Memory’s a funny thing.
There have been times I’ve been able to summon up the words and chords to a song I haven’t played in 30 years when someone makes a request at a show. Sometimes it’s a song I’ve never played! And then there are the times when I can’t remember the name of the person I was just speaking to. You would think that more recent information is always easier to remember, but it’s not.
Recalling that song is reaching back into the unconscious part of the memory bank. If you’ve heard a song many times, the music and lyrics are going to be familiar even if you never paid close attention to them. Repetition IS a great aid to memory, as you probably remember from cramming for tests back in school. But most of us forgot that information minutes after the test was over.
Conscious and unconscious
I’m going to suggest that there are two types of memorization. One is a conscious process: repeating someone’s name in conversation several times so you’ll remember it the next time you meet. Studying for a test or trying to learn the last verse of that new song you just wrote. This is conscious repetition.
On the other hand, think of a radio staple like “Hotel California” or “Friends In Low Places”. Over the years you may have heard a song like that many times in many different settings without even noticing it half the time. But your ears are always open, whether you realize it or not, and the lyrics and music are penetrating your consciousness. It’s more a process of absorption than memorization.
When I have new music to learn for a show or project, I find that absorption is more effective than pure memorization. I’ll start off by making a playlist or CD and just listen to it repeatedly over the course of several days. Obviously, I’m listening consciously some of the time. But mostly I’m just familiarizing myself with the music in the casual way we used to learn songs off the radio. Hear something often enough and it’s familiar. Apply a little conscious effort to recalling the familiar, and it’s usually there.
If the project involves writing charts or transcribing, this method words really well. If I’ve listened repeatedly for a few days, than my unconscious mind knows the song already – at least on a superficial level. The time spent with a guitar in my hands can be used for fine-tuning and reinforcement, because I’m just taking a closer look at what I already know.
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of conscious work, though. When we learn unconsciously, the information is imprinted in our minds, but accessing it is all about flow. Ever find that you can’t remember the first word of a song, but once you do the rest come easily? It’s like the mental equivalent of what we call muscle memory, the thing that allows your fingers to form chords without much thought. The process is instantaneous and we don’t actually have any control of it.
When I studied classical guitar I used to practice on the subway. Not actually playing the guitar, but looking at the music and imagining the hand movements. When I got to really know the piece well, I could visualize the whole thing without looking at the notes. I learned that if I was having trouble playing something, I could often fix the problem by working through it mentally. This is the kind of conscious practicing that really helps you solve problems and progress. In fact, almost everyone reaches a point where it’s the only way to improve.
Both Sides Now
How do we reconcile these two approaches? It’s actually easy, because they’re complementary and not contradictory. One has to do with conscious attention to detail, whether we’re talking about a lyric or a finger pattern. You should be able to start from anywhere in the song and know where you are. The other has to do with absorbing the “big picture” of the song. Just listening, sometimes tuning in and sometimes not. The two ways of practicing complement each other because the conscious work gives you the ability to smoothly access what the unconscious has absorbed!
So when you want to learn a song, listen to it repeatedly before you even pick up the guitar. Tune in to details some of the time but not all. Sing along some of the time, but not every time. If you can, note when you hear chord changes, but you don’t need to worry about what the chords are. Just notice the places where something new happens. Then when you do go to the instrument, most of the song will already be familiar. The conscious work will fill in the details.
The bottom line is, practicing is most effective when we practice in different but complementary ways. Changing up your mental process like this keeps you sharper and helps move the process along faster. And who knows, you might even have an easier time finding your car keys.