“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot, and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
This article is for the singer-songwriter who yearns to take their craft to the next level. Whether you have penned over a hundred originals, or haven’t quite finished your first song yet, it will arm you with the tools you need to educate and inspire yourself on a daily basis. The piece is written for guitarists learning guitar songs, but the principles within can be equally applied to learning your favourite songs, whatever your instrument.
Nothing will move you forward quite so rapidly on your song writing journey as learning a huge repertoire of songs. And nothing will make that path so joyful – not to mention easy to stay on – as choosing to focus only on your absolute favourite songs.
Learning one or two is a step in the right direction, but in the act of learning dozens and even hundreds, in a deep, focused manner, something magical happens to your mind. Your eyes slowly open to patterns that were invisible to you before. You discover a newfound respect for the rules of your favourite genres and you learn how to break them with style. You see for yourself just how simple most of your best-loved songs are. You demystify the act of creation, humanise the creators themselves, and realise this truth, from Marcus Aurelius, the last of the 5 great Roman emperors:
“Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; and if it is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach.”
Here is the 7 step strategy for learning 100 of your favourite songs in 100 days. But first, let’s look at the common pitfalls when it comes to learning a song.
How we usually learn songs
If you’re like most of us trying to learn songs in 2016, your approach looks something like this:
1) You listen to a song you like and feel the desire to play it yourself. You get so excited about the prospect of being able to play it that you decide enough is enough.
2) You Google the chords and lyrics.
3) You try to play it through, alternating between looking at the screen and looking at your wrist.
4) If it’s easy enough, you play it through and move on to some other activity, like making a sandwich.
5) If it’s difficult, you struggle through, trying your best, stopping and starting. Either you persevere, or you give up and move on to some other activity, like making a sandwich.
There is nothing necessarily evil about this approach – it’s how I learnt a great deal of the songs I know, and how I made a great deal of the sandwiches I made – but it is a weak approach. If you’re serious about learning songs – and every songwriter should be – it will hold you back both short-term and long-term. Why?
Your excitement level is high, and that’s a wonderful thing, but it’s all you’ve got. Your focus is shallow – you aren’t doing anything to imprint that song upon your subconscious, and so your learning remains superficial. You aren’t taking steps to maintain what you learn, so your mind becomes a sieve – it cannot help but forget. And if you’re like most of us, when you encounter that first hint of resistance, you give up. In short, you are a general going into battle with great fanfare and little else, instantly flopping at the hands of the enemy.
You need strategy. You might win the odd battle and learn how to play the odd song with the above approach, but that’s about all you’ll do. And although being able to play your favourite songs is awesome, we’re aiming for something bigger. We’re looking to understand the deeper truths of song writing – the ones that a quick run-through of Wonderwall will not uncover – in order to craft our own masterpieces. We don’t just want to play the damn thing – we want to remember it, and internalise the universal laws of song.
Armed with a superior strategy, you can elegantly stack the decks in your favour and achieve everything I just promised, as well as one last, very important step – making this journey, this life-long pursuit of mastery, a blast.
Why do I need to learn so many songs? I want to be a songwriter – can’t I just write my own songs?
Yes, you can. And you should. Daily.
I used to be afraid that if I simply learnt 100s of songs, they would be so inside me that I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything “original”. This is a legitimate fear, but a completely unfounded one. The opposite is true: by learning a wide range of songs, particularly ones that really get you excited, you are not getting in the way of your own creativity at all – your creative self is a seed, and in learning your favourite songs you are giving it the sunlight and water it needs to thrive.
Hunter S Thompson, before going onto write his seminal masterpieces “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “The Rum Diary”, decided to type out his two favourite novels – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” – in their entirety, on the typewriters at his Time Life magazine job. He did this to learn how a novel was put together, and to get right down into the trenches of the craft.
It’s simple: if you want your own work to be all it can be, pay deep attention to what others have already done. Take advantage of the work others have already done for you, then build upon on it.
