#122: How I Memorize Songs Quickly

How I quickly memorize songs in the studio when I'm on a drum session.

Years ago I decided that I didn’t want to use charts anymore. It’s tough having my head buried in a chart when I’m trying to pay attention to what’s going on, musically speaking. So I had to come up with a way to memorize patterns quickly. I’m going to share that with you today. And let me tell you: this comes in SUPER-HANDY in the studio.


Today I want to talk about a concept that has helped me … I can’t tell you, this might be one of the biggest skills that I’ve learned as a drummer in the past few years. I guess it’s not really … I didn’t really just learn it right away, I kind of got to this point. What’s great about this though, this concept is that, if you … You can actually learn it quickly, I just didn’t have anyone to teach me, and so I kind of had to stumble onto this myself, and it may or may not work for you, but it works for me great, and this is how I memorize songs and patterns quickly and somewhat reliably.

Now, why this matters is, as a drummer in the studio and live, I personally find it really hard to play to my full ability and level of inspiration and artistry, I guess I would say, with my head buried in a chart. I try my hardest to never look at charts and try to use my memory to help me remember the song, know how the song goes.

They way that I’ve done this, and this became a necessity for me as a studio drummer, the process of the studio, a lot of times what will happen is this. One big thing about being a studio drummer is, you have to always be aware of what you are playing. You have to know, if you play a song a certain way, and the producer might come in after you play one take and he says, “Hey, play that exact thing again, just try and make it a little tighter, try to play a little better, basically, but play that exact same thing again.” Well, you want to give him the exact same thing, the same drum fills, the same patterns, everything exactly the same.

Well, if you’re not aware of that, it might be really tough to do that, so that’s kind of part one, is that. Part two is though, most of the time what happens after you do one or two takes in the studio is, the producer will come in or come on the talk-back microphone and say, “Hey, that was really great. Let’s play everything just like it was but on the verse, I want you to play on just the one and the three with the kick, so change the pattern to the one and the three on the kick, play eighth notes on the hi-hat but then change the fill you do on the second bar to be a little more complex, but then on the fourth bar, make it a little simpler. All right, let’s go.” And then he starts the playback and you gotta play another take.

You’re head’s kind of spinning, like “Whoa, that was a laundry list of things.” And that actually was a simple version of things I’ve gone through before. But there’s a laundry list of items that are like, “Here’s what you need to change, here’s what you need to keep the same. Modify this a little bit.” So you have this running list of changes to make so you have to know what you already played, but then you also have to be able to implement all of these changes all at once in one take and not forget what you already did, so it can be overwhelming, it can seem overwhelming.

For those reasons, that and like I mentioned, I don’t like to have my head buried in a chart for my own just art … It lets me play more creatively. I realized I needed to figure out a way to memorize drum patterns and how songs kind of flow, and so the basic things are this.

First, you need to kind of get comfortable with the structure of a song. If you’re not able to listen to a song and notice when the verses are, what a pre chorus sounds like, what a chorus sounds like, what a bridge is, down chorus, up chorus, basic kind of thing ideas about how a song is structured. That’s the first place to start, is that. You want to look at how a song is structured before you move on to the next step of this process. If you know that, if you know how a song is structured.

The next step is, I approach my drumming in different segments, so like the chorus type of pattern, the verse pattern, different pieces like that. I first identify maybe what are pieces that don’t really change that much? Is it the eighth notes on my right hand? They might be playing the hi-hat, they might be playing the ride cymbal, but I’m still playing the same thing. Then I think, okay maybe is the kick pattern pretty much the same throughout the whole song? Or whatever it is. There’s pieces that might repeat the whole song, so I kind of get those figured out and kind of lock those in my brain and don’t think about those anymore, so then I free up some brain space to think about something else that does change.

I keep going down that way, so maybe then it’s, you know, every four bars there’s a drum fill, and that drum fill is basically the same drum fill. Okay, well that’s pretty much the same, and once I start to get an innate feel for where every four bars is, I don’t have to think about that anymore and i kind of just keep finding the places where things repeat, no matter how far apart they are, I just kind of keep packing those into my brain.

Another way of approaching this is, I’m not sure if you have ever worked with a drum sequencer, or a drum machine that lets you program out patterns, and a lot of them are divided into 16 sections and then what you do is you have 16 steps that are in a pattern and you can program out the hi-hat or the kick and everything in these 16 little steps, but then you can kind of take that whole 16 steps and pack it into one little section and then open up a second section of 16 steps and pack that in and then … It’s kind of this modular thing where you take a lot of small sections and combine them all together to make one big section.

I start trying to visualize my drumming in that way too, the pattern. So I think, okay, you know what? This whole verse lasts about eight bars, we’ll say. Well really, the eight bars is broken up into two sections of four bars, and each of those four bars is exactly the same, the only difference is the drum fill on the end of each of those four-bar phrases. So really, I only need to know one drum pattern because most of the time that pattern is exactly the same, and then just the drum fills every so often change. So by just quickly identifying what is repeating throughout the song and kind of locking that in your brain and freeing up your brain space to think about other things, it makes it pretty quick and easy to memorize a song.

Now, I will say that this does not come immediate, this is not something that, you’re going to learn this today and then you’re just going to be great at it right away. You can start approaching things with this concept immediately, and you can train yourself, I think, fairly quickly to do things this way. But if you’re interested at all in not looking at charts and trying to memorize things, try this method out and see if it works for you. Like I said, it may not work for everyone, but it’s worked really well for me, and it’s allowed me, I think, to stay sharp. I’m not an old guy by any stretch of the imagination, but I am older than I used to be, and this has kept me pretty sharp and helped me memorize songs pretty quickly. So try it out, let me know it it works for you, and I appreciate you listening to today’s episode, and we’ll talk again really soon. Bye for now.

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