Advice on Learning 7 Hours of Music


Gold Member
I've recently been recruited as a substitute drummer in two bands. One set list is three hours, the other is four hours. About 50% of the music I'm familiar with, the other 50% is new to me. Only a couple tunes I know well enough to perform without prep. I have six weeks to learn the material, and we'll have a couple practices before the gigs but these won't be full run-throughs, we'll just hit the material that needs work.

My question: how do you learn this amount of material? Any techniques & tips are appreciated.

I normally write myself a cheat sheet with tempo and notes (e.g., guitarist begins with riff, Count off all in, etc.) and this has sufficed for me, but I don't sight read so sheet music is useless on me.

C.M. Jones

Well-known member
Congrats on the newfound gig. When confronted with an array of unfamiliar material, I commit myself to extended listening sessions before I even start practicing to tracks. Once I've internalized the grooves, structures, and dynamics of songs, I can sit down and play them with ease. It's all about knowing your drum parts as though they're second nature. For me, that comes from auditory mastery.
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No Way Jose

Silver Member
Listen to the recordings a lot. Play them all night on auto repeat at low volume while you sleep.
If memorizing everything is overwhelming, I would try to learn the basics of notation (note and rest values, segno, coda, 1st and 2nd ending..) It's really not that hard if you spend a few minutes on it every day and you'll acquire a useful tool for future projects. Maybe include cues like a part of the lyrics. The chart can be sketchy but still useful ( how long is the bridge, on which count does the guitar intro start ...)


Platinum Member
I've recently been recruited as a substitute drummer in two bands. One set list is three hours, the other is four hours. About 50% of the music I'm familiar with, the other 50% is new to me. Only a couple tunes I know well enough to perform without prep. I have six weeks to learn the material, and we'll have a couple practices before the gigs but these won't be full run-throughs, we'll just hit the material that needs work.

My question: how do you learn this amount of material? Any techniques & tips are appreciated.

I normally write myself a cheat sheet with tempo and notes (e.g., guitarist begins with riff, Count off all in, etc.) and this has sufficed for me, but I don't sight read so sheet music is useless on me.

Congratulations, and welcome to the big leagues! You have a big opportunity here!

When it comes to that much new material, I don’t trust my memory, and I respectfully recommend that you don’t, either. If you’re focused on remembering your parts, then you’re limiting your ability to focus on musical things like timing, dynamics, etc. Additionally, if you make a mistake due to memory, it could take you a while to recover, and you risk throwing off the band.

If you’d like a lesson or two, I can show you how I’ve learned a lot of music quickly, for many years. I’ve been in this same situation — a giant pile of material, with click/tracks, and very little time to prepare — at least a dozen times over the last 20 years or so. And, yes, I do pay all the bills through gigging, and I also teach on the side.

You won’t have to “read music”, but you will need to count, and put pencil to paper. It’ll take you between 5 and 15 minutes to chart an average song (2 or 3 listens), but then you’ll be able to accurately play it, without relying on cues from the band. You’ll probably make fewer mistakes than others in the band. Needless to say, it takes a lot of work, but it feels fantastic to kill it on a gig, the first time you play with a new band. And other musicians will notice, too.

Six weeks is a good chunk of time. On a couple of occasions, I’ve learned an entire night of material in less than a week, but experience helps a lot.

(Do you own an iPad?)


"Uncle Larry"
Listening constantly. Passive and to chart out. Cheat sheets with the arrangement written out and any other reminders what the song sounds like. One sheet per song. Written in Sharpie so it's easy to read. What really helps me is to include notes like: "Feels like Santiera" or whatever similar song jogs the memory.

The cheat sheets with arrangements are my first line of defense, and the passive listening is absolutely vital too.

I had to do 90 minutes of original tunes for a gig once. I had never heard any of these songs prior. I had to do the whole 90 minutes without any band rehearsals at all. Listening and charting out the songs were the only thing I did.

I friggin nailed it so good, better than even I expected, and all the guys were amazed. The gig went great. Right before we kicked off the first song the leader turned to me and tried to cue me to jog my memory. I said "Charlie just do your thing. I got this" And I did too. Bands love hearing that, as long as it gets delivered.


Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
I've been in a few situations like that, the most extreme of which was two-days' notice to learn about 40 songs, mostly blues-rock originals. The parts weren't hard, but arrangements, breaks, pushes, endings etc. were critical so I didn't stick out like a sore drum. (pun intended)

Of course I listened to every song, and made notes as I did: counting bars, indicating stops/breaks, solos, b-sections, pushes, etc. Basically a road-map of the song from start to finish. I used language that I understood, so it would be immediately familiar when referring to the notes as I played. So "typical ending" to me meant something very specific. The instructions were as simple or detailed as needed. Part of the transcribing process also helps put the song in your head better than simply trying to memorize it.