Before we begin
Some steps in this strategy, like handwriting the lyrics, are exclusively analogue – use paper and a pen. Others, like making your initial list of 100 songs, or your playlist, can be accomplished on a spreadsheet or a word document – this offers the possibility of quickly numbering things, and it looks neater. If you do use a computer for any of these steps, I heavily recommend printing it out when you’re finished.
PRE-GAME: How to ensure success down the road
1) Make a list of 100 songs you love
Get out a fresh sheet of paper and a pen, and start writing down the songs you love the most. Don’t be embarrassed – if you really love “YMCA” by The Village People, put it on your list. And don’t be intimidated by a song that seems tricky. If you get stuck, go to wherever you keep the music you listen to and use that for inspiration. When you reach 100, stop. Look at your list. Do you love all those songs? Be honest. If not, replace the ones you’re not sure about with better songs. When you love every last one, you are done. This is the most important step – get this right and the whole process will be easier and way more fun.
The power of making this list is simple – it will take away the daily pressure of choosing a song to learn. With a 100-strong list of songs you love, each new day will give you something you can look forward to sitting down and sinking your teeth into. Your focus should be on freeing up your limited willpower to learn the songs, not wasting it on decisions you could have made at the start of the journey.
Why do I keep stressing that these songs need to be songs that you love? Because if you don’t love them, you won’t care enough, and you will give up. It almost happened to me once.
In 2011, when I decided to become a full-time busker, I had just one rule for myself – “only play songs you love.” Fortunately, there was a huge crossover between what I loved and what my audience seemed to, and I did fine, but over time I couldn’t help noticing that when I played certain songs more people threw more money into my case. I started to think of ways I could capitalise on this.
My greed got the better of me – I had the bright idea to try and learn every single UK Number 1 since the charts began, and make that my daily playlist. How could this not result in making loads more money? So I made the list, learnt a few songs I didn’t really care for, and added them to my playlist. The result? I didn’t make any more money playing the new songs than the ones I’d been playing before, and I started to really hate going busking. Thankfully I saw what was going on, and after just a few days, I dropped the new songs, doubled down on my “only play songs you love” rule, and never looked back.
Life’s too short for anything you don’t love, and I promise you that there are more than enough songs you do love to keep you happily occupied for the rest of your life.
Warning to the super-organised: I advise against making a schedule for learning your songs, for example “On Monday I will learn This Love by Maroon 5, on Tuesday I will learn I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom by Robert Johnson…” If you do, I guarantee you won’t stick to it, and even if you do, you’ll develop feelings of resentment. A calendar is for must-dos only, and if your list contains only songs you love, simply scan it at the start of your session and pick one that you’ve not done yet. In 100 days they’ll all be done, and as long as you tackle one each day, it really doesn’t matter which.
2) Commit to learning just one song a day
I) Commit to learning one song each day.
II) Pick an hour-long window of time available to you each day to spend learning songs, and find a place you won’t be disturbed.
I) When I want to achieve a thing like learning 100 songs, my natural sense of ambition shoots me in the foot. I get very excited about who I will be when I’ve learnt them all. I make an unrealistic plan to get it all done as quickly as possible, like “learn 10 songs a day.” I learn one or two, and then I give up, feeling shit about myself. Don’t do this. Slow yourself down in order to go faster. Think of the tortoise and the hare. Make the steps on your path sustainable, and you make it much easier for your feet to keep walking.
If “one a day” still sounds too easy for you, as it did for me, and you think you have the requisite time and energy to learn the songs at a faster pace, I won’t try to stop you.
But think of it like this: one song a day might sound like nothing, yet 30 songs in 30 days sounds pretty cool. Are most of your months as productive as that? I know mine aren’t. And 100 in just over 3 months? That’s about 6 hours of music that you didn’t know how to play before, sitting in your mind, ready for you to play any time you like.
II) Using this strategy, you should be able to, within an hour, go from having merely listened to a song, to being well on your way to remembering it forever. As you go on and the process becomes more familiar, you’ll find it takes less time.
