S2E16 – How To Learn a Song

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My approach to learning a new song.

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Edited for clarity.

Aloha, welcome to the Live ʻUkulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa. It’s a beautiful Monday morning here in Hawaii when I’m recording this. I hope it’s the same for you wherever you are in the world. Welcome, welcome. In this episode, I want to talk about how to learn a song – or more appropriately, how I learn a song – and kind of walk you through the process and the steps that I take to make sure that I’ve really got it. And some tips of things that helped me make sure that it’s all locked in my mind.

Going to be talking more about Hawaiian music and how I learn Hawaiian songs because that’s what I’m kind of actively working on. And most times when I’m learning a song, I have to actually work on the Hawaiian stuff because there’s also the language learning component as well. But if this kind of music is up your alley, then take a moment to check out my 6th Sense ukulele course. It’s a set of 16 lessons about how to play double stop harmonies. And these are a real key part of a Hawaiian sound or getting a Hawaiian sound on your ukulele. I’ve got it laid out in HD quality with two different camera angles so that you can see everything really well. And even though it’s kind of a toolbox kind of a presentation, there are a couple of songs that we learn along the way. So check that out. If you want to try and sound a little bit more Hawaiian and compliment some of your presentations. Not just limited to Hawaiian. This style is also commonly heard in jazz and blues and pretty much any style of music, but especially blues. You kind of have that… I think they call it the Memphis style where you have those double stop slides moving around.

The first step to learning a song. And remember, this is all just my opinion, my thoughts. There are many ways to do this. But I believe that you need to know the song in your head. You need to be able to sing it from end to end, just off the top of your head. Hum it, kind of imagine the song all the way through and all kind of have a grasp on at least some of the instrumentation parts in the song. Because otherwise you’re learning something that you don’t actually know. You don’t actually know what your goal is or what you’re working towards. You’re just kind of learning these notes or learning these words that don’t have any context in your mind. They’re not filling in any gaps in, you know, the goal out outcome.

So that’s the first thing is make sure you know the song really well. For instance, I’ll use this as an example throughout the episode, I am in the process of learning Ahe Lau Makani by Queen Liliʻuokalani. It’s a tune that I’ve been hearing for 15 years. You know, I’ve been hearing this song over and over and over, and I really know how it sounds. Even though I don’t know the words. I don’t necessarily know what the chords are when I started out or I don’t know what the melody is when I started out. I know how it’s supposed to sound. I know how it goes, what the flow is. I know that this is a song in 6/8 time or kind of a three feel time. And I can, you know, fake my way through the song. [Vocalizes] And I can do that and imagine the whole thing in my head.

I think that’s super important and I don’t believe I’m on my own. I remember long, long time ago when I was going to the Kahumoku ʻOhana Workshop, there was a year when Kimo Hussey came and was teaching us ukulele. I think my friend had a private lesson with him and he wanted to learn “Happy Together,” which is one of the songs that Kimo does so amazingly well. And I was sitting in on the lesson cause that’s how we usually did it. One of us would actually sign up for the private lesson and then the buddies would hang around, kind of sit in the back and learn what they could as well. But Kimo told Micah, he was like, “Well, do you know the song? Or do you just kind of like want to learn it because you’ve heard it once and it sounded cool?” And Micah admitted that it was something that he had heard once or he heard Kimo play it and he thought it sounded cool, but he didn’t really know how the song went. And so Kimo basically refused to teach it to him until he knew how the song went. He needed to have that context to have a framework to build his knowledge in as he learned the song. And he didn’t have that at that point. And so he didn’t learn that song. He learned something else.

The next part of my learning a song is often I’ll find a recording to play along with. Or I’ll have a recording in mind and I will play along with it. So for Ahe Lau Makani, that’s one that I know so well and it’s so traditional. And so this isn’t one where I felt like I really needed a reference, but still if I had to pull on something, you know, I’ve listened to the Barefoot Natives version a lot. That was really hot for a while when that first album came out. It was kind of energetic and exciting to listen to. For most cases, I’ll find a recording that’s kind of my inspiration for learning the song and what I might consider my baseline for just learning it.

