How to Completely Learn a Melody in 30 Minutes
Everybody talks about learning tunes. I mean everybody. It’s the one common thread that you hear about at jam sessions, in music schools, and conversations with great players. So much emphasis is placed upon the need for more tunes it’s not surprising that most players have this burgeoning mental complex about knowing and learning tunes that hangs over their heads day after day like a black cloud.
With this ominous mindset, the simple act of learning a tune becomes a painful, long, drawn-out process that we try to avoid at all costs.
For years, I was stuck in this mental box and would force myself to try to learn tunes by pure memorization, from a piece of paper. Hours were spent in fruitless pursuit and it became easier to read tunes than to actually learn them. When it came time to perform these tunes, I was hanging onto these mental facts like a stranded swimmer holding on to a life preserver.
If I couldn’t think of those note names I memorized or that sequence of fingerings, I had nothing to play and worse, no aural skills to keep me afloat.
When you are learning in a situation like this, building a solid repertoire can seem like an impossible task. Even when you do manage to learn a tune, are you sure that you truly know it and will remember it?
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably had the same thought I often had: There has to be a better way to learn tunes and make them last than this!
Getting to the root of the problem
The players that have trouble learning, memorizing, and retaining tunes are the same ones that go into the practice room with a page from the real book and try to commit those visual images to memory.
You might be able to get the notes and fingerings into your short-term memory and perform them once, but you’re not going to remember them for very long. What’s worse, is that you have no connection to the tune; it’s not a melody that you know by heart, it’s a string of memorized fingerings and hazy mental recollections.
When you’re put on the hot seat and have to play a solo, your short-term mental memory goes out the window. If it’s not ingrained in your ear or your muscle memory, it’s not going to come out of your horn.
So does it all come down to a problem with memorization that everyone seems to be having? No, not at all. Your memory is fine, it’s the way that you’re inputting the information that is causing the problem. The melodies we’re trying to learn never get completely ingrained in the first place, we don’t even give our memories a chance to grasp this musical information.
Take people with great memories that compete in memory contests for example. Most of them are self professed “regular everyday people,” in some way they’ve just learned how to learn and they’ve discovered the secret to retaining information. The majority of them use memorable images that trigger an emotional reaction to recall a series of numbers or names. In other words, to be a successful human database, you must make a multifaceted connection to the information that you’re trying to memorize.
This is the problem with the way a lot of musicians are learning tunes, they are treating the music as information, not an art form to connect with. When you memorize tunes from a page, there is no connection or emotional aspect to the process, it’s just information. It might as well be a tax form or the names and numbers in a phone book, just plain old, impersonal, dry information. Coming from this approach, where’s the personal motivation to learn these tunes?
The process of learning a melody shouldn’t be hard or feel like a dreaded chore for that matter, the problem is that we’ve been going about this process in the completely wrong way. When you think about it, the act of learning a melody is actually very simple. Take away all the mental clutter, get rid of those external pressures and just focus on the music. Make a mental, aural, and physical connection to the tunes you’re learning and you’ll immediately see a huge difference.
If you approach it like this, you can learn a tune in a short amount of time. Below I’ve outlined the process you should be using to learn melodies if you want to get them down for good, and even better it will take 30 minutes or less:
5 focused minutes at the start of your practice – (and as much as possible outside of the practice room)
Pre-listening simply means some focused listening to the melody you’re trying to learn prior to your practice session. The overall goal is to make sure that the tune is in your ear before you start trying to figure out the notes and rhythms.
I recommend doing this process before you get into the practice room and the more that you pre-listen, the easier this whole process is going to be. However, if you’re limited for time, at least spend 5 minutes repeatedly listening to and focusing in on the melody at the start of your session to quickly ingrain it.
For example, let’s say you’ve picked Woody’n You as the tune you’re going to learn this week. First step, find a version of the tune that you can’t stop listening to.
Next, get this recording into your ears by listening to it as much as is humanly possible. Listen to this recording when you wake up in the morning, on your way to work, during your free time, and even before you go to bed.
