While most musicians dream of performing their own material, creating beautiful and original artistic statements, many of us at some point in our careers will find ourselves in a cover band. A casual, club date, corporate gig, general business, wedding group, whatever you want to call it, you’re going to find yourself on stage playing culturally relevant and probably horrible contemporary pop tunes to a roomful of people who could not care less about you, they just want to DANCE.
Just as there is a standard repertoire many jazz musicians can pull from their head (“Autumn Leaves”, “Blue Bossa” etc) so, too, exists “the list” in the pop world. For experienced players, this list could be in the hundreds. How could one person possibly retain and learn all that information, let alone perform it well on stage?
Well, a lot of it does happen over time through osmosis. (I have no idea how many times I’ve played “Superstition” but I’m betting it’s in the hundreds.) But most of it, however, comes from having a well-defined method for learning new tunes. While not everyone’s brain works the same, the suggestions I’d like to offer here have worked extremely well for me. Though these tips are decidedly bass-centric, they can apply to many instruments.
This should seem obvious, but it doesn’t mean that you find a recording of the tune and immediately try to learn it. Listen through the whole thing without playing your instrument. This will alert your ears to what might be tricky about the tune, or to the fact that there are literally only 3 chords happening for 3 minutes.
2. DETERMINE THE KEY.
Just because a song may start on an E chord, doesn’t mean that song is in E. How do you determine a key? Listen to the chord progression. Some pop and rock tunes can be tricky in this regard, but if a song starts on an E7 and then spends a majority of its time moving from A to F#- to D to E, there’s s good chance that song is in A, or at least a good chunk of it, which leads me to my next point…
3. USE ROMAN NUMERALS.
Yes, you might have thought you were done with roman numerals after your theory classes, but sorry, being able to analyze chord progressions with roman numerals is probably one of the most important skills for the professional musician. By using this method, you will start to really HEAR chord progressions, and notice how similar progressions occur in many different tunes. This will start to reduce your learning time, and also allow you to easily move songs to different keys. Imagine you’ve learned a tune in the original key of A, and then a singer requests to do that song in C#. Trying to move a pretty standard progression of A/F#-/D/E can be a major headache if you aren’t thinking “I to vi to IV to V.” Although anything in C# is kind of a pain. Is Db any better? You decide, but whatever you do, don’t forget to smile and say “no problem. ” Thanks, singer.
4. DON’T TRY TO LEARN THE WHOLE TUNE.
Whaaa? What to do you mean? “Surely I’ll screw up if I don’t have every bar memorized!” Actually, you probably won’t. You’ll probably have a better shot at success if you start to think about a song as big chunks of music instead of individual bars. Learn the chunks. The verse is a chunk. The chorus is a different chunk (step back: Determine what is the verse and the chorus!) Many times songs will move between these two parts in very predictable, even bar phrases, and can play themselves if you don’t think about it too hard. If something seems a little off then it is time to…
5. DETERMINE WHAT IS WEIRD ABOUT THE SONG.
Is there a part of a song that makes you shake your head or seems a little off? That probably means an irregular phrase or interesting chord choice. These are the little things to watch out for, and can sometimes be the hardest to remember. But if you set yourself up from the start to have those irregularities highlighted in your in mind instead of the entire tune, chances are you will nail it while playing. Like those extra 2 beats at the end of a second verse going into a chorus. This relates back to learning the song in chunks. If you think about the song as big puzzle pieces, often times they will fit together nicely, making the oddly shaped pieces stand out and easier to remember.
6. WRITE STUFF DOWN.
Even if your goal is to have a song memorized, it can sometimes be helpful to jot down some notes while learning. I have my little notebook full of scribbles. Usually I’ll start with song title, key, and type of feel. From there I might briefly write down the parts with their roman numerals or the little things I’m likely to forget. Find a shorthand notation system that works for you.
So there you have it. It can be slow going at first, but your musical brain needs to be exercised daily, so over time, this process will become easier. And if you have suggestions or tips that have worked well for you, please share! Happy learning!