And I will play along with it and learn what the chords are by ear, if possible. And if I really need some help… Usually I won’t need to look to look them up. But if I do need some help, I’ll look them up. But then I’ll try and incorporate my knowledge of how the chords go with the recording. So I have something to play along with, I can hear how everything’s going, and it’s kind of casual that way. I like that part of playing along with something. Because it’s casual. There’s no pressure of me holding up the song at this point. I can just like fart around, figure out what the chords are, and get comfy with it. And if you don’t have a recording reference, you’re going to be kind of questioning and wondering the whole entire time, oh, am I playing it right? I don’t necessarily know. But if you’re just following along, you know whether you’re wrong or not, because your playing is going to clash with what’s happening. And you can just start getting used to taking the song from knowing how the song goes, how it’s supposed to sound to putting it a little bit onto your ukulele. Playing the chords, trying to get the strumming pattern a little bit dialed in and going from there.

Sometimes, especially if it’s a singing song, if the recorded pitch is far off from where I’m going to want to sing it, I’ll actually take the recording and practice to the recording inside program called Anytune. And I talked about this a few episodes ago where I talked about learning resources. But basically it’s an app that you can use to change the pitch of a recording. So if I can’t sing it in the original recorded key… You can approach it one of two ways: either you learn the chords in the original recorded key and you learn how to play those chords. And then when it’s time for you to start learning how to sing the song, you would transpose the chords to a key that fit your voice. Or you can, from the get go, try and find a key that works for your voice just by kind of humming the words or whatever and putting it into Anytune and transposing it. So from the start, you’re playing along with the original recording at some sort of key or pitch that works for your voice. So when you learn the chords, you’re going to be learning to play the chords on your ukulele in a key that’s actually different from the original recording, but because you’re changing the pitch, it sounds like you’re playing along with.

Sometimes that’s helpful. It kind of removes a step. Though, for a simple song, a lot of times I’ll just play along with the original recording because it sounds so much better. And then when I start to sing, I kind of know what the chords are. I know what the chord progressions are in relation to each other. Like the Nashville number system, where you give each chord a number. Like the 1 chord in the key of G is G. And then I know I go to the 4 chord, which is a C and then I go to the 5 chord, which is a D. That kind of a thing. If I have those number relationships, I can use those in any key and it’s easy for me to transpose. If it’s a more complicated song, it’s not quite as easy. I’ll have to think about it a little bit more. but for the most part, I can get away with it. But if you’re not as comfortable with that, or you’re worried about learning the chords twice, if you think that’ll confuse you, then you can use Anytune, try and get your key dialed in right from the beginning and then play along with so that you’re learning the chords.

So now we have: knowing the song in your head very well, and then also having a vague idea of what the chords are, right? And so together you might try and do something like this, where you just… I’m a big fan of having pieces of the song kind of floating around in your peripheral vision. And then slowly over time letting them come closer and closer together without really stressing about it and just try and encourage them to become a whole. Over time. I don’t try and get worked up about learning a song quickly or to really get it dialed in. Because a lot of times, especially with Hawaiian music where I have to learn the words as well, it’s going to be a several month process at least to really get to the point where I would feel like this is a song I would play at a public performance. And I just have to play it a whole lot to get to that point. So I’m in no rush to bring it all together and have it finished. So I’m just going to cruise with what’s comfortable, enjoy the process as much as possible and go from there. So far, we’ve got a rough sketch that’s from my mind. [Vocalizes] And then I kind of know what the chords are now, right? So if I was to kind of casually play through it.


And see, I’m messing up the chords there. But that’s okay. Cause I don’t really care. And then the chorus…


That’s the idea of the song. It’s not done. It’s not even good. It’s just a start. It’s some pieces coming together.

