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How Do You Learn New Songs? - What's Your Process?

JoshuaJoshua Member, Enrolled Posts: 106
1. Cover songs
2. Original songs

How to you stick the melody in your head? When do you start playing with it and making it your own? Please also include how long you've been singing. When are you sure you have it; how do you know?

I typically listen to them once or twice and immediately start trying to sing them, then I hear I suck, then I repeat. But I'm wondering if there's a better way? I also seem to have merciless pitch problems...always seem to be in a hurry to be good at it without putting in the work. But - I'm not sure what I need to do to track a song in my head.

Lately, I've been *trying to listen until I'm pretty sure I know the melody, usually takes about 50 times of listening to it. Then I vocalize it in the melody but as if I'm speaking it. What I've learned here is that this helps me clear away any pitch problems related to style/distortion; and I try to do this over a karaoke track (spotify)...still usually sucking until I've played it live a few times with my band. Even then, sometimes (depending on how hard the song is) I still will have pitch issues here and there. 

What I notice is that I consistently smooth over the melody and don't heard the nuances of the melody till about 100 listens in. I do not know how to fix this in my brain.



  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346


    Have you tried line-by-line mutitrack recording, using a dummy track of the original artist?

    If you break it down phrase-by-phrase, it will give you the opportunity to sit back and compare how your vocal sound, phrasing, pitch, etc compare to the original.  By that comparison, you can decide whether you like yours or the original artist's or a combination of the two, on a case-by-case, phrase-by-phrase basis.

    It's really a way to dive down into the nooks and crannies of a melody, phrasing, pitch variations, power application, need for support, voice characterization, and the list goes on.  You will walk away from a process like that with much information forever embedded into your brain about the details of a particular song. 

    That process might not appeal to you, but recording yourself and listening back with a critical ear is a very good way to speed up many of the vocal learning processes.  This is just something that works for me.  Your mileage may vary.

    Most melodies jump right into my brain, but all of the little details and nuances blow right past me unless I do some detailed listening.  I also make melody charts on lyric sheets that indicate relative pitch, especially in vocal runs and riffs.


  • JoshuaJoshua Member, Enrolled Posts: 106

    Can you share a version of a melody chart?
  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346
    I'll see if I can find a good one and make a jpg of it.
  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346

    OK.  Let's see if I can attach this file.


  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346
    edited January 2014

    So the melody map above indicates the ups and downs of an intricate and unusual melody.

    It's not to scale, so you could mess up with it, but I find that this kind of chart can keep me on course for a new song. 

    I do a lot of covers that are more subtle and difficult, or shall I say challenging melodically.  I write in the notes if I really want to nail something I'm not absolutely sure I will be able to remember the correct melody from a chart like this. 

    It's to get you started.  It helps you to more quickly embed the proper intervals for the notes.


  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346
    edited July 2013


    Joshua asked to see a melody chart.  I posted one.

    The lines above the lyrics correspond to pitch changes.

    If you look the song up on youtube and listen while following the chart, you will see that the lines match a rather tricky melody.

    It might not mean much to some, but for others such a chart is a meaningful learning tool.


  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346
    edited July 2013

    Yes, Cinema.

    The height of the marks shows graphically the relative pitch of the notes or runs in the song.

    If you get your starting pitch and know the gist of the song, the map can give you a lot of hints to each vocal run. 

    I can look at one of these charts after not singing the song for a year or more and instantly recall a lot of subtleties in the melody.  If I use one of these charts when first learning a song, or write it out one line at a time, it embeds the runs and trills, the melody, and riffs.

    Likewise, recording a song, even one that I previously did not know, can be a way to go into fine detail and move the development of my adapting to a new song into a more advanced stage relatively soon.

    The map does not specify the note, as would sheet music, but it does show the relative rises and falls in pitch, which if you know the basic key of the song, is enough information to provide total recall.  It's a low-tech means of storing musical information for later decoding during a session or a gig, if needed.


  • JoshuaJoshua Member, Enrolled Posts: 106
    Yeah, I think I'm going to start doing this. I did it once as an idea when I didn't know anything about singing, but now that I do I think this would help me.
  • revolver9revolver9 Enrolled Posts: 36

    hey there, do you play or have you ever played an instrument? <besides voice>

  • JoshuaJoshua Member, Enrolled Posts: 106
    yeah, I play a bunch of instruments. But mostly guitar.
  • revolver9revolver9 Enrolled Posts: 36

    then I have no clue! if you play a lot of instruments can't you just write the melody line out on the staff?

  • revolver9revolver9 Enrolled Posts: 36
    edited August 2013

    What I like to do also is using a daw program like reaper and record the melody line in a midi track then create another track and sing along.  Also for me I know its done when I don't cringe when I listen back to it!

  • JosephJoseph Pro Posts: 260
    Can you give me an update on how you learn songs now? That is, in terms of time and accuracy?

    Cinema, i would love to hear your methodology of learning songs, as you have absolutely nailed your tracks on line? How do you approach a new song? What do you do? How long does it take? How long before you trial it live? etc.

    Any insight from your vast experience would be very welcome. Thanks
  • JoshuaJoshua Member, Enrolled Posts: 106
    Hi @joseph,

    My core problem is listening carefully for melody. I've found that what I listened for before was hard/high/interesting parts and just glazed over the rest. Also, I've worked a bunch on my articulation of riffs and runs, which has helped me hear the original singer doing them in their songs. Chunking it down helps and really having respect for the original authors choices helps too.

