song structure

Studying song structure can help you learn new material quickly

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Strategies that involve focused listening and practice are key to learning new material quickly, and looking closely at song structure can lessen the amount of time it takes you to get from first listen to a strong, quality performance.

Last week, the Disc Makers Blog published “8 tips to help you learn new music … fast,” which offers advice on how to absorb lots of new songs on a tight timeline and gives you tools so you can jump into new musical situations with little notice and play the music like you own it.

While strategies that involve focused listening and practicing are key to learning lots of new material quickly, looking closely at the skeletons of the songs themselves will lessen the amount of time it takes you to get from first listen to a strong, quality performance.

Prioritize structure

Wrapping your head around a sonic roadmap is often the best way to demystify a new song you’re trying to learn. Does the tune follow a standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus progression? Or is it something a little more unconventional — verse-verse-verse-bridge-verse, for example? Are all of the verses the same length, or do some jump to the pre-chorus more quickly? If you can break a song structure down so you always know what’s coming next, you’ll be in a great position to deliver a strong performance, even with minimal prep time.

Prioritize key elements

When you have a lot of music to learn and not enough to time to do it, think about it practically and ruthlessly.

When it comes to the performance itself, will it make a huge difference if you don’t play the specific chord voicings indicated on the song’s bridge, as long as you stay in time and stick to the basic harmonic structure? Perhaps not.

On the other hand, will it screw up the flow of the song if you miss the big break at the end of the second verse, leading into the anthemic chorus? Yeah, probably.

If you have extremely limited time, try to identify the points in the song that are the most critical for you to get absolutely right and make sure that those are locked in. The parts you can hack your way through? Leave those for whatever time you have left, once you have the absolutely vital key elements solidified.

Identify trouble spots

Is there a certain chord progression that seems to throw you whenever you play the song? If, after two or three times through, you still find yourself repeatedly tripping over the same musical element, it’s time to stop, drop, and focus. Run the measure or measures in question repeatedly, and slowed down, until you feel like the section is pretty well burned into your brain. Then, slowly pick up the tempo and start to play that trouble spot in context. You may still minorly trip over it when you reach it in context of the larger song, but the more time you can spend focusing on those individual difficult spots, the easier it will be for you integrate them seamlessly into your overall performance — and pick yourself up without losing a beat if you do stumble in performance.

Look for patterns

I recently was asked to sight read what appeared to be a very challenging song for a new singer I was working with. Luckily, there was sheet music — but unluckily, there were no chord symbols to follow and the music was dense and highly chromatic.

As we went through it, though, I began to notice there was a lot of repetition within the song, at least in what I was being asked to play. One rhythmic and melodic figure, for example, seemed to occur over and over, just transposed to different keys and played in the context of different chords.

Once I made this connection, I was able to shift my attention from trying to read every single note as it came flying at me to figuring out where that particular pattern would go next — and how to play it in a way that would best support the singer in her performance. This was a much more fun, useful, and successful approach than simply trying to cut my way through a forest of notes, sharps, and flats.

When you’re learning new songs yourself, look for any sort of pattern, whether it’s a repetition of a chord structure, rhythm, melodic line, or other element. The more patterns you can identify, the more attention you’ll be able to pay to other elements of the song — including having fun and delivering a great performance.

Look for similarities with other songs

With genres like pop, rock, blues, and country, chord patterns and rhythms can often be similar from one song to the next. Does the bridge of this new tune you’re learning follow the same harmonic progression as your favorite Beatles song? Do the underlying rhythmic hits of the chorus remind you of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive”? Use those similarities to your advantage — the more you can reference material that you already know as you’re shedding new tunes, the less you have to learn from scratch and the more energy you can invest in delivering a memorable and musical performance.

How do you approach learning lots of music quickly? Tell us in the comments below.

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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