Keep in mind that this is not mindless listening or throwing on the recording every now and then as background music. This is focused super-concentrated listening. Your goal is to have an intimate familiarity with the melody, that way when you go to learn the tune it will be infinitely easier than starting from scratch.
II. Singing then playing
15- 20 minutes alternating between listening, singing, and playing
Once you’ve pre-listened to the tune, it’s time to take it to the next level; forging a physical connection to these notes and rhythms that you’ve been hearing all week. This is where the bulk of your time should be spent as you learn a tune. Start by taking that melody apart one phrase at a time.
Let’s take that version of Woody’n You from above that we’ve pre-listened to all day. The first step I would take would be to put the file into Transcribe! software so I could slow down the melody and accurately hear each interval and phrase. Once you’ve done that, highlight the first phrase of the melody (first 5 notes), slow it down to a comfortable speed, and listen to it about ten times in a row:
As this melodic phrase slowly makes its way into your ears, start to sing along with the recording as it continuously repeats those 5 notes. Concentrate on locking in the pitch of each note as you sing and focus on the content of each interval. When you start to match the recording exactly, press stop.
Now sing that phrase by yourself with no accompaniment. This is the first test. If you can’t sing it without the help of the recording then you don’t have it ingrained yet. Pay close attention to this part. It’s easy to sing the right notes with the recording backing you up, but when you turn it off, you’ll know right away whether you have each pitch and interval or you’re guessing – you can’t fake it.
When you’re singing the phrase by yourself, sing it very slowly. Isolate each interval and lock into each pitch, close doesn’t count here. If you don’t quite have it yet, simply go back to the recording and get it right. When you try again, identify each interval as you slowly sing it: “Ok that first interval is up a whole step, then down a whole step, then another whole step down, then a minor 3rd down, etc.” Also try to identify with your ears which part of the chord the melody is on (7th, root, 7th/ #9, root).
It’s perfectly alright if you don’t get the chord tones right away or can’t hear some of the intervals at first. Make it your goal to improve this part of your musicianship. If you’ve done your ear training homework, you won’t have to think about the names of the intervals, simply by singing them slowly, they will become apparent.
After this you’re ready to play the phrase on your instrument (finally!). With that phrase in your ears, play those intervals that you’re hearing in your head. Focus intently on the sound and recreate this with your instrument. Remember, if you could sing it, you’re playing a phrase that’s already internalized, now it should just be a matter of instrumental technique and aural connection to get those notes to come out.
Continue to break the melody up into different sections of your own choosing. Depending on your experience and skill level it could be an entire phrase or even just two notes. The other nice thing about melodies is that the same stuff is repeated, the A sections comes back again, phrases repeat themselves, and the same intervallic material comes back again and again.
For each section, you’re going to alternate between these three areas of learning and be sure to repeat each section a few times once you’ve figured it out. This may seem like a ton to do, but I’ve just described it in a very detailed manner. In reality you might spend 30 seconds listening to a phrase, another 20 singing it with the recording and alone, and a minute playing those notes on your instrument.
After some practice you’ll be able to combine all three of these areas and constantly go back and forth between them. You’ll be able to hear a melody and be able to sing it right away, knowing the intervals and chord tones, then transferring this right to your instrument. This is the ultimate goal – to go from your ear to your instrument as if they were physically connected.
Learning vs. Guessing
Before we go any further, there is an important distinction that we must make, that between learning and guessing. When it comes to picking up melodies by ear, there is a subtle yet stark difference between hearing, singing, and learning each pitch and interval from the recording and the method of randomly guessing notes until you come up with the right one by chance.
This seems obvious and simple to do when you read it, but when you sit down with a recording and get to work, it’s a completely different story. You’re going to want to start playing with the recording right away. You’re going to try to guess the notes rather than hear the actual pitches and intervals. You’re going to start improvising along with the recording and suddenly look up and realize that you just spent 30 minutes getting off track.
Believe me, this is the hard part that you have to contend with every time.
