Whenever I try to learn a new song, I always find it very long-winded and time-consuming. The issue isn't that it takes me too long to learn how to play a piece, but rather that it takes me too long to learn what I have to play.

To elaborate, today, after listening to 'Cliffs of Dover' by Eric Johnson, I suddenly decided to learn the main riff. Now, I guarantee that I can play this song; I can play pieces of greater standard but I struggle to learn this. The issue is that despite being able to play the notes, I can't remember what comes next. It's quite irritating to not be able to play a piece because my brain just can't process what to do next.

Is there any way to either overcome this completely or at least a method so that I can get things in my 'muscle memory' faster?

Thanks for your time.

  • Do you read notes? It will be very hard to memorise music if you do not read notes?
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 17:58
  • I read tab and standard notation but tab is my most confident. Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 18:52
  • Tab has no way to indicate rhythm which makes it less that ideal.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 7:46
  • 5
    @Neil - what makes it hard to memorise music if you don't read notes?
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 13:02

11 Answers 11


I'm a professional pianist, author and educator.

I can tell that you should change your music study habits first. What are they? I don't know the answer. Because I don't know you personally. But I can give you some common tips.

  1. Work slow, very slow. If you learn slow, you forget slow.
  2. Repeat. Repeat the same things until you make them strong. Every day.
  3. Work anything about music related on your mind. You don't need an instrument. Just repeat the lines and try to imagine the notes abstractly. It will gain you imagination.
  4. Listen to artistic music and performers. Yes, it's hard to understand first weeks/months/years. But stick with it.
  5. Discover big music artists such as Glenn Gould, Horowitz, Chick Corea, John Scofield, Dave Holland, Jaco Pastorius, Kenny Garret, Adam Rogers etc.
  6. Try to analyse yourself. How you react to what? Find out how your body responds.
  7. Be gentle with the instrument. Play it with your mind instead of muscles.
  8. Force yourself to learn something new everyday. Even little tiny bit. But learn.
  9. Never give up. When you get confused, it means you start to learn.
  10. Discipline + love = Great musician

One thing I don't see mentioned in the other answers is to Write out a chart for the song.

This has a twofold purpose:

  • it produces an artifact (the chart) which can help to orient yourself while playing (ie. know what comes next);

  • and it exercises other parts of your brain upon the same material. More brain==more memory.

The chart itself does not have to be fancy. Depending upon the song, it can be little more than the lyrics decorated with chord symbols.

A more elaborate chord chart would add bar-lines and quarter-note slashes to get the timing more precise.

More elaborate than that and you might have tab or staff notation for a few of the fancier riffs or melodies. Or a written-out solo section.

Beyond that, it's no longer a "chart" but a "sheet". And all of the exercise is useful, too.


Are you really talking about "muscle memory" given you're having trouble remebering what comes next (ie what to play) ?

I sounds like (excuse pun) your issue might be audio memory ? i.e. being able to play a song back to yourself in your mind ?

If so try doing just that, to get better at it. Try to run through the song in your mind, with no instrument, and see if you can remember all the parts. Don't let yourself "get away" with grey areas. When you think you've got it right, play the original tune back. It'll point out any parts where you've got it wrong. In fact it's so stark sometimes (eg forgot a verse or some little timing twiddle), the way it feels to me is that the original track is wrong, haha. Obviously it isn't.

Repeating this helps of course.


What really helped me out was something a little abstract. I learned my pentatonic scales, than just started playing to any and everything on the radio... I suppose it takes awhile to get to that point though. Especially if you don't know you're scales or how to root them using the chromatic scale, which apparently no one does besides me lol. But the affect was a well tuned ear, an in-depth ability to improve lead guitar on a dime... and naturally limber well trained fingers.


You can develop an eidetic memory when it comes to music. To do this you need to be totally comfortable at reading music. You essentially visualise the piece of music in your minds eye. Virtually seeing the music before your eyes, but the catch is you need to be totally aware what the music is trying to achieve. This is essentially sight reading whith an emphasise on committing what you read to memory

So you can for instance look at a few bars in the score and say to yourself. 4/4 Time Signature OK C Major. The melody is kept in the Soprano voice and goes up and down in a wave form while the bass keeps a more conservative tone. We see that the music keeps one chord per bar but has the motive of changing the inversions to promote a sense of movement.

The music starts of on the dominant seventh chord on the Anacrusis. It is in second inversion.

After Dominant we have a full bar of tonic the first chord we have the tonic in root for a minim. The seventh of the chords resolves in the Alto voice while the leading tone note resolves in the bass.Then we stay with tonic but go to first inversion for a crotchet and then end on the root tonic again.

For the second bar we have the Super Tonic with its seventh added in two different inversions. The minim rhytm is kept in the bass. this time in root. We go to the first inversion then for a crotchet and end on the Super Tonic in root again. This time we have the seventh that resolves in the Soprano voice.

In the third bar we have the passing chord progresion of I-V6/4 -I6 With the first chord being repeating our rhytm of minim / Crothet / Crothet.

For the fourth bar we have have a minim worth of Super Tonic with it seventh added. The seventh (C) resolves in the Tenor voice to a chord of V7 which in turn resolves for our perfect Cadence in the edn of our fourth bar.

You can now see exactly what the composer is trying to achieve. You can now slowly learn the piece bar by bar and when you play it you can visualise all the manners in which the composer is trying to convey the message of the music.

Eventually after many years of practice you can visualise all the various notes and chords so well that you can only look at the score once and play it over and over again. The problem though is before you can commit the complete works of William Shakespear to memory you first need to be able to read.

If you do not know they theory behind this you can draw the parrallel of a person who has a book written in a language he cannot understand. Sure you see the letters and he may even be able to speak the words but he has no understanding of what the book is trying to say.

