As a teacher, I sometimes come across frustrated students and get asked “How do I learn new banjo songs? While this sounds like a very general question, it can be because of how it is perceived and approached. Many students, especially beginners, are not sure as to how to learn songs or are even taught how to. While I can’t claim to be the greatest expert on the matter or have all the answers, I can explain how I approach learning new tunes and what works for me and my students. Remember the cliché “Work smarter, not harder?” Well this applies, and I can show that learning new tunes can be fun and not have to be frustrating.
First of all, you should know the form of the song. Most banjo standards are in AABA form, AABB form, or variations of these. (Each letter represents a different section of a tune.) Or when it comes to popular tunes, know how many verses and choruses there are and if there is an intro, outro, and a bridge. Once you know the form of the song, it is much easier to break down and learn the different sections, making it much easier to memorize.
Now that you know the form of the tune, figure out the other elements of the song such as the key signature, time signature, and tempo. Then, start learning the different sections individually. For example, for a song in AABA form, learn the A section first. Take it slow, work with a metronome to a slow but comfortable tempo, and go over it until it is memorized. If the required tempo is too fast, it's ok. Learn the tune at a tempo that’s comfortable for you. It’s better to be slow and musical than fast and sloppy, as you can work on your speed later. Also, don’t be afraid or embarrassed if you have to play it over and over and over again. Remember that our brains learn by repetition, so I can’t stress this enough. If you ever heard me in the process of learning a new tune, you’d probably be sick of it because you would’ve heard it so much, but at the same time you’d be able to hum it! Once you got the A section down, guess what? You’ve already learned three quarters of the song! Remember that most songs repeat sections, so in this case you’re working smarter, not harder!
Obviously next you would learn the B section, and again approach it in the same way you did the A section: to a metronome and a slow but comfortable tempo. Regardless of the form or how many sections a particular song has, do not learn any subsequent sections until you got the current section down pat. Now that you have the B section memorized, go over the entire tune as a whole. If you have any problems with a particular phrase, isolate it and work on it. Once that is ironed out, you can fine tune the entire song, adding alternate phrases and “licks”, and increasing the tempo slowly and steady with the metronome. (Working on increasing speed can be approached in the same sort of fashion, but we can explain that in detail in a different article.)
As you can see, learning new tunes doesn’t have to be a frustrating chore. If you break the tune down to its basic core elements and sections, it can be much easier to learn and also be a fun process as well. And the more you approach learning new songs this way and learning new songs in general, the process just becomes habit and second nature. And the more tunes you learn, the easier it becomes making you a better banjo player and musician overall.
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