I have been playing guitar for a while and every time I am confronted with the situation that I have to play songs without looking at the chords/lead sheet etc. I just seem to forget everything. I even forget songs that i have played at least 50 times. The same thing happens with lyrics.

I have tried memorizing the chords, looking for patterns, keeping the melody at the back of my mind while trying to improvise but nothing seems to get me to remember the songs even a week after playing them and i am not even talking about very complex songs, but for example I have played the chords for Layla by Eric Clapton at least a 100 times and I have analysed the chord progression of that song pretty well and yet when that song came up in a jam session I just stood there doing nothing. Feeling very desperate and stupid. Any help would be appreciated.

Thanks :)

  • What way did you analyze the chords to Layla? – Michael Curtis Jul 30 '20 at 13:48
  • One thing I've heard is that the more songs you memorize, the easier it gets. Can't speak here from personal experience, but that makes sense to me. It might also mean it might be best to not focus on that one song, but rather memorize passages from it, memorize passages from other songs as well, and over time develop the ability to memorize whole songs. I might be talking out of my ass here, so any feedback from people who actually know is welcome. – user70370 Jul 30 '20 at 20:39
  • @MichaelCurtis I went through the progression and understood that the Intro is in Dm and then it goes to a c# minor and its 5th and them does a special thing of going to c and d (from the e minor scale) to end up on an E major chord. After that it goes on to a 2 5 1 4 in the E major scale to end up in the d minor scale again in the chorus (which is the same as the intro). I am a little confused about the A major and C major that is used to go from the d minor scale to the c# minor scale. – Shounak Chakraborty Jul 31 '20 at 13:54

...I have tried memorizing the chords, looking for patterns

I think looking for patterns is critical. But it may be a matter of how you do it and what patterns you pay attention to. It may not be obvious at first, but when finding patterns you aren't just looking for patterns within the song, but patterns that are found commonly in thousands of songs! In other words, in pattern finding you want to find the commonalities between songs. That should aid memory, because you start to see that the bulk of most songs isn't very unique. The same patterns get used over and over and the truly unique things become just highlights.

I will use Layla as and example. I used these pages as my starting place...

So, the song does seem a bit strange at first. It's sort of D minor-ish in one part then seemingly C# minor in the next part. I then look for common elements which sometimes are hidden within the songs. Keep in mind that especially in rock/pop songs the music isn't always in keys in the conventional sense. You need to be prepared to look for patterns that aren't focuses on being in a key or "chords from a scale." Here is my rough analysis of the song...

enter image description here

Of course this isn't a chart to play from. It's an outline to show the patterns of the music.

The intro/chorus is pretty straight forward. bVI bVII i in D minor which is a very common classic and hard rock pattern. There is the question about the A major chord at the end of that section. At first that seems to come in from nowhere, but I think the thing to recognize is A major is the dominant of D minor. Add to that the idea that bVII acts as a kind of alternate dominant in rock style. We can then chuck together bVII V bVII as a sort of cluster of dominants. Now the intro/chorus is simply bVI bVII i as the general pattern template, but realized with two different endings, one on i and the other on the dominants.

The verse is best viewed not as being in a key (although you could say it's nominally in E major) but as a harmonic sequence of roots by descending fifths. There are a total of six descending fifths! But they are disguised in the song by some repetitions and an insertion. C#m G7 C#m just alternates a dominant/tonic pair, that's followed by an insertion of the proper tonic E before continuing the descent to F#m. So C#m isn't the proper tonic, but it gets two pairings: with a dominant G7 C#m and with its relative major E.

The A major chord then comes the pivot point joining the two sections. You can think of it as the IV in E major, but it's also the dominant V of D minor. Again, it all blends together because the larger structure connects the two sections with the sequence of descending fifths.

That leaves one sort of oddity: the C D E E7 in the verse between C#m and F#m. Earlier I called that E and insertion by which I mean it's inserted into what is otherwise a plain sequence of descending fifths. If I put the inserted chord into brackets, it may be clearer... G7 C#m [E] F#m B E... One harmony textbook I own (Ottman) says tonic chords can be freely inserted in that way. When the other chords are added in... G7 C#m [C D E E7] F#m B E... we seem to get a bunch of chord from out of nowhere. At least the C a bit of a surprise. But let's not worry about chromatic chords, that isn't a problem, we just want a way to remember them. There is a nice mirroring between that part and the intro/chorus. C D E is all roots by whole step just like Bb C D in the intro/chorus is all roots by whole step.

At the highest level the sections are in E and D minor...

E | Dm

Add the essential root movements and the overlapping of A...

G#7 C#m F#m B E A

                A | D C Bb C D

Finally, I can try putting repetitions and insertion into brackets and quasi-barlines...

| [C#m] G#7 | C#m [C D [E]] ||: F#m B E A :||

                                        A |: D C Bb C :| x3
                                          |  D C Bb C  | A C

...admittedly that's pretty ugly to look at, but it's really meant to just represent the pattern finding process and analyzing at successive levels of harmonic detail.

After making an assessment like that I don't necessarily keep thinking about it. I would probably think generally of descending fifths in A and bVI bVII i in D minor. That sort of chunks about two thirds of the song into two common harmonic patterns.

...I even forget songs that i have played at least 50 times. ...Feeling very desperate

Layla was a nice example to work out, but I still think it's a bit odd. It's probably not the best place to start with building up a memory bank of songs. It seems like you must have play many, many songs. Perhaps you should dig into your lead sheets and pull out 10 to 20 songs that have mostly standard chord changes, maybe about 5 to 7 chords per song. It would probably be good to stick to just a few keys, because that will help you see patterns in relative terms. Find the big tonal sections, find the essential chord patterns.