So the next bit in my mind is starting to learn the words. And because this is going to be a long road kind of process, it’s going to take me quite a while. I’m not going to get too worked up about knowing the chords yet because I’m going to have a lot of play-through time in order to get the words right when I can be dialing in the chords a little bit better. Granted, depending on your comfort with the instrument and comfort with learning songs and with singing while you’re playing, doing both these things at once might not work for you. A lot of times, when I talk about learning to play and sing, I talk about how you’ve got to know each piece perfectly by itself before you try and put it together. Okay? And so I’m, I’m approaching this from a place where I’ve done that many, many, many, many times, and I’m comfortable with the process and I’m comfortable with my playing ability and I’m comfortable with my singing ability at a level where I can just kind of smash them together and it works. But if you’re not to that point, it’s not a problem. You just should approach these things separately.

So the next bit would be to put away your ukulele, if you’re not comfortable playing and singing – or keep it out, if you are – and start learning the words, okay? Even if you’re learning an English language song, you’re going to still need to think about the words, unless this is a song that you just know so well that you know, all the lyrics by heart, which is a real big jumpstart.

And you know, for me, for a lot of these Hawaiian songs, I’ve heard them so many times that I kind of know what the words are, in general, but I don’t have them collected into like the appropriate verses. I don’t know what line goes where. I just have a bunch of line, line, line, line, line, bits of song that are all scattered in my head. And the process of learning the words is to put those lines in order and collect them as verses and chunk them up so that I know what goes where. And so when learning Hawaiian language songs, it’s really, really great to have an accurate transcription of the words. For instance, I have He Mele Aloha: A Hawaiian Song Book. It’s the blue book. It’s got an ukulele on the front and a hibiscus and a lei. It is not the best cover in the world. But the contents are gold because Puakea Nogelmeyer was part of this project. And he is a Hawaiian language wiz. You wouldn’t guess it listening to his last name or looking at him, but he’s a total wiz. And all of the words to my knowledge are correct. So if you learn a Hawaiian song from He Mele Aloha, you’re in good shape, as long as you know how to read and pronounce Hawaiian words from that.

So Ahe Lau Makani is in the book, which is a big leg up for this. If it’s not in He Mele Aloha, a lot of times it’s on Huapala. I don’t know how Huapala gets hold of the accurate lyrics that they do, but they seem to be pretty good. I think she works really hard to make sure that it’s accurate and it’s very much appreciated. But what I’ll start with is I have the words here in front of me. And so the first verse,

He ʻala nei e māpu mai nei

And I’ll just kind of read through it to make sure that I’ve got the Hawaiian pronunciation in the right places. And I should probably do a podcast on like basic Hawaiian for ukulele players, so that people who are singing songs can actually know how to pronounce the words right instead of just guessing. But what I’ll do is I’ll work line by line and make sure I’ve got the pronunciation kind of dialed by itself. And then I’ll try and fit it with the melody. Because a lot of times the trick with singing in Hawaiian is making sure that you can fit the words into the melody. And it’s probably easier in Hawaiian than it is with English, just because it’s a well singing language, but still the way that some songs are written, it can kind of be… You kind of like hitch on a vowel and it extends longer than you think, or vice versa. And it can be kind of weird.

So if I have my gist thing in my head where I’m humming: [vocalizes] So that’s, that’s the first line. If I put the words with that,

He ʻala nei e māpu mai nei.

Na ka makani lau aheahe

And I’ll just work my way through the words for the first verse. And if there’s a hui – or a chorus – I’ll work my way through that as well. The chorus is going to be easy because you sing it the same every time. That’s just the style. The verses are different words, but the chorus remains the same. Some Hawaiian songs you have just verse, verse, verse, verse, and there is no chorus. So all the words are different the whole way through, but the idea is to get comfortable with one verse. And then once you kind of know how the words go, know how it goes with the melody, then you can bring the ukulele back in.


So that’s the first bit. It’s early, so I need to key down a couple of keys in order to fit my morning voice in there, but you get the idea. And what I try and go for is I try and get at least one verse down so that I can like play enough of the song to hear this song and be excited about the song and to know what’s happening with the song. And again, if you’re not comfortable playing with your singing, then just sing. Just sing the part and have that, and then slowly try and add the ukulele in once you feel comfortable. A lot of times people try and do a fancy strum and the fancy strum kills their momentum. Just keep it really simple. Just strum down on each chord change.