    I don't quite struggle with it like I did when I posted this. Trick is, slow down, work at your own pace, try not to get excited about the thought of singing it live (for me) and just let the song breathe in your throat. Don't hurry, just work on it a little bit at a time until you have the exact notes. 
  • marshallBluesmarshallBlues Pro Posts: 34
    edited January 2014
    @highmtn @cgreen @joshua @joseph @revolver9 Wow... you all are way more serious than I am in learning cover songs... Essentially I just get the basic melody down in my head and then do my own thing. I try to make the song my own (within my vocal range) but still attempt to stay relatively true to the melody of the vocals in the song. But then I sing mostly blues and some older rock. 
  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346
    edited January 2014

    These are just ways to get into some of the details that may otherwise be overlooked.  They can fly by so quickly or subtly that you miss out otherwise.

    You're still going to sound like you, but possibly with more of the original melodic nuances, trills, runs, and detail.


  • JosephJoseph Pro Posts: 260
    Thanks all
    Do you simply learn the song by ear/memory?
    Or would you get a copy of the sheet music and watch the vocal melody line?
    What's your thoughts on sheet music assistance?
    What about learning/memorising lyrics? How do you approach this?
    Would you sing the entire song from start to finish, or do you break up the song line by line or phrase by phrase?
    How long does it normally take you from the time you pick up a new song to the point that you are comfortable to perform it publicly?
  • JoshuaJoshua Member, Enrolled Posts: 106
    - Ear
    - No
    - I can't read sheet music
    - Memorizing lyrics, I do a simple word association. I choose that pops into my head when I read the line - then I only look at THAT word, while I sing. Then I eventually take the lyrics away all together and boom, it's locked in my head pretty much forever.
    - I used to sing it front to back - that's proved to be a waste of time. I break down each part. I usually sing the whole song once I'm sure I know it.
    - a few days.
  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346

    My band has cheat sheets, because we play over a thousand songs.  We often play songs we've never played together, live, on stage.  We tend to do a pretty good job at it.

    Perhaps the rest of you are fine with memorizing thousands of songs and also remember all of the intricacies of the melody years later. Or maybe you limit yourselves to a few hundred or less... Whatever works well for you is fine with me. 

    We are taking requests and seldom repeat songs. 

    I'm just sharing a method that I use...  If you don't need it, that's OK, too.  Somebody asked for ideas, that's all.  The method I use is similar to sheet music, but takes up less space on a sheet of paper. Sheet music is a way to get the exact notes without any guesswork.  The melody map is only an indication of relative pitch and intervals.  There is actually a lot of information on the page.

    I have a great memory, but it's short...


    All the Best to All of You!



  • billthebaldguybillthebaldguy Pro, 2.0 PRO Posts: 54

    Been lead singer in a blues/funk/rock band for 2+ years, playing guitar for same amount of time and studying Ken's method for 18 months. I am a beginner, but we have been gigging/playing locally for 18 months.

    What works for me are two steps:

    1. All songs, simple or hard - I put the song on loop in the background and for at least one day, but usually three, it is the only song I play all day. I just let it go and go and go in the background, in the car, whenever. Then during practice time, I work on that only that particular song.

    By doing this, it subconsciously embeds it in my head, so that when it comes time to practice or perform, I have heard it so many times, it's just there.

    2. For more difficult songs - I do a version of what Bob does. I use pencil and go through the song, putting a vertical line where there is a pause or break; putting a dash where there is supposed to be a syllable, I put a descending or ascending line at the beginning or end of a word if there is a rising or lowering of the first or last note (like if the slide into it or out of it). If there are triplets in the song, I will write out the words in triplet format, like "trip-e-let" so I don't miss it. I will also use asterisks for places where I am to hit it hard, with either the word "power" or "crank it" or "forte". For places that are supposed to be powerful but not exactly loud, I will put the note "intensely" so I know to put energy into it.

    The biggest thing that helps is just putting on the ONE song and having it playing in the background for days. It really burns it in - even the nuances because you have burned the song into your head.

  • JosephJoseph Pro Posts: 260
    Thanks Gents, all very good advice/suggestions.
    Bob, i similarly played in a band that had thousands of songs. As a guitar player i was able to virtually remember every song, every chord, arrangement, run, solo, etc. The singers all had a number of books 6 inch thick of lyrics. We also did requests. But, now the shoe is on the other foot.
    Is guess my original question was very open-ended, which eked out various styles/techniques/suggestions, for various endgames.
    In essence, i think i'd like to build a large acoustic-one-man-band repertoire, for the purposes of developing my 'song/performance/style' voice. Live Performance? We'll see. Probably much, much later. So, i'm currently cranking out the beatles backlog to get the numbers up and get into the groove of singing songs, I figured these would be easy and logical place to start, but have found that these beatles songs are not as easy as i first thought. Lots of intricacies, interesting mixed time signatures, nice parts in my passaggio, a few head voice notes, beautiful melodies, opportunity to add more chesty sound.
    Cinema/Baldguy/Josh, if i ever get to front a band or start learning those tough/stadium-band songs that i dream of doing, i will definitely be taking your advice.
    Thanks all.
  • highmtnhighmtn Administrator, Moderator, Enrolled, Pro, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 15,346

    I have the "Complete Beatles" songbooks.  Every song.

    I like to start at the beginning of book one, and go all the way to the end. 

    Some of those, as you said, @Joseph, aren't as easy as you might initially think. 

    They are, however, a lot of fun.



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