions this in one of his lesson. My other criteria is they need to be songs I like, not ones that have been persuaded to do.
My hardest part is remembering the lyrics, I have to get them to the point where I can recite them in my sleep. Chord progressions I have less problem with as I relate them to lyrics.
I am working my way to ten as suggested by Justin, I definitely have five and another three or four that I am working on but I am not putting myself under any pressure to have learnt them by a certain time.

Hi @SDKissFan

That’s a good question and a lot of people have issues with that.

It happens to be part of the things I will talk about in my very first live JustinGuitar club.

Sorry for the plug but it’s a relvant one.
The topic is “Building repertoire” and a large part of that is: choosing the right songs and practicing them so you can can play them through but also: how to approach them when learning them.

@sclay already mentioned “get physical” and I follow that.
Some pen and paper and tear down that song.
What is the basic structure of a verse? of a chorus?
Do I need to omit or alter certain bits to make it work for my current skill level or is it just hard to do that specific keyboard solo on an acoustic guitar? :wink:

See a song in its basic structure and learn the blocks, not the whole song.
Work in layers; first making sure you get the blocks right

Not learning them from the first exact note to the last makes you able to go in and out of a song as you please as well; now you are “navigating” instead of just rolling the reel.


Justin has a lesson on an approach for this in the Grade 3 Course, it’s called the Spacing Effect, you can check it here:

Spacing Effect

It’s a thing for memorization in general, not just songs. There’s a wikipedia page on it and all. . .Justin does a great job of explaning it’s utility so won’t blab on here. . .

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Oh thanks for flagging the JG clubs that had entirely passed me by! I’ve signed up for yours and Richards.

I agree it’s about learning the blocks in terms of playing a song. Verse, Chorus, Bridge usually repeat multiple times…once you’ve got those it’s usually just the intro,outro, solo you need to remember. Vocals it really is just about singing them enough times to remember them.

The only thing I’d add is that even if you learn them you will FORGET them again without regular practice. We play the same 40 songs week in week out but I still forget those we haven’t played for a while…not completely obviously but I need a little song book to prompt me to remember them and then I’m good again.

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It’s interesting to see how much people vary in their preference of what comes most naturally to learn. Personally, I find my ear remembers the melody most easily. The songs that I find hardest are where the chord changes are quite monotonous and independent from the melody.

To date I’ve been using the Justin Guitar song app, I’m wondering whether it’s time to find somewhere to download the songs instead so that I can better recognise the verse, chorus and bridge. The app sometimes feels like you’re looking at the song through a telescope - you only get a view of where you are instead of the big picture. Perhaps as @Rossco01 suggests breaking the songs down into their component parts of verse, chorus and bridge would make it more instinctive how to build it back up again into a whole?

The app is great for a lot of things, but many of us have found it is not good for memorization.

My memorization got better when I started working from chord and lyric sheets…especially when I edited them myself.


Hi Steve-thanks for the advice. I like the idea of taking the melody with you on a walk.

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That’s some sound advice. I have had that problem; getting sick of a song or bored with it. I recently counted 65 songs I have performed in the past 18 months, but then asked myself which of those did I really know well.

Hi Shane,

That idea is definitely spot on. I stopped printing fancy chord sheets about a year ago and hand write everything. It definitely helped me learn songs quicker.

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That’s a good idea. I mostly play songs I’m fairly familiar with.

I took this idea today and wrote out chord progressions separately to memorize for verse, pre-chorus and chorus. Maybe separating them would work better.

I actually did this on Saturday night at the beach to muddle my way through song number 4. It only took a couple tries before I got it right. Maybe doing that more often will help without using the book as a crutch.