How to remember chord changes for Popular Music

I am wanting to know how to remember guitar chords for various songs. How for example does one recall what chords fit onto what words in a song such as The Beatles song - “Yesterday”? I’m Interested to know what images one would use for the various chords in the song (if that is what’s done). I understand that theory of music is of utmost importance for the classical trained musician but for a bumbling “Campfire Musician”, how without having the physical ‘lyrics and guitar chords’ on a printed sheet of paper could songs be committed to memory? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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Hi Fred, great question and one that I was just about to ask myself. I’ve been playing guitar for quite some time now and compose, play in a band (rhythm and lead) and enjoy entertaining my kids with songs where I sing and play guitar. Just a couple of months ago I came back to memory techniques and here in particular the use of mind palaces to remember the lyrics of songs. Within about two months I have memorized the lyrics of 11 songs I could recite off the top of my head using the journey and the mind palace method. Depending on my daily workload, it should take me about five days to get really well at remembering the lyrics. Works like a charm.
Over time, I noticed that each and every song is different and requires different learning. Sometimes the lyrics are more complicated, sometimes they are so simple, I wouldn’t even care to use a memory palace (expl. REM - This one goes out to the one I love). What I am having dificulty with is remembering the chords to the songs. Experimenting with this, for one song, I tried to tie a chord to the word (ie a mental picture) in the song, but that never sticks. May be I have to make an extra effort here, but I tried hard already and it didn’t stick. Let me give you an example: Song: Wrecking Ball by Eric Church. It starts with “I”. That “I” sounds a lot like a German “A” (I am from Germany), so I know, I have to play and “A” on the “I” at the beginning of the song. okay, that works. But as the song progresses, there are too many chord changes so that it is really difficult to keep that up. Chords repeat in songs and don’t always land on the same word (of course not). I will continue to experiment with this, but for now, I go like this (most of the time): I learn the chord progression. Usually they repeat over the verses and in the chorus. I the chorus has a different set of chords, learn them, too (very often, the chorus has the same chords, just in a different order). So, first I sing the song without guitar, but I try to feel where the chord changes are. Next, I practice the song with guitar. Here, it is at this point still mostly repetition. Over and over again, until the song sticks. I know, this may not be a satisfactory answer to your question, but I hope it gives you ideas how to go about it. I am looking forward to other suggestions.

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MBDextrus from your “sign-in name” I presume you can play the guitar both ways (i.e left handed and right handed?) LOL! Thanks for your reply, yes as the old saying goes how do you get to play at Carnegie Hall - Practice man - Practice!! From what you’ve said I presume you are a semi-professional musician making some odd bob or two holding down the rhyme groove in your band/s you play in. That being said, I am only an elementary learner on the guitar and ukulele. I am fine playing songs when I have the lyrics with chord changes annotated on the songs in front of me no problem. Obviously the chords themselves form shapes and you are able to play barre chords that acts to simplify remembering 1000 odd guitar chord shapes too. As you know the reality is that 90% of most popular pop songs only have 4 chords in them and as you say, repeat and cycle. I guess what I am trying to achieve is to get beyond playing Tom Jones’ “Green Green Grass of Home” (not that I have anything against Sir Tom though). So I guess if we took a Beatles number like “Blackbird” there are far more than a mere 4 chords in that song? Lyrically, I am OK with most songs I want to play and I have no problem remembering the lyrics as most popularized Pop songs have been played to death on the radio and so I’ve heard them ‘over and over’ (repetition) if you will. What I am keen to know from any other budding musicians out there (without having to learn the circle of 5th’s etc.), how does one know what chord is coming next and on what word? Would it be possible say to form images for say F, Dm, A7 ect. and link them to the words where they appear in the song being played??

Hi Fred, nice catch :wink: Yes, I am using both my hands (and feet) almost equally. I write with both hands, draw, play table tennis and so on. At the moment, my right hand is recovering from an injury, so I am using my left hand more and in situations, where I would otherwise use the right one. Funny enough, when it comes to guitar playing, I am playing 99% as a right handed player. Turning the guitar the other way feels as awkward as it can get. Guess that’s because of my first guitar teacher (I was 11), he wouldn’t let me play like a lefty. Occasionallly, I try it, but never for long.
Back to your original post, I think you have already come a long way when you know the lyrics by heart. That should make it easier to learn how to place the chords correctly. And I would go about it just as you described: “form images for say F, Dm, A7 ect. and link them to the words where they appear in the song being played…” I still have to do some experimentation with that (and I will, because I think that is the best way), but I am thinking about different approaches:

  • I like it when the word where the chord appears begins with the same letter as the chord, e.g. when I have to play a D on Daisy, done, deep, etc.

  • in another song, I had to play a G-chord when the picture in my journey showed a bowed over man (funny enough, I don’t know which song that was at the moment) and I imagined the man somehow contorted in a way that reminded me of the form of the letter G. That worked well for me.

  • Even though I don’t think you need to learn music theory to accomplish your goal, I know from experience that it does help to know a little bit about it. The circle of 5s is a good starting point (and easy to remember with mnemonics), but for analyzing Blackbird or more complicated chord progressions, you would have to go a bit further. And then, some fantastic sound chord progressions don’t follow the rules of music theory by the book and then it quickly gets frustrating.

  • Finally, I think your suggestion is worth further exploration: My idea is to determine a fixed image for the Chords, e.g. an F-chord will always be a Mermaid (just a figure that jumped into my head, because I think mermaids are very female). An F7 could be a Mermaid with a flag. So in essence, you could create a number system for chords and attach the images to the right spot in the lyrics. You know what, I will try that out today and let you know how it works.
    Again, great question, I am glad you asked.
    Cheers, MBDextrus