How to Grow as a Musician by Learning Songs
“Leave a human being alone with a knotted rope, and they will unravel it.” We are natural problem solvers. Video games, crossword puzzles, riddles... There’s something about how our brains are wired that makes it enjoyable to focus on something and fix it.
We solve problems not just because we have to, but for fun. This might be the reason that learning songs is such a great way to grow as a musician and become a better guitarist. Our brains works at their best when they're focused on solving a specific problem. Focusing on real-world tasks or problems is one of the core principles for effective learning.
Especially in the first couple of years when you’re mastering the basic skills your instrument, this strategy is incredibly effective and makes you progress fast. You’re dealing with actual problems that you run into when making music, instead of learning skills with some vague idea of ‘I might use this one day...’.
But when you get to a certain skill level, things can slow down a bit. You know a bunch of songs and can play them pretty well. New songs aren’t as challenging as they used to be. It doesn’t take as much time to play through a new piece and 'kind of' learn it.
At the same time, these new songs don’t seem to help you as much in growing as a musician and guitarist. Of course, that isn’t really a problem as long as you’re having fun, but this seeming lack of progress can become frustrating. It feels like you’re plateauing. Stuck at the same level.
Some musicians feel that learning songs can no longer help to progress in any meaningful way from that point on, and that you need to start doing technical exercises, delve into music theory, scales and so on.
But perhaps the problem isn’t so much the strategy, but the execution of the strategy. What often happens, is that you find a song, look up a tab, gloss over the song and learn the 80% that comes easily. And you’re not that precise about the 80% either. You’re playing all the stuff that’s in your comfort zone. And as a result, you’re not progressing in any meaningful way.
But it’s also possible to learn new songs and get better with every single one of them. If you go about it the right way, it can be an extremely effective approach. Learning new songs teaches you new techniques, approaches, chords and concepts, and all in a musical context. You learn stuff you like to listen to and you learn how to use it. But you have to go about it in the right way. Here are the three changes I’ve made for myself that have helped me immensely.
1. Use your ears instead of tabs
Using a tab to learn a song, is like tracing a picture instead of actually learning how to draw. The result might look the same, but it matters how you got there. Tabs are incredibly useful when you’re just getting started, but at some point it can start to hinder your progress. The reason? By using tab, you’re bypassing what is perhaps the most important skill of musicianship: playing by ear.
I know this sounds a bit like I’m telling you to floss everyday. I’m not talking about what’s often considered ‘ear training’, where a teacher, an app or a website plays chords or intervals on a piano and you have to say what they are. What I’m talking about is the amazingly free experience of playing from your musical imagination. Where something pops into your mind and your hands just do it. It might be one of the most gratifying experiences of making music... And it starts by figuring stuff out by ear and strengthening the connection between your ears and your hands.
Consider how you learn something by ear.
- You listen.
- You remember the music. You stick it in your brain.
- You figure out how to translate the sound you’ve got in your brain into movements of your hands.
This last step is absolutely crucial. But with tabs you’re skipping it altogether and working the other way ‘round. You start out with what happens on your fretboard and match that with the rough sound you have in mind.
This might seem like a minor difference, but it’s not. You don’t have to stress your memory to figure out what you’re hearing exactly. You don’t go through the process of looking for that note on your fretboard. You’re not translating the sound in your mind into movements and you aren’t strengthening that connection between ears and hands.
When you figure something out by ear, the whole process creates a much deeper and richer understanding of the music than just which frets to press and string to hit. Often, guitar players don’t really make that connection from the tab to the actual music and... well the results are less than spectacular. When you start from the music, you’re actually treating your instrument like an instrument. A means through which you recreate the sound you have in your head.
Figuring out something by ear creates a much deeper and richer understanding of the music.
Of course, if you have little experience with learning songs by ear, it will take longer at first. But once you’ve figured out something by ear, the song tends to be ingrained in your brain in a way that it isn’t when you ‘cheat’ and check out a tab on ultimate guitar. After a while, it will actually take less time to learn music by ear than to google it, because you’re immediately making the connection between what you hear and how to play it. Plus: you’ll usually have it memorised instantly too.