It’s way more simple that way. Just keep it simple, stupid, and don’t try and do too much until you’re comfortable with what is happening.

Okay. So now we have the gist idea of the song. I have a rough idea how the chords go. Now I have the first verse and a hui. What I try and do as I go through the words, especially for a Hawaiian song, not so much for an English song, cause it just happens by itself. I know what I’m trying to say, or I know the meaning of the words. And so I can just correct that in my mind as I go, if I don’t have it completely perfect with the English words. But with the Hawaiian, because I don’t speak Hawaiian as well as I would like, I don’t have like instant recognition of whether something makes sense or not. I know the idea of what I’m singing, but my understanding is not a hundred percent there.

So what I try and do is I go through and I really pay attention to where the ʻokina and where the kahakō are, make sure that I’m not adding ʻokina where they’re not supposed to be. For instance – this is for the folks who do kind of understand how Hawaiian is pronounced – “He ʻala” has an ʻokina between the he and the ʻala: he ʻala. You wouldn’t say, Heala, because that would be just gliding it together. You want to have… Make sure that that ʻokina is there. So I’m looking for that. But then also if I go, He ʻala nei e māpu mai nei. There’s no ʻokina between the “nei” and the “e.” So if I go nei ʻe māpu mai nei, I don’t necessarily want to put that hard breath break in between them. And so if I was singing it, He ʻala nei e māpu mai nei you would glide the “nei e”. Right? You would put them together because there’s no ʻokina. I’ll talk about this more in a future podcast episode.

But I’m going to go through and double-check my pronunciation and make sure that I’m learning it correctly from the beginning. A lot of times folks kind of just learn the song as they hear it. And because Hawaiian is a second language to the majority of folks who are playing the ukulele, that’s not necessarily the best approach. Because you kind of learn it a certain way and then you have to unlearn it when somebody says, “Hey, you actually need to pronounce malihini instead of malahini,” and then it takes more time and you have to think and worry about it. And it’s just easier to do it right from the get-go.

So I’ll, double-check my pronunciation. And then I will go and start introducing more verses. And the trick for me with Hawaiian language is thinking about kind of what the theme of the verse is. Like in this case, in this song, the structure is very similar. The majority of the lines start with the same words. So for all four verses in the song, the first line starts with, He ʻala nei. And what’s after that changes. So for verse one, He ʻala nei e māpu mai nei. For the second verse: He ʻala nei e moani mai nei. Third verse: He ʻala nei e pūia mai nei. And then the last verse: He ʻala nei e aheahe mai nei. And so having kind of a theme in your head or knowing like that first line of each verse will kind of… You want to be able to group everything under the umbrella of, okay, this is the second verse or, okay, this is the first verse. And then from there you can work to get the lines in the correct order. But this is really just a process of doing it a lot.

And for me, I won’t play a lot of times when I’m memorizing the words, I’ll play a little bit to get how the song goes and to have that first verse and the chorus. So I can play a little bit of music and feel good about learning the song, like I said. But when it comes to actually memorizing the words, a lot of times I’ll just like close my eyes and go line by line and try and memorize what’s going on. And if there’s a gap. Like for me, a lot of times I can get three of the lines, but one of the lines I’m going to get backwards. I’m going to borrow it from a different verse or I’m going to get it wrong. In that case I closed my eyes. I go through it in my head. I say it out loud. And then I go back and I look and I check. And if it’s correct, great, I can think about doing it again and not checking this time or moving on to the next verse, whatever it is. But it’s really just chipping away at the stone until you get a sculpture that is the entire song. And so just line by line, if you can add one line at a time, one line every time through one line a day, one line a week, whatever it is, just kind of try and find how you get into the song best and how you can memorize the song best.

And I’m talking here about words. This all goes for melodies too. I would learn a picking melody or a lead on my ukulele in very much the same way. You have a little section here and a section here in a section here and you try and just extend it and expand it. And if you get one part wrong, that doesn’t mean everything’s wrong. It just means that you need to recheck what’s actually happening in that one part. And so it’s very much the same sort of advice I would give between the words and the melody, because they’re kind of the same. They’re kind of the same thing if you think about it.