And just like it is virtually impossible to commit large works of literature to memory if you do not speak the language you are going to struggle to commit music to memory if you do not read the language of music ie NOTES!

  • 1
    I just wanted to add that you don't need to be able to read music, or look at it on any bit of paper, to learn / remember how it goes. In that sense, I disagree with your post. You need to understand it, yes - but you can do that by either reading the score or just listening to it, although I agree that for more complex pieces some written notes (or score) will help a lot. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 9:12
  • Reading music is a good and important thing, yet I think you overemphasize it. It is certainly possible for many guitarists to get by without it.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 16:25

I'm going to agree with Bugra Balci, but suggest one modification. Instead of singing it in your head, sing it out loud, you will reinforce the memory 3 times:

  1. By thinking it
  2. By singing it
  3. By hearing yourself sing it

Even if you can't reach the pitches get the rhythm correct. You don't need to learn to read music, but you should try to figure things out by ear without tablature. You can do it. Start with songs that are played on guitar, as its easier to hear pitches in your own instrument. And avoid low bitrate mp3s and such. TAB has various shortcomings but the big one is that TAB you find online is often simply wrong.


I'm guessing you read a few notes (from tab) then try to play them in order. Then next few, etc. If that's the favourite way, try another.

Establish the key, and the preferred notes from that tune -(major, min.pent, blues,mixolydian, etc.) and work out from the track itself. The quicker parts will probably need the support you get from tab/dots, but you'll eventually see patterns of the same notes cropping up in many tunes.

Right now, you're dependent on the tab writer to inform you what's happening. I wonder how many will agree with the statement "lots of tab is inaccurate/ not shown in the best place".Yes, it's true that tab can tell you whether it's a bend up or a slide, but honestly, it often makes so little difference, no-one will tell anyway !

If you don't already - can't tell from question - start using your own ears and do your own transcriptions. You'll be a better player for it, rather than relying on someone else's ideas.


Isolate a small passage. Play it over and over again. Play it with your eyes closed and feel the instrument.


I'm seeing alot of answers telling you to go learn sheet music, which is certainly a good idea and can make things easier to learn but is not necessary and may not even be helpful in your case. I feel like what you're asking has more to do with your association with sounds to the shapes you make on the fretboard. If you listen to what you want to play many times and memorise it all, then slowly learn the piece by what each note you play sounds like, rather then what shape you need to make on the fretboard, you'll get it more quickly. Sheet music is a long and tedious and can be very hard to learn. Instead of memorising what it looks like, memorise what it SOUNDS like. Music is about sound. Not about visuals, and if you memorise the guitar in relation to what the drums are doing at the same time you'll have good timing. Artists like Slash don't know sheet music and they are brilliant at what they do. Think sound instead of visual or feel. People actually remember songs better then alot of things...

  • I disagree with this. Written music is simply a representation of sound, not worse or better. I believe that at the end of the day, the musician who understands simple theory (and therefore can read music) is a better musician all around compared to the average musician.
    – lobi
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 18:11
  1. Repeat a phrase of a size that you can both remember and play correctly at a reasonable tempo at least 10 times with minimal mistakes. (If you are making mistakes every go, then the size of the phrase you are practicing needs to be broken into smaller pieces.)
  2. Take a break. Practice something else, perhaps a different piece you are trying to learn (some how it doesn’t work as well if your brain knows you are still on the same piece, but practicing something else is OK.). Spend enough time that you are thinking about the something else practice.
  3. Go back to step 1 and practice the same material that you practiced there the first time.
  4. repeat this procedure 3 or 4 times in one day, and practice the same section the same way the next day. Practice the same phrase in this way 3 days in a row, and you will probably remember it forever.

You can use this same technique on multiple phrases and pieces on the same day to multiply your productiveness. As boredom sets in, try to think of different aspects of what you are doing that you want to fix: finger placement, phrasing, rhythm (sometimes you can use a metronome with this practice technique), consistent picking. I used to think about the names of the notes too, but that is not necessary.

Some times humming along with what your playing helps too, but watch out. Some performers forget not to hum in real performances so it is not always a great option. It does improve memory somehow though.

note: The break (step 2) is super important! without it, practicing something 30 times will get a similar result to practicing 10 times.

Also, as you gain success in this technique, you will need to connect the phrases you have memorized using the same technique.

In this answer I use the word phrase in a non-standard way to just be a segment of music. Actual phrases are actually best, but they are sometimes too difficult to memorize in a single go. Then you break up the phrase smaller. Other times you need to include more than a phrase, to connect the phrases as you learn more of the piece.

Avoid the temptation to play the whole piece at first. In the beginning of memorizing a piece, you waste time playing the whole piece when you cant remember a 10 digit telephone number. Save playing more of the piece for when you have more of it memorized. (It's not that you cant ever play the whole thing, just do not expect that to help your long term memory very much in comparison to this technique.)

A sidelong hint: I can sometimes trick myself into thinking of different passages of a piece as a different piece and thus multiplying my potential to cover allot of ground in a single day.

sidelong hint 2: I often practice the last phrase first, and work from the end to the beginning. This is because many will make the mistake of always practicing from the beginning of a piece and will start over when they make a mistake in the playing of the music. The mistake there is that they practice the beginning more than the end, which guarantees that the last thing they play, the last thing an audience hears and thus remembers best, is the part you practiced the least.


Learn your basic theory. I have met many "musicians" who don't know simple harmonic relationships (I-V), let alone the ability to read music.

If you seriously want to take your musicianship to the next level, spend the time and energy to learn basic theory, which will include learning how to read and write music (contrary to what people may say, it is very easy and just takes practice to read music, which you will get a lot of by learning fundamental music theory).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.