Song learning usually consists of 3 simple steps for me. If there’s a recording or demo of the song, I’ll listen to it and write a chart. From there I’ll jump over to the kit and play through it, and I’ll be good to go. This sounds pretty simple and straightforward (and it really is!), but there are a few key things you want to look out for and make sure you do. The question of “what’s the best way to learn songs” is one I get frequently, so I hope this lesson-style email helps you out!
Step 1: Listen to the Recording
Really listen to the recording. Whether it’s the original record that you’re covering, a vocals-and-guitar demo your bandleader sent you, or a fully put together demo of a new arrangement, listen to the recording thoroughly. In other words, a quick listen in the car doesn’t count. Listening via your phone speaker doesn’t count. Listening to it with any distractions going on around you shouldn’t count either. Have a dedicated “listening time,” whether you’re listening through high quality speakers or headphones / in-ears. Be able to devote 100% of your attention to the recording, staying constantly focused on what you’re listening to.
If you’re not in a hurry, allow the first listen to just be a relaxed, get-the-feel-of-the-song kind of listen. Enjoy just sitting back and hearing it, and let this be a time to capture the overall essence and feel of the song. Next, listen to it again more intently. Pay attention to the drum parts (obviously), but also listen to the melody(s) to notice how the drums and melody interact. At this point you’re beginning to understand the “groove” of the song, which is extremely important. (Btw, if the song you’re learning is just a guitar/vocal demo, still listen to the melody. Be “feeling out” the rhythms and thinking about what drum parts might fit.)
Step 2: Write a Chart
On the third listen, start writing a chart. Your chart doesn’t have to be complicated, and its complexity can vary based on what kind of song you’re learning. Most of my charts are just “cheat-sheets,” road maps that clue me in on what’s coming next. If you listen to the song a bunch, you only need so much detail on a chart. Focus on writing down the things that are most fundamental and important in regards to the song, and make sure to write down “weirdnesses” that you think you might forget. Make a note on that 7 measure verse. Make a note on that chorus that hangs for two extra beats. You get the idea.
There’s an example of one of my charts at the bottom of this email, but for more detail check out a video I did awhile back about writing a “cheat-sheet” chart. This will really help you get going with this. The ultimate goal in writing a chart is actually to help you learn the song, because writing a chart gets the mathematical side of your brain working. Listening to music involves both sides of your brain - the creative, emotional side, as well as the analytical, mathematical side. In our first “listen” to the recording we weren’t worried about activating our brain’s “analysis mode” yet. But we started to delve into that for the second listen. We want to understand the song’s “feeling” and “emotion,” and we want to develop some instincts as far as what to play. But we also need to have a solid “mathematical feel” for how the song goes so that we play it correctly from an arrangement standpoint. That’s what the chart helps us do.
Step 3: Practice Anything that Needs Practicing
At this point, you should pretty much know the song. The question is, do you know that you could nail it if you had to play the gig right now? If there are any grooves, parts, or fills that you feel slightly uncertain about, go practice them. This is the part of song-learning where it’s hardest to stay focused. If you’re in a hurry and your practice time is limited, don’t just sit down and play the song 3 times and be done. You may only need to hit certain key parts. Focus first on those key challenging parts, THEN play through the entire song. Focus most of your energy on the things that are hard - not the things you know you can already play really well.
If you do have time to play through the whole song a couple of times, you’ll find yourself memorizing it. You’ve now listened to it, written a chart, and played through it. You shouldn’t even need your chart anymore if the song is a straightforward pop song. It can really just serve as a safety net if you forget how long an intro or a guitar solo is.
Adjust this process based on how much time you have…
This thorough, 3-step process is what I aim for if I just have a few songs to learn. I can devote lots of time to each, and it’s fun being able to take my time thoroughly learning. However, there are plenty of gigs where I’m either learning songs last minute…or the setlist has 25 songs on it and I can’t feasibly devote an hour to each song. In those cases I have to skip the first step and jump straight to writing a chart. The more charts you write, the more easily you can dive straight into writing it in one pass having never heard the song before. One time I had to learn 10 songs in about an hour and a half, so I quickly wrote simple, cheat-sheet charts. I didn’t have time to write in groove details or specific fills, but it wasn’t the end of the world. You can fake your way through grooves and fills, but you can’t fake your way through an eight-and-a-half bar chorus you forgot about. A roadmap chart will save you there by giving you those essentials that will get you through the song.
I hope this “email lesson” helped you out! Be sure to check out the full, chart-writing video if you haven’t already, in addition to this video about groove notation. Being able to quickly notate grooves on a chart really comes in handy as well.