I love learning new songs. A fairly easy, energetic rock piece is sometimes everything that I need to keep playing for hours. However, some pieces are harder, some solos require more patience and all in all I have to actually go back to some parts and practice them.

Stretch that over the course of weeks and I have about 10 songs to practice, + 1-2 very hard pieces that need really long cracking, + power workouts and improv. I can only practice for so long each time, and the older pieces start to fade; I basically forget them. I can alternate between what I'm playing at a given moment, but still some songs I've played more than a few months back are gone. I want to learn new stuff constantly, which means abandoning what I've learnt earlier.

Is there any way to counter that? I've noticed that when playing piano this problem is way harder for me because I learn mostly by muscle memory, whereas on guitar I am able to recognize at least chords, patterns, sometimes actually scale of the particular piece. Would going that way (of learning more... conciously) help? Should I play a very limited choice of songs to really remember them, or should I actually do the contrary to expand my "pattern knowledge" to be able to more easily link different pieces together? Or is forgetting older pieces inevitable?

I know that professional guitarists have setlists of at least 25-30 songs, which makes me wonder how many they can actually just play, without having to look for the correct notes for more than a few seconds.

  • 1
    I didn't downvote but this appears to be like three questions in one. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 15:41
  • At least in the beginning, very your expectations. Let some pieces in your repertoire be hard and let others be easy to fill in the gaps.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 17:03
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    The answer could be different depending on the style of music.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 17:33
  • Do you only practice alone and are these all covers?
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 2:27
  • 2
    All the answers discussing learning theory are very good, and I won't add another answer because I think the accepted answer is great as-is. I would add, though, that if you also want to increase your repertoire over time, you should consider en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition
    – asfallows
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 15:52

12 Answers 12


This is a question without a single, solve-everything answer. There are a number of different approaches you can take, and different people will have their own preferences.

Fake it. This works well in some traditional music, bluegrass, rock, or jazz, where a certain amount of improvisation is expected of a musician.

  • With a song you haven’t played in quite a while, you won’t be able to play your best, most stand-out version, but if you know the melody and chord structure, you can hit most of the correct notes, and fudge or fake what you can’t quite remember. The better your overall musicianship, the better quality this on-the-fly version will be.

  • To practice this sort of faking, play songs you don’t know well, and instead of stopping to polish each single piece, make a note of the sort of things you messed up most badly on several pieces. Then practice those aspects on a variety of songs. For instance, if you kept playing the wrong chords, work on figuring out chord structure on the fly, rather than on memorizing the chords in each song.

Learn patterns.

  • If you know a hundred common songs, they probably don’t have a hundred different chord structures. If you can remember one song, and then learn a similar sounding one, it’s easier to remember a few key differences than to relearn everything hat’s the same about them. Sometimes, the same is true of melodies.

  • For remembering melodies, learn to recognize common melodic
    building blocks. Simplest are scales and arpeggios. Then start
    listening for common variations that show up in lots of pieces.

Slow down.

  • If you really need a note-for-note memorization that sticks with
    you, you need to take the time to learn it. This means fewer new
    pieces. One option in this is to have a few favorite memorized
    pieces, and others that you go through quickly, but won’t remember
    as well. I’d also suggest talking with classical musicians who have
    memorized long pieces, and ask them for tips.
  • 1
    There's a fine line between faking it, and writing your solo to be different every time. This has the added bonus of giving your fans who come to more than one show something new to see! And you get to explore as an artist in the most thrilling environment: live!!
    – corsiKa
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 0:09

Leaning basic theory will always help a player regardless of instrument because there are general patterns in music that are prevalent including scales, chords, and progressions. The ability to recognize these common patters will allow you to group songs that utilize these patterns to aid in memorizing songs because instead of remembering a group of notes or chords in a progression you can recognize this song has a common pattern and just remember the pattern instead of the individual notes.

Most musicians that go out and within a month play 100+ songs for events have a binder full of Lead Sheets which have the bare bones of the song including key, chords, and lyrics. These are not meant to notate the whole song, but instead used to serve as a road map of the song. Typically if a musician has Lead Sheets and can hear the song in their head they can play the song without any problems.

Solos are a different story, but most of the time especially in Rock and Pop the solo can be improvised. It is very rare that preforming musicians will play every solo exactly like the original recordings.