The amount of time it takes you doesn’t really matter – what does is making the time you spend on the process distraction-free. There is nothing so powerful in this world as deep focus, and as Steve Jobs said: “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” When you’re trying to work on something, and your phone is next to you, it doesn’t even have to go off to reduce your focus. Turn off your phone, shut the door, and be as present as you can.
Your mind thrives on routine, and that’s why in the long-run it’s easier to choose the same hour of each and every day to learn your songs, but don’t despair if your schedule doesn’t allow this – you won’t hurt your progress in any way by starting at 2 today, and at 5 tomorrow.
THE GAME: How to learn the song
3) Lay the foundations: Structure
Get a fresh piece of paper and a pen. Listen to the song as many times as you need to and outline the structure in a simple fashion. Put an “R” next to sections that are merely repeats.
Example: Frank and Jesse James by Warren Zevon
VIOLIN AND GUITAR SOLO
PIANO INTRO again
CHORUS X2 R
This step – working out the architecture of the song – is frequently overlooked, but it teaches us as much about how to write a song as any other step, and perhaps more. Breaking the whole song up into its component parts makes it less intimidating – many parts of a song are merely repeats of another part. In the above example, you can see the song is divided into 10 sections. Lyrically, there are 3 verses and a chorus – just 4 distinct sections to learn. And musically, there is an intro, verse, chorus and solo – again, just 4 things to learn.
Personally, I do this step because without it, I cannot for the life of me remember how many verses and choruses songs have, or where they go. Once you’ve learnt the music and lyrics of your 100 songs, you may find that keeping a little cheat sheet of structure helps you, because not knowing the structure, more than the chords or the lyrics, is what leads to that awkward moment of getting halfway through a raucous version of “Hotel California” with friends over a few beers round a fire, and finding yourself saying “Oh, God, what comes next?” Not any more, my friend.
4) Get the lyrics down
Get a new sheet of paper and a pen. Play the song, and write down the lyrics as you hear them, using double spaced lines, pausing and rewinding to check your work. Don’t worry if you can’t figure out what’s being sung – you have permission to use Google if that happens, but make sure to transfer your findings onto your sheet of paper.
“That’s why doing it physically is so important. I am invested in each one of these cards. I made them and arranged them with my own hands. This tactile relationship helps. As one reader put it, it helps make a “memory palace.”
Ryan Holiday, talking about his notecard system.
Yes, the easier option would be to load up your computer and Google the lyrics, but we’re trying to LEARN this song, not just read it off a screen. There is magic in writing by hand – as Ryan says, it creates a “tactile relationship”. You are creating something real and physical, and although most of us can type faster than we can write, the extra time taken is worth every second – it pays dividends in focus, retention, and even just the added mental clarity that comes from not looking at a screen.
Transcribing lyrics by ear might feel strange at first, but you’ll grow to love it – I can’t tell you how many songs I’ve listened to hundreds of times and never paid attention to lyrically that just came alive after I listened with the intense focus transcription requires. This step will probably take longest the first time you do it, but over 100 days you can be sure that not only will you speed up, your ear will have reached new heights of attentiveness.
When you outlined the structure of the song, you made note of which sections repeat – you don’t need to transcribe these lyrics more than once.
5) Fill in the chords
Write the chords of the song above the lyrics. Depending on your experience and ability, you can use your ear, check the chords online, or use a combination of both.
This is the trickiest step for a couple of reasons. First, we all have different levels of ear ability – personally, I have never struggled with working the chords out to a song using just my ear, whereas some players I’ve met who outshine me in every single aspect of playing the guitar can’t do it to save their life.