When you see this starting to happen, take a second, stop, and re-focus. Do your best to stay on track, you’ll have plenty of time for improvising later, this is time we’re devoting to learning. Force yourself to hear each note and interval and then sing it. Once you have the melody in your ear and you can sing it exactly note for note, then you can translate this to your instrument.
A lot of players get stuck in this cycle and think they’re learning a tune by ear when in reality, they are just hitting random notes until they make a lucky guess. This process will actually take you a lot longer 30 minutes, it’s even easy to waste hours this way! Not only are you going to forget the melody because it hasn’t been ingrained properly, but you’re not picking up any useful skills in the process.
When you can sing the melody and intervals perfectly by yourself, you’re starting with the melody already internalized. You have a mental map of the melody, an aural model, and you’re going to forge a physical connection between your ear and your instrument. With the guess method, you never get that melody inside of you, it’s just note names and memorized fingerings going in one ear and out the other.
III. Repeat and review
5 – 10 minutes at the end of your session
Repetition is one of the keys to memorization. The simple act of repeating a piece of information multiple times imbeds it into our memory. We use this process when we memorize facts for a test or to remember directions when we’re driving in an unfamiliar place. And, it’s the same with music.
The difference with music however, is that we have a physical and aural connection to the information as well as a mental one. Because of this simple fact, it is much easier to commit these musical lines to memory than those other random facts and figures that we encounter on a daily basis with our minds alone.
Let’s get back to the melody of Woody’n You, we’re almost there. After you’ve figured out that sequence of melodic fragments that comprise the melody, can easily sing them, and have translated each one to your instrument, you must now play these phrases over and over again to commit them to memory. This is the part of learning a tune that will permanently ingrain these lines and intervals into your ear and mind.
Take the A section to the melody that you just figured out. Play it three times in a row with the recording and three times without the recording. Now go to the bridge. Play that section three times in a row. Next, combine the first A sections with the bridge and play them together three times in a row. I know it seems like overkill, but this is what it takes if you want to have this tune down permanently. Finally, play the entire tune, a few times with the record and a few times without it.
OK, now after 30 focused minutes, you have completely learned a melody. Good work! This melody is yours, it’s been forged into your ears and your muscle memory. Sure, every now and then you mind need a quick review, but the core of the tune is in you for good.
Take note that the step by step process above is for completely learning a melody. Notice how I include the word “completely.” With this process you’re engaging your ears, your mind, your voice, and your physical musicianship to learn that musical information. You are not just skimming the surface of the melody, you’re diving in head first, absorbing the sound with every aspect of yourself, and coming out with this melody ingrained into your musical being.
But wait, you’re not done after you do this. You also need to get some pesky other things like the chord progression. Just like learning the melody can take varying amounts of time depending on your skill level, the time it takes to hear and figure out the chord progression is directly related to your ears and experience. Use the same process above to hear the chord changes to the melodies you’re learning.
If you’re still not satisfied after this, learn the melody in all 12 keys. Once you have it learned and ingrained in one key, moving those lines to other keys will be easier than you think. After you get a few tunes under your belt in this fashion, the entire process gets much easier and much faster.
Learning tunes like this is a skill, if you don’t do it for a while, you’re going to get rusty. Ideally you want to learn something by ear everyday. It doesn’t have to be an entire solo or even an entire tune, it can just be a short line that caught your ear or a melodic fragment that you heard on the radio that day. Whatever it may be, absorb it aurally and try to reproduce both vocally and instrumentally.
When you first start out, this process might take you longer than 30 minutes. There are a lot of factors to contend with: the length of the tune, the complexity of the melody, the level of your ears, your experience with learning melodies by ear, your focus that day in the practice room, and so on.
However, the more you follow this process to learn tunes, the faster it will take to ingrain them. After a while, you might even find yourself hearing a melody on a recording, singing along with it, and knowing exactly what it is, without even having to get your instrument out.
This is the goal, to understand and connect with music on an organic emotional level. After all, those pianos, guitars, basses, drums, and horns that we play are really just tools – metal, wooden, and plastic tools that we’ve constructed to amplify the true instrument inside all of us.
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