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Picking the Song You Want to Learn to Play
[Abstract: This post continues the "Learning to Play a Song Series." It discusses three different things to consider when picking your first song to play.]
So, you've picked what instrument you want to play. You may not realize it but you've made a major step towards learning to play your first song, since, by choosing the instrument, you've narrowed your choices down to what you can play. If you've chosen the bass guitar, there's no sense in trying to learn to play a song that's driven solely by rhythm guitar. One word of wisdom when it comes to learning a song: creativity needs boundaries. By you choosing your instruments, you have created a boundary in which creative energies can be channeled.
Where do you go from here? Here are some things to consider when choosing what song you'll learn to play:
Consideration #1: What type of song do you want to learn to play?
This one choice has the most impact on how well you'll learn and how well you'll stick to playing and practicing. If you choose a song that doesn't really motivate you, odds are you won't stick with it and hence won't learn to play the song. Additionally, if you pick a song whose style you are completely unfamiliar with, you will have a hard time learning to play it, whether or not it's intrinsically difficult or not.
Here's something else to be very mindful of: music has a very powerful impact on one's moods. If you've chosen a song and find yourself in a mood that's wildly different than your natural mood after playing it for a while, odds are its the music and not you. This can work to your advantage: playing peaceful music when you're having a bad day can work wonders for one's psyche; sometimes playing music that lets loose the darker side of you can be therapeutic, as well. If you are religiously inclined, worship music can be a powerful way to center yourself and you get the two-for of learning an instrument and worshiping at the same time.
Bottom-line: take a minute or two and think about what type of song you want to play. Choose one that motivates you, is close to the type of music you most often listen to, and that puts you in the mood you want to be in.
Consideration #2: How difficult is the song to play?
It can be difficult for someone just learning to play to assess how difficult a song will be to play. There are some quick ways to figure it out, though it may require a somewhat trained ear.
First, listen to the tempo of the song.
Faster songs are generally harder to learn to play, as you'll generally have to have quicker fingerwork to keep up. Additionally, it's also harder to discern notes and chords when they're speeding by you. If possible, choose a slower song so that you can play along with it once you've practiced it a bit. Trust me, in the long run you'll be happier, unless, of course, you listen to a lot of fast music and the slower music puts you to sleep.
Listen to how quickly the main notes change
This comment is mostly focused on the guitar. Every song has a basic structure of chords that it fits in called a key. This key is the range and types of notes that can naturally be played within the song. (I'm keeping this really basic, as explaining keys and chords can be quite complex and the explanation is probably counterproductive for the beginner.) What you're listening for is how often it seems that there's a chord change within the song; more chord changes equate to more finger work and, at the beginning stages, more frustration.
Also, if a song has a really screaming solo, there's a good chance that it's difficult to play, as musicians, just like anyone else, love to show their ability to do the difficult. While I'm not saying you should shy away from really intricate solos, be aware that they're not going to come easy. You're far better off learning to play easier songs at the beginning, which is why most music teachers start with the easy stuff first and then build upon it.
Listen for key changes
Here I am back to key changes, I know. If you're listening to your song and you notice that, all of a sudden, all of the musical instruments and the vocalist take a step up or down, what you've probably just heard is a key change (normally songs key up rather than down). I advise you to avoid learning such a song for your first song.
Here's why: songs without key changes normally have somewhere between three to five chords in them (four being really common). To learn how to play those songs, all you have to do is learn those three to five chords and how they're put together. (Yes, I made it sound much easier than it is for a beginner) Songs that have key changes, however, may double the amount of chords you have to learn, as the different keys require different chords. Sometimes you get lucky and only a few chords change, but that style puts a large burden on you to remember which chords go in which position when they're played.
If it doesn't violate consideration #1, choose a song that's slower, has less chord/key note changes, and does not have a key change.
Consideration #3: How common is the song?
Many people overlook this consideration when choosing their first song only to figure out it kind of sucks to only know a song that few other people know. Part of learning to play for most people is the idea of sharing the song, and, perhaps, play along with someone else. Having someone listen to a song that their unfamiliar with puts both the new musician and the listener in a weird position: unless it's an immediately catchy song, the listener takes a while to catch on to it and the musician feels a bit awkward playing it, and if the person listening to the song isn't responding with the enthusiasm that the new musician hoped for, the musician's motivation for learning to play the song can be sapped.
If your goal is to play music with other people, learning to play a less well-known song undermines your goal; what you're in essence doing is making twopeople learn a song they're unfamiliar with. It's especially problematic to learn difficult, uncommon songs, as it's really hard for people to wing it on a song that they can't play back in their head.
Whenever possible, pick a song that's really common, presuming, of course, that it doesn't violate Consideration #1.
If you can stomach it, the easiest way to learn a song is to pick one off a Top 40 list. Yes, they're pop songs, but generally pop songs are not very difficult and are nearly universally appealing. You'll no doubt find many people who are familiar with the song, so you'll have plenty of potential prospects to play for and many more prospects to play with. Additionally, pop songs feature the core types of chord variations, structures, and arrangements that the Western ear has been trained to hear and find pleasing; training yourself to learn to play these songs and hear how they work will serve you well as you learn to play more songs.
The next post in this series will discuss how to analyze your song and begin learning the parts of it.