My Process for Learning Songs

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One of the most important skills I believe we can develop as musicians is learning how to internalize new songs quickly.  One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to create solo arrangements.  This is especially useful for  guitarists who don’t often perform solo.  Creating a self-contained arrangement can really help engrain the 3 most important elements of a song – melody, harmony, and form.

Below is my solo arrangement for guitar of the great Bill Evans tune, Waltz for Debby. I hope you enjoy!

[youtube id=”osSLUBisHsc”]

If you’re interested in learning more about the process of learning and internalizing songs, keep reading!


I remember a period in college where I had lost much of my drive and passion for music.  I was spending all my time and energy focusing on career stuff, and I had forgotten why I loved music so much.  At the same time, I felt frustrated because I was struggling to retain what I was learning in my guitar lessons.

In response, my jazz guitar teacher, Tom Hynes, really challenged me to do two things.

  1. Find music that I loved and use that as learning material.
  2. Go deeper when learning songs by creating solo arrangements.

His advice was spot on.  I was doing neither.  As a result, Waltz For Debby became a mini project of mine.  It was a song I always loved and one that would be a great challenge.  Below is the process I arrived at and now use for learning new music.

Getting “Inside” The Song

This is how Tom describes it.  He challenged me to really get “inside” and truly understand melody, harmony, and form.  That’s our goal here – to dive deep into all 3 and then step back and understand them in relationship to one another.

  1. Form first.  Understanding how the song is built is the foundation for the whole process.  Spend time identifying the different sections and how the phrases are divided up.  In Waltz for Debby, there are 5 main sections each with 16 bars.  Those 16 bars are all divided up into 4s (4+4+4+4).  It follows an A, A’, B , A, A” form.  Having just this information makes a huge difference.  It tell us that much of the song is repeated material and shows us which sections might need more attention.
  2. Melody next.  Learn the melody section by section.  And again take notice of any similarities or differences in the melody throughout the different sections.  If you’re a guitarist, you should be able to play the melody from memory in at least 2 octaves and at least 3 different locations on the neck.  Also, be able to sing the melody.  This helps internalize each interval.
  3. Harmony last.  I like to approach harmony by stripping the song down to it’s basic level.  Again, use the form as your guide.  Write down the chords, but ignore all the extended harmony and any inversions so you’re left with only the basics.  Then write down the tonal centers and chord functions of each section.  Here’s how the first 8 bars might look in Waltz For Debby.
  4. Waltz for Debby Example
    Doing this in sections will help you recall all the chords.  It’s much easier to remember patterns and chord relationships in 5 sections than to simply remember the order of dozens of chords.
  5. Glue It All Together – Create A Solo Arrangement.  In this step, this is where all 3 elements come together.  Work out a way to play both the harmony and melody simultaneously as best you can.  Take notice how each note works with each chord and how it relates to the form.  You’ll start to notice more patterns and details you might have missed before.  And if it’s a great tune, you’ll keep finding new ways of seeing the song.
  6. Practice and Perform.  Once you’ve got your solo arrangement, you of course need to practice it, but I’d also recommend finding an opportunity to perform it (without sheet music) in front of an audience.  There’s nothing like performing publicly to add stakes and consequences for motivation 🙂  Even if it’s just performing for friends.  It’s a great way to motivate yourself to learn and internalize new music.

Wrap Up

I’ll leave you with a few tips and thoughts if you decide to give this a try.

  • Start slow
  • Listen to many different versions of the same song.  Spotify and YouTube are a tremendous free resources for this.
  • Write on paper.  Make your own lead sheets and mark them up with lots of notes.  I have some free downloads here if you want.
  • Try doing the whole process by ear, without using any sheet music.
  • Be patient, spend a few weeks even on 1 song.  The first few will take a while, but the process will become easier and you’ll start to notice patterns more quickly.
  • Practice improvising over the changes with and without a backing track.
  • Look for opportunities to tweak and change the song to make it your own.

What are your thoughts on this process?  What has worked well for you in the song learning process?



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One thought on “My Process for Learning Songs

  1. Hey, Gary – Just found you today! you’re my new best friend! I first heard jazz AFTER an education in classical piano performance! Not that I could do it, but I tried, and still think chord understanding, and some improvisation ESSENTIAL for pianists. I teach very small children even music basics through sounds and improvisation which I first tried with great Memphian, Tom Ferguson, and Stan Kenton Summer Band Camps 1975-6-7. The mysterious world became clearer with time and practice. You wrote it all down much better than I have done, and I thank you. I’ll stay with you here!

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