How I Memorize Songs

I think a lot of people look at a list of songs and think how am I ever going to remember all these songs? Well, start looking for things that can help you remember the order of the chords, know what key you play it in, make a list and run through them more often than not. Unfortunately these aren’t quick fixes… it takes time, work and patience to have a catalog organized within your brain.

Learn The Song By Ear

Yes, doing a quick google search might be the quickest way to initially learn the song, but it’s also the quickest way to forget it. Learning the song by ear has numerous benefits:

  1. You have to listen to the song… intensely.
  2. You can assure it’s accuracy (unlike online guitar tabs/chord charts).
  3. You’ll hear something someone else might not have.
  4. Amazing practice.
  5. It gets easier the more you do it.
  6. You put you’re blood, sweat and tears into learning it, so you’ll be less likely to forget it.

Break Things Down

Start looking for chord “cycles”, when a chord progression repeats. A lot of songs have a repeating 2, 4 or 8 chord cycles. When you can start identifying when things repeat you may find out a 4 or 5 minute song is comprised of 3 repeating chord cycles that use a lot of the same chords!

Chords as Numbers

Instead of looking at the chords/riffs in the song as the note names they are, start thinking about them as numbers. I have a video lesson, Chords as Numbers?!, that’s part of a 8 part series entitled “Usable Guitar Theory” (or UGT for short) that’s great for understanding the theory behind it. This then makes it easier to relate to other songs (oh hey, this is the same I – V – vi  – IV progression as the other song), change keys and helps you utilize chords as numbers. With anything, the more you utilize it, the easier it gets.


I put this second mainly because changing keys using our chords as numbers makes it easier, but keys are likely to change depending on your voice or the voice of the person you’re playing with. When I sing a song, I typically lower it, because singing isn’t my strong suit (I am a guitar teacher after all 🙂 ). So what does that mean? I take note of what the original key is, and the key I like to sing it in.

Maybe you don’t plan on performing the song either with you singing it or with someone else… changing the key can really drive home how to play the song. For example, if the song is in C, try testing yourself on playing it in G, A, E, D, Bb, F and if you can start switching the key at will, you’ll probably know the song better than the person who wrote it.

Make a List

Here’s a pretty simple one, but one that often gets lost. Make a list of the songs you learn. Open up word, open office or google docs and start a list that you can refer to what songs you’ve learned. Often times I’ll put the key next to it, or maybe even some notes next to it that can jog my memory. With most of the word processor programs you can have it organized by letter (open office it’s called something along the lines of “Sort”). Try to keep it organized either by song title first or artist first, that way you can have a neat and tidy list of the songs you’ve learned.

Run Through the Songs (!!!)

So you have your chords organized as numbers, know what key you do it in (or someone you play with’s key), and have a list… what else? Run through them! Maybe make a list of 10-15 songs you want to run through each week, or 2 “review” songs a day you run through. I don’t think there’s many guitar players that can pull songs they haven’t ran through in years as if they just played it yesterday. Yes, Tommy Emmanuel can, but I’m sure he’d notice some things that are a bit rusty in that song he hasn’t played in years that mere mortals like us don’t hear.

Usually you don’t need to run through the whole song in order to get a grip on what encompasses the majority part of the song. Sometimes just running through the intro/verse/chorus for a minute or two starts bringing everything back.

However many you want to run through, however often, try to make a point to play some of the songs you’ve spent time learning in the past.


*Lyrics have always been my weak point, so I have no recommendations of memorizing those, but I have amassed a large list of songs I can pull off out of the blue using these techniques. Hopefully they help develop your song list to be bigger and better than ever.