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What is a Good Way to Learn a Song?

Being able to learn songs independently is a great skill to have. Although we never truly stop learning as musicians, there will come a time when you no longer have a regular teacher. The ability to learn independently is something you should start working on with a teacher, so that you can then continue to develop the skill as time goes on. Each of the points we discuss in this blog post is something your teacher can help with. 

Let us start by explaining that you should never be embarrassed by the way you learn a song by yourself. Some musicians of an older generation are adamant that you should only learn by ear, or sheet music if it’s available. “There wasn’t any of this internet nonsense when I was younger” is a phrase you may hear bandied around, but from a realistic standpoint, we would be remiss to not use any tool at our disposal. All of the points below are skills in and of themselves, and are worth practicing equally. You may find yourself having to rely on one more than the others; don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.


Tab is short for tablature, and is a useful, beginner way of notating music for instruments that have frets and strings. This obviously includes the guitar, but also the bass, ukulele, mandolin and others. For extra information on the history of tabs, please view this blog post by TAGA teacher, Carl.

Learning and applying this method is quite simple, and easy to grasp for beginners. The numbers denoting the frets tell you exactly where to put your fingers, and counting how many times something is repeated is straightforward.

There are many downsides to reading tabs though. There is no rhythm inherent to the method, meaning you have to rely on other means for internalizing the rhythm. This is pretty easy to do for the most part, but if a song is particularly tricky you may have problems. Other downsides include lack of dynamic instruction and, perhaps the biggest issue of all, is that online tabs are usually put together by hobbyists. This can be a problem, as there may be some mistakes; lack of moderation for online material means you will be safer if you pay for a premium service - you can find a diamond in the rough, though!

Many beginners get stuck on tabs, and then never break out of it. Remember, it’s a good start but not a final solution!

Sheet Music/Notation

Standard notation is the most popular form of written music, you can find evidence of what we consider normal if you go back as far as the 13th century. 

There are many incredibly useful benefits of being able to read and perform from this medium. You have multiple universal symbols for repeating sections, clear instructions for dynamics and articulations are easily visible when written correctly. Another bonus would be that any instrument can be written in this format, even drums and percussion. 

Although I am willing to be corrected, this format tends to be more accurate, more of the time. This is likely due to the fact that only more experienced guitarists/musicians are fluent enough to publish works, so take more care with what they produce. This may also be because their name is published alongside the material, where TABs are associated with a username. It has become almost standard to have both now, though traditionalists prefer just having the sheet music. 

Guitar players are lucky in that they can use shapes on the fretboard, and simply move them up and down - a luxury not shared by other instruments like the piano. I believe it’s actually easier to recognise the shapes of arpeggios and phrases when viewing standard notation; the pictorial representation of the music is better suited to this than an assortment of numbers.

For guitar specifically, sheet music can be difficult to read due to the guitar having the same note in multiple places. Reading this kind of notation is often likened to learning a new language, so many beginners are put off when they first start. Also, really busy songs can look very intimidating when you first view them.

By Ear

I believe that learning by ear is the most important skill to develop when it comes to learning songs. Coupled with notation or TABs, you can start to absorb the information at a higher rate and with more accuracy. 

One huge benefit of being competent in this area, is that you can start to play ideas that you hear in your head and learn songs that don’t have any written music. There is little chance that this would be possible without the use of your ears. When training this, it is important you work on hearing melodies, harmony and rhythm equally. 

I can’t really think of any obvious downsides to using your ears, but many people over complicate things and then misinterpret the music. There is almost always an easier solution, although this may be in the fingering of a piece rather than the notes themselves. You can suffer from something I like to call ‘ear tiredness’, which is where you spend too long working with your ears, and even the simplest of movements start to evade you. 


YouTube lessons can be a great way to get past a roadblock when learning a song. Similar to TABs, there can be mistakes and you have to rely on using your ears to apply articulations etc - some channels are better at this than others, whereas some may adjust the music to specific skill level without disclosing that information. Being able to see how someone uses their fingers is a great way to learn, and you might find that it is this information you need rather than the notes themselves. 

If you listen to enough music, you will find that many songs use what is commonly known as a ‘lazy fadeout’. This is when the chorus is repeated at the end of the song, and keeps repeating whilst the volume is lowered and then fades out completely - it’s like they didn’t want to write a proper ending for the song! This can’t really be done live, so watching live performances of the song can help guide the performance.

There are thousands upon thousands of guitar covers in all styles on YouTube. Some are great, some definitely are not, but the visual aid that you receive from seeing the song being performed might just help you out. 


Having a competent teacher is going to help you learn effectively anyway, but specifically with learning songs. A teacher can arrange a piece of music in such a way that you are both challenged enough and able to play the song. Trying to learn a song that is too difficult for you at any one time is just going to leave you frustrated, causing you to give up learning the song completely. The best teachers not only teach you songs for you to play, they also show and explain the techniques or reasoning behind the choices made by the songwriter. 

Just having an extra person with you, and not necessarily your instructor, can help suggest songs that would be beneficial for you to learn; some of us are guilty of sticking within our comfort zones for too long, and need a swift kick to be put in the right direction. 

Mixing It All Up

As I mentioned right at the start of this blog post, the smart thing to do would be to use every tool you have at your disposal. You may find that you prefer a certain method, and struggle with another - they each have their merits and you do what you can. 

What happens frequently in songs, is that there are many different guitar tracks layered on top of each other, or the band has more guitarists for the situation you will be preparing for by learning a song. For example, listen to the song ‘Kick It Out’ by Heart and you will hear three different guitar parts. When learning this song myself, I decided to merge some of those parts together as there was only one guitar in the ensemble I was playing with. You will not find this written anywhere online, or the specific way I played the song but being played by someone else.

On another level in terms of complexity, I was trying to learn the solo from ‘Devil Take the Hindmost’ by the late, great Allan Holdsworth, and it was just too much. I could get some notes and most of the rhythm… that was until the solo became extremely ‘Holdsworth-y’ and I soon threw in the towel. That was until I came across a video by the inimitable Pete Callard (view the lesson video here if you are feeling brave!)

There is no right or wrong way to learn a song, though you must be honest with yourself and decide that the end result of what you are playing fits the purpose and the reason you had for learning the song in the first place. If it’s not quite right, what do you need to do to fix it? 

Most of the time you should be able to tell upon first listening to the song how you are going to approach learning it. For example, if you are learning ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ by Bob Dylan, you probably won’t need the sheet music if you’re trying to learn the chords. Weigh up the options, figure out what pathway works best for you.

I wish you the best of luck learning all the songs you apply yourself too!



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