The 5 Stages of Learning to Play a Song

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It’s sometimes said in education that there’s knowing something, then there’s really knowing something. Meaning that the more comprehensively you study and practice something, the more you learn from it, the better you know it, and the more is added to your overall knowledge or repertoire.

With songs specifically, and beginner guitar songs in particular, it can be helpful to deconstruct this sense of learning a song into its component parts.

As such, here’s an article on the 5 stages of learning to play a song. Each stage takes the previous stage(s) and builds on them. Each stage adds something new to a guitarist’s development, and each brings its own value to you as an individual developing musician. Here they are:

1. Listening

Hopefully this one happens naturally, most of the time, in that surely it’s listening to a song and liking it that creates the desire to learn to play it. However, there are two things to add to this:

Firstly, there’s listening as a listener; then there’s listening as someone who wants to learn to play the song on guitar. In this second instance, it’s important to listen closely and deeply — paying particular attention to the guitar part — and considering details like the song’s tempo, the guitar sound or tone, whether it’s chord or riff-based, and so on.

And secondly, there are times when impatience or necessity means learning a song you’re not yet especially familiar with. This is naturally more challenging than learning one you know well. This can be circumnavigated by listening repeatedly and intently over a short period, paying attention to the more detailed aspects outlined in the first point.

2. Studying

This is what comes immediately before actually learning to play the song, and it’s largely about preparation.

Learning — the next stage — involves attempting to play the correct chords in the correct rhythm and tempo, and so on. But this stage involves ensuring you know what the correct chords are, having them in front of you, with an indication of speed, rhythm, strumming pattern, etc.

Before you try to learn a song with a Gm7 chord in it, do you know how to play a Gm7 chord itself? Do you know a shape for this chord and can comfortably play it?

This is the studying phase — preparing your materials and knowledge ready to take on the song itself.

3. Learning

Now here’s the point where you actually try to play sections of the song through. And the secret is: Slow down!

Really though, this isn’t so much a secret, as a widely-known truth, often ignored due to impatience (but then creating a longer process overall as bad habits are created at speed which then need to be eradicated later).

The speed to begin at is the speed at which you can play the section you’re attempting to play without stopping or making mistakes. Yes, this may well be a snail’s pace at first, but that’s not the point. The point is that if you do this, you’re now actually playing the song correctly, however slowly — you’re on the right ladder, ready to climb.

If you’re playing faster, but incorrectly, you’re not even on the right ladder; you’re on a slippery rope!

Once you can do this, you move a little faster, then a little faster, in manageable, incremental increases. Until you reach full speed. And in truth — speeding up is the easy part. The hard part is getting it right in the first place and resisting the urge to speed up too soon.

4. Practice

Once you’re at full speed, of course, you can now play along with the song or a backing track. This is the practice phase, which should be considered as different to the learning phase.

Learning = Learning to play what you don’t yet know.

Practice = Playing what you DO already know, to improve and solidify it.

Playing with the original song is great fun, tests you at the correct speed, gives you the context of playing with the vocals or other instrumental parts, and builds towards a performance (see the fifth and final point below).

Playing with a backing track is very useful because typically, backing tracks have been stripped of both guitar — meaning it’s now entirely on you to sustain the song from a guitar point of view — and vocals — meaning if you’re a singer, you can sing too. and if you’re not, well, you need to know the song even better now than when you were playing with the original recording, because the vocals being gone means you’ve also lost any cues to section changes that the lyrics were providing.

5. Performing

The epitome of learning a song really is learning it so completely that you’re comfortable performing it.

This can mean performing it at a show or concert — which is a great thrill, very satisfying, a real test, good fun, and impressive to onlookers and audience members.

But it could also mean performing for an exam, audition, or recital. This is a different environment all together but contains some of the same worries — will I make a mistake, do I know it well enough, will I go out of tune, etc.

And furthermore, it could simply mean performing the song to no audience, but performing in the sense of playing the song start to finish, without mistakes, as if performing, for a sense of achievement and satisfaction, or as a rehearsal for one of the other types of performance listed above.

N.B. It’s very common for beginner-intermediate guitarists to learn a lot of skills and sections of songs, without actually ever nailing down a repertoire of songs, they can play top-to-bottom, well. Laziness, impatience or fear of failure keeps so many from doing it. But doing so is exactly how you reach the next level. So do it!

And then, now, just about, you can say you’ve learned a song!

~ Alex Bruce for GuitarTricks.com

 

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