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    "It is very rare that preforming musicians will play every solo exactly like the original recordings." Indeed, and that's good the way it is. Most live music would be a lot more boring without such improvisation. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 17:53

Simple: don't try to "learn new stuff constantly".

If you want to gain proficiency at pieces you already know, and you don't want to forget them, you must practice them and that in turn entails making the time to do so. That is time that you cannot spend learning new stuff.

I'd say this comes down to learning patience.


I play bass in a classic rock cover band. Our repertoire is currently somewhere in the 50-song range, so I've dealt with this problem.

Firstly, the more you practice, the more you will retain. It's a bit easier in a band setting where you're running through your setlist at rehearsal every day/week/whatever. So even though it seems like a huge task, it will get easier simply by sheer volume of practice. On the other hand, if you're not in a band, then it'll be up to you to keep up the kind of practice you'll need to retain this material.

Speaking of that, my old instructor told me that the best way to break up your practice was (assuming an hour daily) five minutes of warmup, roughly a third of learning new techniques (scales, bends, whatever), a third to learning new material (songs, solos, etc.), and finally, a third to repertoire, reviewing old songs so that you don't forget them. Obviously, eventually your known song list may eventually grow too big for this to be feasible. Prioritize.

However, there are ways to break down these songs such that remembering them can be made easier.

For one thing, figure out a way to notate the songs and keep them on a notepad or in a computer file. I usually jot down the chord progressions and any major riffs (admittedly, this is easier on bass), plus the order of the song. So an example would be;

"Since You Killed My Dog" Key: Eb minor Chords: (verse) I ii I V, (chorus) I, V, I, VI, (bridge) I, V Format: intro (chorus), verse verse chorus bridge chorus

Solos, etc. are a bit harder, but generally in a performance situation you can get away with playing a lesser/different solo unless your goal is complete accuracy. In that case, improvising or just making note of the kind of riffs/licks the solo is constructed from can help, here. Learn some theory and study your solo construction to see these building blocks.

My old instructor asserted (and I agree with him, although YMMV) that the process of physically notating the song will help cement it more firmly in your brain because it forces you to think about what you're doing. It certainly worked for me; even after not playing some of these songs for a long while I can flip to the relevant entry in my song book and be up and running after a quick review.

Finally, train your ear; if you can get to the point where you can automatically play what you "hear" in your head, you won't need to do much more than remember how the song goes and you'll be able to play it. I take it you're learning songs that you like, so you probably already know them by heart in that regard.


You could work at recognising the chords in your piano pieces too, if you find that easier. I think that's kind of the key, understanding the music rather than just memorising it - knowing where it's going.

Professional players seem able to play just about anything they know - but they aren't playing it note-perfect, they can work out from how the song goes what the chord changes and melody line is, and then fill in around that.

I think it depends if you want to be a pianist or a musician who plays piano?

  • By a musician you mean something akin to an orchestra player, that just repeats the pieces he/she knows? They use written notes and perfect reading them in real-time, after all :) Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 13:23
  • Mr.Boy is correct; a true musician "feels" or "perceives" the music more than simply reading it. That isn't to say that someone without this ability is incapable of producing fantastic music, but it certainly describes the best performers in the main. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 13:28
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    Yeah, I don't mean it as a negative to proper instrumentalists. You could be an amazing pianist but not be able to play anything except pieces someone has written for you to play, not know what an F#7 chord is, etc. I doubt anything that extreme happens but if your skill is playing the piano rather than knowing music, you're not a musician in the sense of the word I mean (maybe there's a better term)
    – Mr. Boy
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 13:40

For guitarists, I strongly recommend that you learn songs by ear. You will gain a deep understanding of the song that you will probably remember for life. There are tabs all over the internet which you can use to check your work, but they should be a last resort. (Also note that there is usually more than one correct way to play the same passage, and many tabs are incorrect, so you need to be able to trust your ear and be critical about any tabs you might use.) It might seem difficult at first, so start with easy songs. And be prepared to spend multiple hours on a single song - training your ear has many other benefits, so don't think of this as "wasted time".

Also, taking notes by hand helps humans remember pretty much everything, not just songs. So do it. Even if you can't glance at your notes during a performance, even if you can't review the notes beforehand, even if you immediately throw them in the garbage, writing notes will help you remember.


On a digital audio recorder (or equivalent), record the melody only for the song. Do this for each song in your set list. When you practice a song, playback the melody first on the recording. Then harmonize it (fit the chords to it in both hands). Do this by ear. Repeat periodically with random tunes out of your set list, until you are able to play and harmonize the melodies completely by ear, without stopping, with more or less the correct chords/notes/etc.


