Tip: A Bit About Learning Songs

Here are some thoughts about which songs to learn. If you’re a beginner, the chord progressions and songs you may be playing now are only a glimpse of what you will be able to play if you stick with it. You’ll want to have a large repertoire of different kinds of songs to help you grow as a musician.

Having a large repertoire can invigorate your playing, as can studying jazz. Jazz is all about playing things in a new way, and in a way that encourages individual expression. Mark Levine’s excellent Jazz Theory book drives this point home, and offers many, many ways of adding variety to playing the changes. There’s an entire section devoted to chord substitution. This section shows how to swap the V for ii, ii for V, precede the I with its V, and many other approaches for substitutions.

How many changes and songs to play?

Edwin Gordon, the great music educator, says learning as many songs as possible is important to building true musicianship. The more variations you can get in your ear, the more possibilities you can hear. So, the more interesting your playing will be to you and others.

It’s interesting when you’re playing along on one song that you half remember, and another song intrudes, and you start playing the two songs combined. This shows one way in which knowing lots of songs can reinforce your performance and fill in memory gaps.

Which changes to play?

Which songs and chord progressions should we play? Obviously, if you’re in a band you need to learn what the band is going to perform. But what do you do when you’re able to choose which tunes you’ll perform?

I choose tunes I like and that swing. There may be lots of songs I like that no one will remember ten years from now, but if learning these tunes keeps me interested in playing, I’ll go with the favorite tunes.

It is helpful to reach beyond yourself, and learn a tune you wouldn’t normally choose to learn. A good time to select such a tune is when you’ve just finished learning a tune you do like. You’re feeling great that you can play a complex tune you’ve loved to listen to for years, and you’re feeling like you could learn anything. Choose a tune that makes you stretch as a musician. You may surprise yourself by becoming interested in it, and even developing an affection for it. Start with a tune that grabs you, a song you can make sound good.

Here are some tips for picking out a song to build your skills with:

  • Pick a song you like
  • Pick a song that has changes that can be found in many songs. When you do this, you’re learning many songs for the price of learning one.

How do you know if a song’s chord changes are found in lots of other tunes? There are lots of books and web sites that can answer this. If you look on the web, your search term would be “popular chord progression.” Doing a little research will help you dig up chord progressions that appear over and over in many tunes.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2010 Darrin Koltow

This first appeared in the Guitar Noise News – September 15, 2008 newsletter. Reprinted with permission.