So now we’re going to assume that we have a rough sketch of the chords and the melody and all the verses. And if you’re not the kind of person who memorizes the words or doesn’t feel like you can memorize the words, you’re going to be looking at the sheet. And you’re probably going to speed through this process a little bit easier. I come from kind of the old school of, if you’re going to learn the song, you need to have all the words in your head. And I know this doesn’t work for everybody and I totally respect that. But for me to feel comfortable performing, I need to have everything in my head. Cause I just, I don’t feel like I can present the song very well if I have to read off a piece of paper. Kealiʻi Reichel came to school when we were in the Institute of Hawaiian Music. And he was saying that if you have to read something off of the paper, you’re interpreting it. You’re eyes are looking at the words on the paper, they’re bringing it into your brain and then your brain is converting it into the words or the motions that your hands need to make to connect everything. Whereas if you have it memorized, it’s already in your brain and you can just project it out. And so having that extra step is going to slow you down. It’s going to kind of maybe dull your presentation abilities. Just because you are playing with your eyes more than you are just playing the song. And so that, for me, that’s the reason I try and memorize the song. To have it inside me and then it can just boop go right out in the world.

Anyways, at this point we have a rough sketch of all the verses, everything together. And this kind of where I’m at with this song currently. I haven’t worked it in a number of days. I’ve been kind of busy doing other things. But with a run-through or two of practice, I could probably get through the words of the song out of my head. It might be kind of slow. I might have to like, “uh, what is it?” and hang on a chord to think about what the words actually are, but the majority of the content is there. It’s just not very well polished. All right, I’ll play it for you now, just so you can hear how the whole song goes. I am going to cheat and look at the words because I haven’t had that practice quite yet, but it’s a beautiful song. I feel like folks should know it. Give you a little bit of something else to do with your ears besides just listen to my voice.

Before I do that, though. Something that I do think about kind of during this process is I try to think about what my spin is going to be. What is going to make this song sound like it’s something that I am presenting? Because if I just play it like the Barefoot Natives, or if I play it like Herb would play it or I play it like, you know, Uncle Dennis would play it. That’s not really my presentation. That’s just me borrowing… It’s more of a cover than it is an original presentation of the song. Because Hawaiian music is so much about playing other songs, but it’s never really considered like a cover. It’s not like, oh yeah, I’m covering the Queen’s song, “Ahe Lau Makani.” It’s not a cover. It’s just your presentation. And so, in trying to keep that original, while I’m learning the words while I’m learning the chords, I’m kind of keeping my inspiration net open for ways that kind of make the song speak for me. Like “this is my interpretation of the song.” And what I came up with is… The chords for the verse, they kind of go G then C then D then G. And so what I did to kind of capture that with sort of a riff that can kind of be the theme for my presentation:


So I’m just holding the G and kind of moving the bass to highlight the notes from the different chord changes. So it’s a little bit of like a droning pedal tone kind of approach. But it’s a thing, right? I always talk about the “thing.” What’s the thing of your song. This is the thing for this presentation. So I’ll play it for you and you can kind of hear how I’ve it put together. This is “Ahe Lau Makani” by Hawaii’s last Queen, Lili’uokalani.


So that’s a rough morning version of “Ahe Lau Makani.” It’s kind of what I’m working on. I think that one of the key things for me is sort of finding my voice in the song and in how I want to present it. And that comes… Because I’m so much more comfortable with the ukulele than I am with singing. I’ve been playing a lot longer than I’ve been singing. Singing just takes a little bit more effort for me, but because I have that confidence with ukulele, I feel like if I can find an ukulele part that sort of captures the vibe that I want to present, then it’s easier for me to kind of get into the song. And so in this case for that, it’s kind of the two different themes for the verse and the chorus. For the verse, you have the picking and then for the hui, I was playing kind of like more bigger pedal tone chords again. So again, kind of hanging on the same notes in the chords like I did for the picking thing where I’m only really changing one note. But with the chords I’m playing higher to have a little bit more of a singing tone that pops out on the top. So by having that D note on top, you kind of hold that pedal, even though I’m playing like a C chord with that D on top, it just holds something steady. And I’m feeling like that’s sort of my presentation of the song is having that one note thing kind of stays the same as I move through the song.

