Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why Memorize?

I have played a variety of different instruments and a variety of different styles of music, but none seem to rely on memorization as much as bluegrass or folk music.  These two styles (and there are certainly more) lend themselves to playing in groups with others by ear.  This means that you must be able to memorize songs.  I will write another blog about HOW to memorize for those of you that find it difficult, but for now, I want to tell you WHY it's important.

It helps to develop your ear.  I realize some people are visual learners and some are auditory learners.  If you are a visual learner, you may find memorization harder in the beginning, but you CAN do it.  I teach it.  I see my students learn to do it.  Even those that think they can't.  When you memorize, you start using your ears.  You listen more intently and you start to memorize by sound rather than by rote finger positions.

As your ear develops, you begin to hear chord changes.  I love when my students tell me they have started to hear where chord changes are.  This usually starts after my students start playing in small groups or jams.  At first, they can't tell at all where any chord changes are.  They can't anticipate anything.  Then, they start to hear where the changes are in certain songs.  They stop counting and start listening to the song.  After a while, they are even able to anticipate chord changes in songs they don't know.  They may not know what chord to change to, but they hear where it happens.  After a while, some students are even able to anticipate what the chord changes are.  (There are "formulas" for which chords will most often appear in any given key, but I am referring to actually hearing the correct chord as the music progresses.)

As your ear develops, you begin to recognize certain patterns of notes.  I believe this is most true for Scruggs style banjo players.  That is because Scruggs style banjo playing is not note driven.  It is lick driven.  Individual notes aren't the main thing that happens.  Individual notes become part of rolls and various licks.  Even a beginning banjo player will learn to recognize something like the "G Lick" pretty quickly when listening to banjo picking.  Can you recognize a simple scale?  Most people can.  You might not know WHAT scale, but you can tell it's a scale.  And you can tell if a wrong note is played in a scale.  That is because your ear has learned to recognize the pattern of a major scale.

Your speed will improve because you are not impeded by how quick your eyesight is.  Your muscle memory will take over and help you play through passages that you think you have forgotten.  How do you know you are using muscle memory?  Try to slow down a song you have memorized.  I mean REALLY slow it down.  Are you still able to play it?  Can you remember it?  Or do you have to pick up the speed again to get through the song?  If you can't play the song slowly but you are still able to play it faster, that means you are using muscle memory.  You are no longer thinking about every individual note.  The best teachers are able to play using both muscle memory and by thinking about every note.  (And this is something I believe all serious players should learn to do...but that's a topic for another day.)

You will be able to learn new songs faster.  This happens not just because your memory gets better as you use it more, but also because you start to know where each sound (or note) is on your instrument.  You also start to recognize certain licks or patterns of notes that you have used in other songs.  And those you already have memorized!  Yay!

You will be able to play songs in jams "on the fly."  One of the questions I get most often is how do I play a song that I have never heard before.  People are amazed that I can hear the melody once and then duplicate it (or come close) right away.  This actually has a simple answer.  By memorizing lots of songs, you start to recognize that many songs have similar melodies or chord patterns.  When I hear a new song in a jam, I don't memorize the entire song immediately.  I compare the new song to something that I already know, and then I just take note of the differences.  So perhaps one song is exactly like another except for one different chord change.  For instance, Bluegrass Breakdown and Foggy Mountain Breakdown are alike except BB uses an F chord in the same place that FMB uses an Em chord.  For some songs, the melodies sound almost exactly alike and I can simply think of the song I already know in my head when I'm taking my break.  For example, Worried Man Blues and Somebody Touched Me.  Without a memorized repertoire, you will never have this ability.

If memorization is something that you just don't think you can do, I would say the odds are that you CAN.  I will write my next blog on some different techniques that will help those of you who find this part of learning difficult.  In the mean time, start thinking about all the improvements in your playing and musicianship that can be developed by memorizing.  Start thinking about where you will be a month from now, six months from now, a year from now...  Talent doesn't fall out of the sky on certain people.  It is developed by those of us who desire it and work to attain it.  YOU can do this!


Bonnie Jaeckle said...

Excellent!!! Thanks!’

Luke Daniels said...