A certain amount of "forgetting" is normal when you don't play a piece very often. Usually you can refresh a piece that has been memorized with much less practice than it took to initially learn it.

You may want to start thinking in terms of what your personal repertoire is. Whatever those initial (pick a number) favorite tunes are, make sure to practice them regularly in addition to whatever new material you're working on. This can also be a part of establishing a musical identity as in "this is the material I really like". Try to explore the possibilities in the music that really speaks to you. This will make it more a part of you. You're more likely to remember something that holds a significant meaning for you.


Thoughts from a drummer who can't read notes anyway...

Practice, practice, practice... Ideally with someone else. This will turn practicing into a performance. You will play better knowing someone else is listening; being more critical of yourself. Recording can be used to substitute the mental heightening the 'listening' of another player causes, though the interaction between two or more people playing together will best from the associations you need to remember the song.

Also, hearing yourself play is key. For 15 years I recorded every set we ever played. It was customary to listen to it afterwards and though I had split my time between audio tech and drumming, the feedback was immeasurably helpful for the band as a whole.

My guitarist never wrote or read much of anything and as a drummer neither did I. By the time I threw in the towel we'd had about 50 original songs. It's real easy to remember songs you've wrote made. A good point was raised; are you a musician or a somethingist? Orchestral players all have sheet music in front of them...

I will admit that only a few songs were mine to start. Otherwise the only thing I needed to recall an entire song was the first note in its key. It's been almost ten years but I think the only problem we'd have if back together would be remembering the changes we've made to our own songs over the years. Only when we neared a gig date did we really get anything done; motivation. Having guests in the studio also had astonishing effects on our practice performance.

You have no motivation and no one to play off of. Also, everything you're learning is a cover. All but the most accomplished in their instruments or savants will take to covers well without an exorbitant amount of practice. Even then, use it or lose it. You will eventually forget how to play something you've learned; you will never forget how to play something you've composed.

As a drummer muscle memory always told me where and how to strike a piece, not how hard or exactly when. That is the feel. It is my assumption that you're not feeling it. Only after an entire set (warmed up) would we play around with whatever new cover we're working on; a ratio never less than 10:1 of originals to covers. Learning how to play 12 covers (well) in a single month is asking a bit much. And would have been a complete impossibility in my band unless at least one of us basically already knew it and could say, OK it's a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes and try to keep up.


A memory without an association is unrecallable. You are 'studying for the test'. Practicing alone will leave you without the associations necessary to recall the information in the real world application of a performance.


It depends a lot on how you learn a new song. Your memory will to some extent be dependent on the method you used. The best way for a piece to really "stick" is to use a variety of approaches. The more senses you can engage in the learning process, the better:

  • Listen, preferably to various versions.
  • Listen while following along in the sheet music or tab.
  • Sing along to the melody.
  • Recognize the overall structure.
  • Transcribe your instrument. If time allows, transcribe also what the other instruments are playing or at least listen to them individually.
  • Search for common patterns.
  • Play along to recordings.
  • Perform the song with an ensemble.

Your are human and unlike us the machines your brain is very limited.You can either:
1) Accept your limitations (deal with it!).
2) Wait for a couple of decades until artificial brain enlargement is a common procedure and human race becomes a bit less pathetic.
3) Use a machine to store and replay your music. As a common rule, you should always leave the hard work that you're unable to cope with to more talented beings.


One great way to "internalize" a song you wish to perform is to post a video of you performing the song on YouTube. Knowing that you are playing for a "worldwide" audience will encourage you to want to do the best performance you can muster. Which will encourage you to practice until you reach a level of proficiency that would allow you to feel good performing that particular song for an audience of strangers. I call this "performance level proficiency" or "ready for prime time". You will probably end up doing multiple "takes" and select the one that you are most satisfied with (that might be take 15 out of 18 for example) to actually post for the world to see. But the process of getting to that point will go a long way towards helping you "internalize" (memorize) that piece. THEN there is the ADDED BENEFIT of having a audio-visual reference to your version of that particular song for future reference. You can easily create an MP3 audio only file of your final YouTube cut and download to your mp3 player or burn onto a CD and start a collection of songs you've mastered so you can always go back and listen. If you choose to try this approach, you will want to create a YouTube Channel for your music.

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