What’s the most important musical part of a song? Melody. It’s the DNA, the unique fingerprint. Which brings up the next question…how do I learn melody, especially if I don’t read music or don’t have the musical notation available?
This is how I do it:
1. Listen to the song, taking initial notes on the general form of the song, noting any major things that are happening. Hey, did you see that, I take notes! So whip out the chord chart so I can see visually what is happening in the song. Does it have a soaring bridge? Does it have three identical verses? Is there a tricky pre-chorus? Where do the harmonies come in?
2. Listen again, this time making detailed notes on the melody. I’ll often put slash marks over the words higher and lower to guide me as their pitch rises and falls, as well as ^ over high points. I may make actual rhythmic notation or draw long lines with the overall curve of the melody, but the point is to make a reference that I understand. It doesn't have to be technical, classical notation, or even understandable by anyone other than me.
3. NOW I sing along with the recording. This is the first time I even sing it! I may do this a few times, then I add my instrument. This is super important, especially if I don’t play at an advanced level, because I’ll tend to do two things: a) quickly adjust the song melody (i.e. sing it wrong) to match my playing style/rhythm or b) get confused because I’m trying to learn two things at once. Separate them. First get the melody learned, then learn the accompaniment. So if you need to, sing it a few times without playing it, then play it a few times without singing it, and then put the two together.
4. It's time to see if I'm learning it, so I sing and play it without the recording a few times, and this is when I realize where I don't know it and how I don't know how to "use" the song...let's see, what do I play after the chorus? How many times should I repeat that bridge? How does the intro go? How do I end this song?
5. Then I turn the recording on again and check myself. I'll often find that I've learned a note wrong or am singing some words with the wrong phrasing. “Oh, that melody goes down at the end of this line.” But this step is critical, because if I don't go back to verify that I've learned it well, the mental cement starts to harden...
Here an idea to help your team to learn songs if they (surprise) don’t come to rehearsal prepared. After you’re played it together, sing it a cappella, with no instruments, with the melody wearing its birthday suit, so you can isolate the voices, identify trouble spots, and strengthen the melodies. You’ll be amazed how removing ALL instruments will help solidify the melody. (it will also help teach your electric guitar players from diving into “Sweet Child O’ Mine” the second you stop playing the song. Yes Tom, I’m calling you out, buddy) :O