But anyways, that’s that. It’s still rough. I don’t feel like it’s something I would go out and perform. I mean, just from the fact that I don’t have the words completely in my head yet. But once that happens, I feel like I’ve got the majority of the pieces kind of assembled and together. There might be a couple more arrangement things that I’ll want to change. Like as I was playing through it, I realized maybe I want to like tag the last line of the chorus the very last time through. That’s kind of a traditional Hawaiian thing to do, but maybe not. I don’t know, but I feel like it’s one of those things where as you play the song more, you kind of… It sort of starts to tell you things in that you’re so comfortable with the body of the music and just kind of the overview, you get really comfortable with that, then you can start looking at the details and how you want to kind of really fine tune things and put this there or that there.

But yeah, I figure if I get those words memorized and I play through it a number more times, then maybe I’ll take it to a casual gig and start playing it in front of people. That’s sort of my barometer for a new song is if I can play it in front of people and be in that place where I’m presenting the song, but also sort of distracted by the environment that is around me, that I’m not normally used to. Then if I can do that, it puts the song kind of a little bit more on autopilot than it has been up to that point. And by being sort of in the audience as well, because that’s song is kind of going on autopilot, I’m able to sort of watch it from a different perspective. Then I oftentimes notice things that maybe I wouldn’t have just playing it by myself in my room. And then from there, you know, I’ll take that and just refine it and refine it and refine it. And then as it becomes, you know, more and more dialed in, it’s something that I’ll be more likely to maybe sit down and record or play it at a little bit more pressure gigs, where I wanted to bring my best songs. And it’ll kind of get onto that more priority list of good material.

But just takes lots of repetition. All the steps in learning a song just take lots and lots of repetition. And I think that the best thing you can do for learning a song is just really be as patient as possible with it and be casual. Just allow it to be an experience where you’re exploring and finding out what the music has to say, as opposed to like sitting down to like a math test sort of a vibe where you’re trying to just like cram the song in your brain. I don’t feel like that works super well for me. Because even if you do manage to like learn the song in one go and you cram it all in your head and it’s there and you play it. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be there the next morning when you wake up and you try and play again. I know that Herb once told me that he’ll learn a song and once he has learned a song and can wake up and play the song cold, just like as soon as he wakes up, he grabs his ukulele. If he can play the song that morning, just from like instinct, then he knows he actually has learned the song and that it’s in his mind and it’s something that he can perform. But otherwise it might not be there in the morning and you still need to just spend time with it.

And so that’s why having a casual approach, not really having a goal or needing to be at a certain destination at a certain time, that can be nice. Because as you slowly bring that into your being, then it seems to stick a little bit better for me. And I can have that song when I wake up. It takes a lot of days and a lot of sleeps to get to that moment where you wake up and you just know the song. But I think that I would rather learn music in a way that’s fun and enjoyable than try and force everything into my brain and make it be like kind of a chore. That’s not so much what I’m into.

Thanks for tuning in. You’re listening to the Live ‘Ukulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa and I publish new episodes every first and third Saturday of the month. You can support the podcast and Live ʻUkulele by visiting and checking out some of the resources that are hosted on liveukulele.com. If you feel inclined to check out one of my eBooks or my 6th Sense course. I am gearing up to record a new course. Going to be jumping back on the technique bandwagon and creating some video content for the left- and right-hand technique books. Starting, I believe with the left hand, just because that’s what I’ve been thinking about and outlining. I have no idea when that will be available, but I’m going to start working on it. I have been working on it and it’s coming along. Looking forward to presenting that in a less dry fashion. The books were kind of very encyclopedia-like. Hopefully this course will be a little bit more of a progression and we can explore different concepts inside songs and give you more practical musical skills to compliment everything that’s already in the book.

I’ll catch you in the next episode. Be safe out there. Keep playing your ukuleles and enjoying music. All my best. Aloha.