...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...
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
C#m isn't the proper tonic, but it gets two pairings: with a dominant
G7 C#m and with its relative major
A major chord then comes the pivot point joining the two sections. You can think of it as the
E major, but it's also the dominant
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
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 | Dm
Add the essential root movements and the overlapping of
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
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 (
iv in major are especially common)
- chromatic mediant
Being able to label things aids memory and lots of common harmony moves have names.