Learning the Music

It’s been a month or so, so it’s nigh time I write a new article to throw up here for the adoring masses who read my blog. This time the subject is memorizing music, and why it might be a good idea to learn the song.

You know, just in case you need to play it.

In the past year or so I’ve played with a large number of different original artists and bands, and the big struggle has been learning and memorizing new music constantly. It’s a tradeoff, you can’t afford large amounts of time to learning new sets for new artists, but at the same time, you can’t afford to look unprofessional by not being completely prepared on the gig. What’s a working musician to do?

Like anything, the way to get good at memorizing music is to do it. A lot. Constant practice really forces you to get into the mental state where you can absorb large amounts of information at a time and “chunk it” down to simpler building blocks. Like words in written language, you should never be thinking note-by-note (like we don’t think letter-by-letter), but rather thinking in the context of how notes are grouped, and the musical logic behind how they are grouped. Like how language is grouped into letters-words-phrases-sentences-paragraphs-chapters-etc, music is grouped into similar structures (notes, chords, phrases, progressions, sections, songs), and someone who is skilled at memorizing music parses all information they are listening to/reading into these categories. While always impressive, it takes no protegy to memorize and play back a song they have heard upon only one listen. Skilled memorizers are able to construct what they’re listening to into a logical musical story and recall it all back in the moment.

After all, as a working stiff once said to me, “you know, all songs are basically the same, anyway.” For most pop rock songs, this is true, relying heavily on variations on verse-chorus-bridge form. Same thing with small ensemble jazz, which is extremely beholden to tune form and variations thereof. Once you really get the gist of a certain musical style’s formal customs, it becomes extremely easy to understand what might seem to the others as a large amount of information.

What helps in any of these situations is the quality of music you are memorizing. I wont name names, but there are some artists I’ve worked for where the music I was playing was on simple and straight forward enough, but was extremely difficult to memorize because it simply wasn’t memorable enough for my brain to latch onto easily. I had to listen to the music far more times than I cared to in order to memorize what should have been a straightforward assignment. In contrast, I’ve worked with some artists who’s music is very complicated and arranged, and haven’t had the slightest bit of trouble memorizing the tunes by the second or third pass just because they were so well constructed and so memorable. Give and take.

Anyway, in the past couple months, my views have rather hardened against having music in front of me while I’m performing for a crowd. My number one rule is now no charts on the gig. If you know whats going to be played ahead of time, learn the music! Why? Live performance in rock/pop/small ensemble jazz/whathaveyou is almost like a play where the actors on the stage just happen to be playing music instead of speaking lines. The audience is watching as much as listening, and every physical gesture and movement on stage is scrutinized by the audience as much as the music they are listening to. Playing onstage with music is like acting with a screenplay being held in front of you. Yes, a capable actor could deliver a lot even if they were reading from a screenplay, even from the first read-through. But there would be a lot missing, and the same goes for people who are attached to charts.

Of course, there are traditionally accepted exceptions to this rule. Big band jazz, no matter how simply arranged, everybody including the rhythm section is on book. Significantly complicated arrangements in any style often allow for music on stage, especially if horn players are involved (horn players almost always are allowed music). All orchestral/symphonic music is invariably performed with music on the stands, and most chamber music is as well. Pit orchestras are always on book without exception.

Now, it certainly isn’t the level of complexity which keeps the musicians glued to the page. Concert pianists (and other instrumentalists) are required to put to memory an ungodly number of notes per performance, and they do it without complaining. The most complicated and fast and obnoxious Frank Zappa tunes in 11 time signatures at once were always memorized by his musicians.

Anyway, just my 2 cents on the matter.



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Welcome to Adam Neely's blog/website. Check out his compositions, links, and information about lessons on the top bar, and enjoy the music!

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