How I Learn a New Song

How I Learn a New Song

I chose music for our blended worship services about two months in advance.  If the song is new, there is a process that I follow to learn it.  Up until now, this was an unwritten process and I suppose most of it is intuitively obvious; but if this helps just one person reading this BLOG, then it will have been worthwhile.

Let’s assume that you have sheet music, at least a lead sheet.  I keep binders of new music that I obtain for free from web resources such as and  Over the years I’ve filled up over seven binders!

Here is the list of things that I do to learn a new song:

  1. It always helps to start with prayer.  Ask for God’s blessings, ask Him if it’s the right song to sing to him and express thanks for your musical gifts.
  2. Scan through the music and note the overall important stuff like the time signature, the tempo, the key and the chords.  Also, look at the flow of the song; how the verses, the chorus, the bridge, the CODA, etc. all fit together.
  3. The next thing that I need to do is to hear the melody.  If it’s simple enough I’ll play it on my guitar.  If not (and usually more than two sharps or flats throws me), then the first place I look to is youtube, because you can find most popular songs there for free.  If I can’t find it there, I’ll either buy it from ZUNE marketplace (similar to Itunes) or I’ll bring it to church and ask our keyboard player to play it for me.  As a side note, if I find the song on youtube, I will often forward a link to our Pastor, because he is fairly new to contemporary music and appreciates hearing the original before being asked to sing it in worship, and I think it helps him to evaluate the lyrics as well.
  4. Actually, purchasing an MP3 copy is the preferred route for me because I’ve been known to play it over, and over, and over.  On my way to work, at the gym while on the treadmill, while cutting my lawn, etc.  I listen to it repeatedly so that the rhythm, the groove, or the feel gets driven into my thick skull.
  5. Next, listening to the vocals and looking at the sheet music, I decide if the arrangement needs to be transposed.  Usually, if it does, it’s due to the vocals being too high.  If I’m singing the song as a solo, then I can reach a high E, but if it’s for the congregation then I need to be sure that the highest note is a C or Db or maybe a D at the highest (if its used sparingly).  The nice thing about’s music is that you can transpose the music there, right at their website, to your preferred key before printing it.  You can also listen to it there in an add-on called the “new song jukebox”, but only while the song is being featured and they tend to change after a week or so
  6. Next, I look at the chords to see if they are easy enough for the guitarists.  If not, I transpose the chords to a more playable key.  Even if the chords are OK, I will often transpose it to another key and have our second guitarist play it with different chord forms than I am, with a capo, so that we get a fuller sound together.
  7. Finally, I’m ready to practice the song.  I will often start by playing along with the original, but I quickly go to doing it alone.  If it’s a tricky rhythm, I’ll play along with either a metronome or a drum machine to help me to keep the timing.
  8. I will also usually play through it a few times before I sing while playing.  This is also a good time to start memorizing the lyrics, but if you listen to the music as much as I do, then you probably have them committed to memory anyway.
  9. I usually practice at least a half hour a day, every day, and the new song will be at least 10 minutes of this practice time.  If there’s a difficult part, just play that part over and over again.  I used to have a guitar teacher that put repeat symbols around difficult measures then followed it with a 100X.  It works.
  10. I try to get the song as perfect as I can on my own, then I practice it with the band that have also been looking at the sheet music and practicing themselves.
  11. Finally, I’ll look for places to embellish.  These are usually between chord transitions or at places where there is a rest in the lyrics.

By doing this up front home work, your new songs will be much easier to learn as a group.  In fact, usually one practice will do it.

I deliberately did not talk about how to choose new music in this post since I’ve covered that area in the past (just click on my “choosing songs” and “choosing music” categories for more information if needed).

Sing to the Lord a new song!  For some reason God tells us this fact a whopping nine times in scripture.