How do you learn a new song from the sheet music?

One of the recurrent questions asked especially by beginners is 'how do I learn a new song from the sheet music?' The usual approach is to start at the beginning of the song, and play the entire song over and over until it is learned. However, that is not the most effective way to learn. This approach is time consuming, and usually results in a strong song beginning and a weak song ending. Since people tend to remember what they hear last, in weak song ending will leave listeners with a less that ideal impression.

Two different sayings explain a better way to learn. First, 'if you don't know where you're going, anywhere will take you there'. Most people have heard that stated at one time or another. The second saying can be attributed to Steven Covey, in his book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, where he says to 'begin with the end in mind'. The same is true for learning songs on the guitar.

The idea is to begin at the end of the song, and work towards the beginning. To start, practice a suitable section of the song (1 – 3 measures) for 5 minutes at half the final tempo, while reading the music. Then, practice that same section for 5 minutes without looking at the music. This second time through is very important, since it will let you know how well you have internalized the section. If you have difficulty remembering, repeat the procedure one time (5 minutes with the music, then 5 minutes without the music). If you have learned the first section, repeat this procedure with a second section of music. Follow this procedure for no more than 3 sections per day.

The following day, begin by playing the song from the beginning of the last section that you learned the day before, to the end of the song. If you remember what you have learned previously then learn additional sections as described above. If you find that you are having difficulty remembering, go back and relearn the parts that are giving you difficulties. Make sure that you know each part before you progress to learning more.

As you become more proficient at learning songs by this method, or for particularly easy songs, you may find out that you can learn more than 3 sections per day. Alternatively, you may only be able to learn one section of an especially difficult song.


Good luck and most of, have fun!