Memorizing songs

Some fantastic advice in the archives from a similar thread that recommends building up our knowledge of songs in ever increasing layers - Tip: Memorizing songs (building layers)

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Hi Michael,

Thanks for sharing your progress. I decided to put pressure on myself because more frequently I have been in situations where people are watching me perform. Nobody complains but in my mind are they wondering why this guy needs his notes for everything. Lol

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Hi Lieven,

Thanks for the tips. I remember you posted something a year or so ago about tackling a song and breaking it into smaller parts to master one by one. I typically do not try to sound like the original artist and try to make a song work for my skill level. For example replace a solo with a couple runs through the chord progression. That helps make the song appealing. I’ll have to check out your live lesson you added the link for if I can make it .

Today watched this video and thanks for the link. I think I saw it before a long while ago but had good information. That’s funny I forgot the video about memory skills right🤣

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I like that point you added about you are never done with a song after you learn it. I’m starting to go back and play songs I haven’t touched in months as a refresher. Even professional tenured musicians admit ,”I haven’t played that one in 30 years so here goes nothing “. Oh ish I should’ve practiced. 40 songs in your portfolio that are regularly played is impressive.

Yes, I agree with his idea to break it down. That is good advice for learning anything that is somewhat complex, music or otherwise. I haven’t tried the app. It looks like it would be cool to use. I try for originality when playing a cover song, so it’s recognizable yet unique. Does that app work for something like that?

yes, this one

yeah, don"t make that too long though, it doesn’t have to be as long as the original if it is a longer solo.

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Thanks for the tip. Most songs I learned were a result of looking at chord sheets and sometimes watching someone’s cover as a sample to get a feel for a possible rhythm and melody.

Thanks. I’ll check this post out again.

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My daughter read some of this and also gave me her advice that pretty much fits what everyone here has been saying. She said you have to make a mental picture of the word with the chord above it. She says she spends time strumming using hand motions while at school and not having a guitar handy. Then when we do practice together she already has the hand motions down and mental picture of the words and chord progression. She goes to a special school for music, art, and theater and is quite an accomplished artist. Really sound advice from an eleven year old. I am still amazed she can play in time and sing after just a few weeks.


I’ve struggled with memorising too. For me lyrics are easy, chords are hard to remember.

I totally get how you feel, going from playing in front of a chord sheet to playing entirely from memory is a heavy lift, especially the first few times you do it. Some things that have really helped me:

  • Write down the chord sequence in blocks of 4 bars. Lots of songs have 4-bar or 8-bar chord loops, and once you identify those patterns it’s much easier to remember. E.g., Glycerine by Bush is just G - D - Em - C (Axis progression) repeating almost all the way through, with only two little variations. That’s a lot less to remember than an entire song. A lot of songs have one loop for the chorus and another loop for the verses. Not all songs fit neatly into a 4 bar grid (I’m looking at you, House of the Rising Sun) but heaps do.
  • When you practice the song, start to purposefully look away from the screen/book a little bit at a time. Close your eyes or physically turn away so it’s not in your sight line. At first you’ll lose your place often and have to look back, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Each time you have to look, you’re reinforcing your memory of a chord change, like “oh yeah, that’s right, in that part it goes from C to D”. Eventually you won’t have to look at all. If you stare at the book while you play every time, you are training your brain to need the book in front of your eyes in order to produce the music, which is not where we want to be. It’s a hard habit to break but you can do it gradually.
  • Try not to compare yourself to other people and especially not to kids! :laughing: Those kids have full on neuroplasticity on their side, it’s not fair but that’s life.

I have same issue. If the chords are not in front of me then I’m guitar blind. I recently wrote a song and can’t even remember the words to my own song but I can remember all the chords. My husband plays guitar but always says I’m more advanced than him however every day at some point he is able to just pick guitar up and plays something just off top of his head. Why can’t I do it :roll_eyes:

Hey Iris - welcome to the community! We share a similar experience as I also play with my partner who can pick the guitar up and play away. When we jam together I can come up with ideas for melody but then forget them the next day. I’ve started recording little ‘sketch notes’ of bits to explore more and develop. The prompt of hearing things often then kicks me off in the right direction again. Is your song at a point of being able to share? I’d love to hear it. (Btw - do say hello over in the introduction section - you’ll be sure to get a warm hello from folks!)