Transposing songs into different keys is an excellent way to both learn the patterns deeply and test whether you really know the patterns or are just memorizing the concrete shapes on the fretboard.

If you don't know the follow terms, learn them and start learning more harmony concepts:

  • harmonic sequence
  • secondary dominant
  • relative major/minor
  • parallel major/minor
  • borrowed chord (bVII and iv in major are especially common)
  • chromatic mediant

Being able to label things aids memory and lots of common harmony moves have names.


50 - 100 times most of us probably do in a day. This is not the key to memory.

It depends on a few factors, like how experienced you are, if you are looking to recall the basic pattern of the tune, or every detail.

It also depends on the nature of the music, some rock like blues and "jazz" can be very open ended to improv. Prog rock perhaps less so as it can be orchestrated.

In the classical arena it is not uncommon for a soloist to have the entire concert memorized in every detail. Number of reps to a song is not as important as constant exposure. For example, if you put in 5 days in a row practicing a few tunes and feel like you got them then take a couple weeks off the memory will fade. So a better approach is playing each tune EVERY SINGLE DAY for an extended period (even if only once per day).

You need to get the song so deeply ingrained in your memory that you can sit quietly, close your eyes, and hear or recall the entire tune in your head without the song playing. This is a criterion for performance preparation discussed in Pepe Romero's book on classical guitar performance. If you cannot recall the tune in your head there not a chance you will be able to play it. Try this exercise on one of the songs you want to learn. If you find that you get lost at a particular point listen to it (without doing anything else) and then try to recall it again. At the very least try to get past the point where you lost it before. All of this is mental, no guitar or other instrument needed.

On the physical side getting the piece in muscle memory just takes reps. The mind and body have to work together and if you can play each lick but don't recall the structure of the tune there's no point. But if you know the tune and have not tried playing it you'll also be in a bind. So on this front just tackle the tune piece by piece focusing on hard parts. Once the pieces are in the muscle memory it should be easy to recall them. What I find is that the mental is far more important than the physical in terms of playing the tune from memory. If I can hear it in my head and I've played it just a few times I will play it correctly but probably sloppy, with some glitches here and there which are easy to work out. However, if I work for months on a piece with difficult passages and work them up until they are clean and fast but cannot hear the tune in my head it WILL be a train wreck. All I really can do is play the fast parts I worked on for 10,000 reps. Both are important for expert performance but the mental side I think takes precedence. Once you've mastered an instrument your mind will tell your body what to do next, but your body cannot tell your mind what should come next.

Another thing that will help in time is understanding the structure of a tune, music theory, analyzing chord progressions. It seems like you know some of this and have tried it. Once you are better and seeing or hearing basic patterns you will not get lost in songs. If we're playing "The Blues" it's almost always a 12 bar pattern (could be 8, 16, 32, but most common is 12) so all you really need is the key and open your ear to the changes. It's one thing to play the blues and another to play Sweet Little Angel by BB King (or whoever wrote it). The former is much less demanding as you just need to be in the right place at the right time but the latter requires you to catch subtle nuances that identify the specific tune. When it comes to getting a song like Layla memorized you really need to have it mapped out, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. The parts are not that complicated but you need the "architecture" of the tune memorized. You could probably fake your way through each part as long as you "Change" when expected.

It takes a lot to commit something to memory. For lyrics, can you recite the tune like a poem? If not then it's not memorized. Take a short chunk, maybe just one or two lines, each day and commit to memory. Then add one line per day, reciting the phrase over and over (thousands of times, 100 is nothing). Make sure it's every single day, multiple times a day. This process helps with memorization. It sounds like you know what to do but just haven't done it enough.


I can’t give you a better answer as far as how to "build a big repertoire" with memorization goes, but a couple other considerations around "how not to forget songs" are situational comfort and context.

I’ve learned from experience that it’s difficult to remember things in an unfamiliar situation, especially if I'm nervous. And some times the harder I try to remember under pressure, the further it seems to slip away. An effective trick for me is to visualize the place where I usually practice. Putting my mind in that space settles my nerves and provides cues to my memory. It also distracts from the urgency of trying to un-forget the tune. In this sort of re-set mental state, I can usually collect my wits well enough to get back on track.

Hope that’s helpful.

  • 1
    I've found that for many songs, if you give me the key and the first note that I play, that's enough to spark my memory. Maybe you can use that idea as an intermediate step. – Duston Jul 31 '20 at 14:49

Actually memorising a whole song, especially when one is fairly new to music, isn't easy. You are effectively in unfamiliar territory.

After playing many songs, patterns should emerge, which keep recurring. Like when in key C, there's lots of Fs and Gs, and sometimes Am. Like when in key C, the notes played most are from that scale - and you don't play F♯ or D♭ very often. You can feel when the dominant is coming, and then guess that there's going to be a tonic next, for example.

In the majority of songs, being able to map out the route helps a lot. And if you need to play a song in a different key, that's easier too.

Looking for patterns which will occur in many songs - maybe in different keys, but still the same ideas - will help to 'plan ahead', and the same applies to melody lines - similar intervals, rhythm patterns, etc.

So, instead of learning each song in isolation, verbatim, try to regard it from a quite different angle. Works for me!

  • I teach my students to "read the music" before attempting to play it. Based on visual patterns alone you can block off parts that are the same or similar. – ggcg Aug 3 '20 at 20:18

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