It’s completely fine to check out a tab or ask a friend when you get stuck. Because you listened first, the ‘answer’ will have much more impact. You’ll be going ‘Right! I knew it was something like that!’ You’d gotten half of the answer yourself, but lacked the experience to figure it out exactly. Now that you’ve tried it, couldn’t quite figure it out, and then got the answer, you’ve just become a little bit more experienced. Next time you run into something similar, you’ll know what to do!
I realise, it can be pretty overwhelming when you start out. To me, it always seemed like magic when my instructor would hear something, and just immediately produce that exact same thing on his guitar. Crazy! Check out this lesson on how to learn songs by ear for a step-by-step approach and a free worksheet to get you started!
2. Go for the 100%
A huge pitfall is to ‘kind of’ learn a song. You might learn the intro and the first verse. Or learn anything except the bridge that seemed a bit difficult. Cherry picking can be incredibly beneficial when you’re starting out. In that stage, pretty much anything you play on your instrument will help you progress. But such habits won’t serve you well when you reach the next level... You need to push yourself to learn challenging parts if you want to grow as a musician and guitarist. Here's three ways how.
A Be able do put on the record and play it from start to finish. This approach will push your limits because you can’t just pick the parts of the song that you’re comfortable with and stay within your comfort zone. You’re pushing yourself to learn new things. You’ll soak up all the subtle and wonderful ideas hidden in the song that you’d otherwise miss out on. If there are some technical aspects that are still out of reach, don’t skip those parts but simplify them so that you can still play the whole piece. This will teach you so much about how a song is constructed, how it repeats certain elements, how parts connect... You’ll experience the song on a much deeper level.
B Make sure you’ve really got the parts down. Don’t settle for a rough estimation: dig into a part and nail it. Make sure you really know what’s going on in a part and that you can copy the recording’s timing as closely as possible. Bonus points: record yourself playing along to the song and notice any differences.
C There’s a saying that goes “Amateurs practice until they can get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” You’ve gotten to a level that requires a professional approach to improve. Practice a song until you feel confident that you can play it without mistakes at least ten times in a row.
In short: don’t go for ‘good enough’. Go for ‘the best I can possibly do!’
3. Try to understand the song
You’ve mastered the song. You like it. But why?
What’s going on in the music that sends shivers down your spine. What makes it feel like your pants are on fire? Why does it sound heart breaking?
For me, music theory started with slight obsession. I wanted to understand why I liked my favourite music. What was going on? By investigating music I knew well, theory was never boring to me. It helped me understand more of what made great music.
Think of yourself as a painter studying Rembrandt or van Gogh. When you start out, you learn about colours such as yellow, purple and green. But soon, you’ll be recognising more subtle shades such as cerise, sky blue and limegreen. You recognise them, but you don't know what they’re called yet.
In the same way, music theory gives names to sounds you already know. Once you’ve put a label on a sound, you’ll start to recognise it in other music. Whether it’s certain chord progressions, time signatures, harmonic changes, song forms... Anything.
Theory will also help you make sense of those sounds. And once you understand what’s going on on a theoretical level too, this opens up all sort of options. You can start using rhythms and harmonies in your own songs. You’ll recognise the same musical elements in other music, but you’ll also recognise things that are kind of like it. “There's some red in it and blue... Oh this is called purple!” It’ll also make learning songs by ear much easier, because you’ll start to recognise patterns.
So, when you’ve mastered a new song, it can be useful to analyse it and gain a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the song. Maybe there’s that one song with the rhythm that you can reproduce, but you don’t really know what’s going on. Delve into it. Find out what’s happening. Maybe it’s those two chords in the bridge that for some reason sound supremely awesome. Find out why!
Breaking habits and making better ones
I’ve used plenty of exercises to improve my playing. But for me, learning songs was always where the most progress seemed to happen. In any case, it was more fun. These strategies should help you make the most out of learning new material. It might take some effort to break old habits of kind of learning half of a song, but it’s worth it! So if you’re learning a new song, try at least one the strategies. It’ll pay off.
Any other ways that you make the most out of learning new material? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment or send me a message at Just (at) Stringkick.com