When I started playing I could so repeat your whole story. I was tied to my music sheets and thought it was just way too hard to memorize a song.

I often jammed at our music club, one day we had to play outside and it was quite windy, the song sheets I used kept getting blown away. Another club member commented that I always seem to play the same 3 or so songs so she just casually said why don’t you memorize just them.

So I did. And it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Definitely a case of mind over matter. If you are convinced it’s too hard, it will be.

Since then I’ve memorized every song I learn and now I can play for 2 hours or so easily completely from memory including some songs that are quite hard musically, fancier finger style or quite syncopated lyrics, that sort of thing.

It’s a huge advantage being able to play from memory.

When I learn a new song, usually I memorize it fairly quickly now, but on the more challenging ones I take the song sheet with me on my daily walks (30 mins or so) and during my walk I sing the first phrase of the first verse. And continue to do that till I can do it without looking at the sheet, doesn’t take that long, to give you an example if would be “How many roads must a man walk down” from Blowin in the wind.

Then I try to sing the second phrase (“before you call him a man”) usually that requires looking at the song sheet once or twice. Then I combine the first and second and so on until the whole song is memorized.

With songs that I’ve memorized and not played in months I sometimes have to go back to the song sheet for once or twice through the song to lock it back into my memory.

I strongly encourage everyone to memorize what you play. It’s so nice to just grab an instrument and go. and it also makes what you play more flowing, far less staccato. It’s really not as hard as you think it is, reminds me of a fav saying

Imagine what you could do if you knew you couldn’t fail


+1 on this. Get your two chord (example: Dreams and the link below) and three chord progressions (I-IV-V) under your fingers and you have the basis for too many songs to list here. Playing medleys with these accessible songs/progressions is a good way to go as well.

I suggest these easier songs because I don’t think maintaining a repertoire is a good approach to learning the instrument. Better to spend practice time playing what you don’t know rather than what you already know. It all depends on how much time you have in the day for guitar playing/practice.

Hi Tony,

What you said was exactly what I was trying to get at when I started this thread. It’s not awful to have a song book just in case, but I should be able to play a set (8-10 songs) from memory. Many times when I played for people it is outdoors (with wind) and after hours with low lighting. I felt more professional playing from memory and adding a few jokes or telling a story as I am playing like adding my own funny lyrics here and there. The audience appreciates it. I like the last quote, imagine if you knew you couldn’t fail. I’ll hold onto that one whenever I start to stress about memorizing. Today it’s just 4 I can do from memory. Maybe next week it will be 5 then who knows what I can do when failure is not a thing. Thanks again.

Funny when I read @LievenDV ’s post I commented that I couldn’t barely play in time let alone a song. That was April 2022. Funny to look back at the progress since then. That article is even more useful now. Thanks again.

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I had an epiphany last week about why I was struggling to learn the lyrics to songs.

It was because I never practiced it.

I would just play the song with the songbook, or UG Tabs scrolling on my screen and just assumed that over time I would learn the lyrics. It’s been months and that hasn’t been the case. So once I had my epiphany I scheduled 5 minutes of every practice session just to focus on lyrics. No guitar, no music, just focusing on memorizing lyrics.

Unsurprisingly I have learned the lyrics to 2 songs this week and partial on another 2. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me earlier.

One of the tools I’ve stated using is AnkiPro which does spaced practice. I created flash cards that had the lyrics either the line before or after the lyrics I was trying to learn. This was very successful.


That’s a great start! Start out as you mean to continue

Once you get into it, and set your mind to it, it’s amazing how much easier it is than you thought it would be. Well done!