This article is dedicated to all those children—and adults—who never learned the fundamentals of music because learning them involved so much drudgery and boredom. Music teachers and professional musicians tell us that most beginners who give up music do so because of the memory chores—they drop out before music becomes fun. Whether you teach these memory ideas to a child or use them yourself, you’ll see that they make the study of music easier and more fun at the beginning. Although we’ll be touching on only a few fundamentals, you’ll also see that the ideas can be applied to them all.

To play a basic, three-note chord, you have to remember two notes along with the note you want to play. There are only seven basic notes to remember. This may not seem like much of a problem, but it is something you must know (remember) at the beginning. Every fundamental is basically a memory problem, hence the cliché among some music teachers: At the beginning, you learn “rote to note.” So, although the memory problem may never be discussed, it’s there all the same.

mnemonics for music and songs

Learning How To Remember Music

Let’s start with piano. We assume here that you’re familiar with the pattern of black and white keys on the piano keyboard; that you know the keyboard is divided into octaves, each beginning and ending with C, and so on.

First, you need to know the seven basic (white) notes on the keyboard—easy to remember because they’re alphabetized: CDEFGAB. But remembering where, say, F is on the keyboard is a memory problem at the beginning. It must be, or memory aids like the following one wouldn’t have been devised:

All the G and A keys

Are between the black threes

And ’tween the twos are all the D’s;

Then on the right side of the threes

Will be found the B’s and C’s;

But on the left side of the threes

Are all the F’s and all the E’s.

A better way would be to assign numbers to keys. Middle C is at the center of the keyboard. In this diagram, we’ve numbered the black keys as well but will, for the moment, use only whole (white) notes as examples.

All you have to do now is to associate a note (letter) to a number, and you’ll remember which key to hit for that note. Picture half (Alphabet Word for F) a shoe, and you’ll know that F is the key numbered 6 on the keyboard. Or, make up a word that starts with the note and ends with the number; fish for F, dam for D, and so on. Chords can be remembered the same way; picture the sea (Alphabet Word) with a gigantic tea-leaf on it, and you’ll know that playing keys 1, 5, and 8 gives you a C chord.

remembering music and songs

Try this method with the other white notes, and you’ll soon know them—the numbers and associations will fade from your mind.

Once you do know the position of the notes, there’s an easy way to memorize chords. To play a C chord, you’d have to remember to play C, E, and G. We’re going to list the most common major chords, along with suggestions to help you remember each of them. In the list, you’ll notice the symbol #for sharp; F# is F-sharp. (Sharping a note makes it higher, but not as high as the next highest note—F# is higher than F, but not quite a G.) Now. To remember these chords easily, you form a ridiculous association for each—but you’ll also need to add a standard to remind you of sharp. A knife, or cutting, will do. Here are the seven basic major chords:


Associate ocean (sea = C) to egg (egg will remind you of EG).

D—D F# A

Dean, half (F) a knife (#), ape. (A dean, holding half a knife, fights an ape.)

E—E G# B

Eel, jeans cut by a knife, bean. Or, an egg (EG) being cut (#) by a bean.


Picture half a face. Or, half an ape goes into the sea.


See a pair of jeans going bad.

A—A C# E

An ace with a knife, cutting an eel. Or, an ape jumps into a sea full of knives to catch an eel.

B—B D# F#

A bed being cut by half a knife. Or, a gigantic bean is being cut by a dean with half a knife. Or, a gigantic bean is deaf; it has a knife stuck into each ear.

Once you know the major chords, you almost automatically know the sharp and flat chords. In writing, a major note is flatted by adding the flat symbol (b) to it, which lowers it slightly—Bb is lower than B but not quite an A. A sharp note is flatted by simply removing the sharp symbol. A major note is sharped by adding the sharp symbol, and a sharp note is sharped by adding another sharp.

Once you familiarize yourself with the notes, locations, and numbers, the solution is obvious. Any four notes will transpose to a four-digit number; any seven notes will transpose to a seven-digit number. And—you already know how to memorize numbers.

The first seven notes of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” played in the key of C, are EDCDEEE. Look at the diagram, and you’ll see that these notes transpose to 3212333. An association of a lamb on a mountain would remind you of the first four notes. If you needed a reminder of all seven, you might see that lamb on a mountain, singing “My Mammy.” Any words that give you the proper numbers phonetically will do.

The association will remind you of the two things you need to know —the title and the first few notes. One more example: The first seven notes of “Begin the Beguine” are CDEGEDE, and they transpose to 1235323. Picture a tin mule beginning something, and you have your reminder of the first four notes. (A bee drinking gin, a big inn, or beak in would also remind you of the song title.) To remember the first seven notes, you might use tin mule my name.

As usual, it is the idea that’s important, not the Key Word you select or the phrase you make up for the numbers. If the Key Word reminds you of the title and the word or phrase fits phonetically, the system will work.

If you’re at all familiar with the music staff, knowing which number represents which note is a matter of a few moments’ concentration. If you need some help, apply the systems. An association of Alphabet Word to Peg Word will do it instantly. Associate sea to tie, dean to Noah, eel to Ma, half to rye, jeans to law, ape to shoe, and bean to cow. To distinguish the octaves, you might then associate sea to hive, dean to bay, eel to tease, half to tote, and sea to ton. (You’d know that the words that are not basic Peg Words represent the higher octave notes.)

If you’ve read up to this point, and understand how the systems apply, then you obviously know more about music than we do, and you’ll be able to patternize the ideas to fit your particular problem.

On a basic beginner’s (six-string) guitar there are twelve frets. While learning the fundamentals, you’d rarely go past the third fret. In playing a particular note, the basic memory problem would be to know, or remember, which finger presses which string at which fret. This diagram shows the notes for open strings (no finger pressing down on any string):

memorization diagram

To produce a high C, you’d press your first finger on the second (B) string at the first fret. Always think in that order: finger, string, fret. An association of sea (C) to tent would give you the information. You don’t really need the last digit—at the beginning, the finger and fret digits are the same—so tin would suffice. You’d know that the first digit tells you finger and fret.

To play a high G, you’d press your third finger on the first string at the third fret; see a pair of jeans (G) being a door mat. For low C: third finger, fifth string, third fret; associate low sea to mule. For middle E: second finger, fourth string, second fret; associate eel to Nero.

As usual, there’s another way to handle it; for low C, you could simply associate sea to camel; or, you could just think camel. The first letter tells you the note, and the next two consonant sounds tell you finger and string. All that remains is for you to decide on a standard picture for high, low, and middle, and you’re on your way. (If you know the strings by note, you can use the letter to represent the string; for high C, associate sea to tub—first finger, B string.)

The same idea can be applied to the violin; it’s even easier because there are no frets, and there are only four strings. If you want to remember that to produce an F note you have to place your second finger on the second string (at the top of the violin neck; as your fingers move down the neck, different notes are produced), associate half or effort to nun. To produce a B note, the first finger is placed on the third string; associate bean to tomb. Or, as with the guitar, use one word or phrase to tell you note, finger, and string: fine inn or fannin’ for F, and bet ’im or beat ’em for B.

There’s no reason why the systems shouldn’t work for any instrument. For example, a beginner on the trumpet would have to remember which valves to push down for which note. Since there are only three valves, the note would be associated to a word that represents, say, 12, 13, 23, 123, etc.

Of course, any instrument becomes more complicated as you progress. With a trumpet, the proper method of blowing is also essential. What we’ve tried to do in this article is to show you how the systems can make the fundamentals easier to grasp. That way, you get to the excitement—and the fun—of playing a musical instrument sooner.