The second reason this is a tricky step is that ever since I started to use the internet to learn songs, in about 2002, well-meaning but very unhelpful people have littered the information highway with the wrong chords for songs. Even worse than posting the wrong chords – an honest mistake – is when they preface their version with “don’t think these are the right chords, but…” well, maybe don’t post them then? A similar thing happens when books of pop songs designed for beginners simplify the chords. “Let It Be” goes from the intense and centuries-tested “C G Am F”, to the wussy, path-of-least-resistance “C G C F”. I know why they’re doing it, but harmonic climate matters, and is every bit as crucial as melody. The wrong chords make it the wrong song.
I guarantee you that any attempt to work out the chords by yourself will greatly improve your ability, and I implore and encourage you to try, even if it seems almost impossible at first. But until you can do it for yourself, you have only one fail-safe solution: find a friend with a good ear to tell you what the chords are. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to help. Seriously – let me know.
6) Play it three times
Play from your sheet three times in a row. If you’re feeling brave, try to look away and keep going. Put an asterisk next to any areas of the song that you’re still getting stuck on during the third play.
You’ve listened to the song several times now. You’ve outlined its structure, you’ve transcribed the lyrics with your own unique penmanship, and you’ve either transcribed the chords. You’re in the zone. You and the song are becoming one. All that remains is to play it.
Play it three times, first of all because repetition is the key to mastery, but also because this will make clear to you the few little bits that you find difficult to play, or to remember. Note these down with an asterisk after the third play and work on them in isolation. If you played the song enough times, you would find yourself naturally perfecting and remembering them eventually, but plucking them out and exposing them to the cold light of day will make that happen much quicker.
7) Add the song to your playlist, and play your playlist
If this is your first song, get a fresh sheet of paper, and title it “My Playlist.” When you finish learning each song, add it to this list. Play through each song as regularly as you can – you are allowed to look at the chords and lyrics – and as your playlist grows, carve out some time each week to play through as many as possible.
Keeping track of your progress in a simple list is a fantastic way to ensure your ongoing motivation. To really learn these songs, you need to be playing them on a regular basis.
At first, when your list contains only a few songs, you will easily be able to play them all in a single session. As the weeks go by, however, your list will grow too long to be able to play through every song every day. The songs at the top of your list will also have been given more attention than the newer ones. What to do?
Carve some time out in your calendar – perhaps on a Sunday evening or some other time you know you’re likely to be free – and play through as many as you can. If the songs you are learning are around 3 minutes in length, then 30 songs will take you about 2 hours to get through. I recommend playing through as many as you can without getting obsessive about how you might be playing some more and neglecting others.
You will naturally be drawn to playing the ones that are the most fun to play, and this is nothing to be ashamed of – learning and playing songs should be a joy. But keeping all your songs in a list, and referring to it every day means you will notice the ones at the top of the list that you haven’t played for a while. It helps keep the process relaxed.
Appendix: What do I do if I need to change the key of the song?
I wasn’t cut out to be a pop singer – my voice is too deep. I’ve done okay with what I’ve got – I discovered singers like Leonard Cohen, Lee Hazlewood, and Lou Reed, whose material I could sing fine, and I write my own songs for my own voice. But I want to learn Beach Boys songs. I want to learn Joni Mitchell songs. I want to learn Kate Bush songs. My only option is to change the key of most songs I sing.
There are two ways to change the key of a song to adjust to your own voice. The first is to use a capo. A capo is a small device that clips on to the neck of your guitar and raises the pitch, depending on which fret you put the capo on. With this approach, you play the same chords you play without the capo, and they sound higher. It works beautifully, but only if you want to sing in a higher key than the original.
The second approach is to transpose the chords into the key you want to sing in – if the chord progression is G to C to F, and you want to sing 2 frets higher, you simply rewrite the chords so that you can play A to D to G. The advantage to this approach is that you can go higher or lower, unlike with the capo. The disadvantage is that it takes a little longer, and you have to apply some thought.
I recommend using the capo when you want to go higher, and learning to transpose when you want to go lower. It’s a great skill to learn, and an easy one to learn, too. Simply figure out how many frets lower you want to go, write A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab at the top of your page, and transpose each chord you encounter down the relevant amount.