It's also important to ask the bass or rhythm guitar player for cues on breaks and pushes in particular. Don't completely rely on reading your notes, or you become disconnected from the music. They're there for reference and should be glanced at as needed, not to stare at for the whole song.

You're lucky you have six weeks, that should be more than sufficient to learn/refresh and make notes for probably 90 songs. If you break it down, that's only two songs a day and you will certainly learn more than that.

Most important thing is... listen.

Good luck, have fun!


Gold Member
Thanks, guys. Lotsa good info.

I do listen to the music while working at my desk, but I've not written anything down other than notes about each beginning (e.g., who starts, etc.). Nothing is super difficult, I've not heard some of the material before.

Yesterday I put two tunes on repeat and played along for about 5 cycles. Got some things worked out, and then I wondered how others tackle this kind of thing and reached out to y'all.

One band is led by an Air Force Band bassist, with a couple other A.F. Band horn players. They are tight and their usual drummer sings backup (not me, I grunt). I'm really looking forward to this because I love playing with people who are much better than I. It makes me look good. heh.

One of the gigs:

One of the tunes:
I just had a quick google search, so there might be better introductions, but these two seemed pretty alright to learn the basics of 1) drum notation and 2) arrangements / sheets:

I would try to start with a simple and famous song that you know well. You could compare your sheet with transcriptions online to make sure that you got the basics of notation down. Then you could put it to use on the trickier songs.


Platinum Member
I put the songs I dont know into my mp3 player and put it on repeat. I then listen to those songs until I'm so sick of them I know them inside and out. Once I'm at that point, I go try to play them.

On the rare occasion I dont have enough time for this, I write charts.


Platinum Member

Method of loci​

aka Memory Mansion...or Memory Palace.

Essentially, engaging the parietal lobe's penchant for processing location in association with abstract content.

Technique used by many competitive memory contest participants...but it does take some practice to make it useful.

Combine it with an abbreviated notation method and it can be very powerful.

I echo the others saying that reading is fundamental.($0.10 to anyone who recognizes that reference)

Associations do not need to be location based of course...I have used whatever first comes to my mind when mapping the association and it works pretty well...though having some rooting category to the associations helps when getting into large sets of info to encode.

After years i now 'see' a song as an n-dimensional landscape I can move through.

Congrats on the offer!!
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Senior Member
When I've had a fill in gig with other bands, I have them give me their set lists, then create a youtube playlist for each set. Then I can be listening to the songs, for familiarity in general, and to use for practice sessions as well.

(Actually, I do that for my regular band too. Lately I don't create as many set lists, but I can find the sings I need to work on in my search bar, after I've entered it once...)

As you go along, week to week, you can skip over the ones you already know, or the new ones that you pick up quicker, as need be. And move on to the tougher ones...

As others have said, make notes. Of the intro's, endings, stops, pretty much anything that you need to remember and isn't sticking with your memory.

Good luck! As others have mentioned, six weeks should be plenty of time to get you familiar enough to pull it off. Good luck, have fun!


Senior Member
I agree with others here on the need for some charting tools. I've been sight reading as far back as high school symphonic band, and even before that with snare etudes with a teacher. When I have to chart a song, I'll write out the intro/outro bar(s), then a bar each of the verse and chorus grooves, then vertical 'I' marks for each measure in the piece. And I group these 'I' marks in groups of 4 or 8. That makes odd groupings stick out more.

Now if I could just get down Jim Riley's Nashville Number system!!

Congratulations on the gig and good luck!!!!

PS. My last short-notice gig, the band gave me the song charts, albeit for another instrument, but still helpful.
Also, this is a general tip I have for people performing songs they aren’t excited about but it works for learning too. When playing a song or listening to it in order to learn it, pretend it’s your favorite song in the world at the moment. This will especially come through when playing it.

Jasta 11

Well-known member
you cant lose using the WWHBD method ( What Would Hal Blaine Do). My band gets a lot of requests and we will attempt most of them if the singer knows them or if they know a few of the chords and i just try to think of a 60's studio player for the drum parts. People always ask how i knew the song and really i dont them all. I just get the beat and dont over play. Keep it simple, dont miss any iconic fills and breaks ( if you play Rush To Sawyer, please nail the fill). Really do you want to disappoint one drummer who is listening or make the other 150 people, including the band, happy. Our current set lists that we have at gigs is 126 songs, that we dont play entirely. that about 7 hours at 3.5 min a song. those are the regulars that we use and pick as we go judging by the crowd response, its not that overwhelming in reality. You have plenty of time ahead to nail this, good luck.

Hollywood Jim

Platinum Member
Bermuda and Larry are correct. And I agree, chart out the songs with your own special codes.
On Youtube you can find many isolated drum tracks to songs.

I had to learn 75 songs in two weeks. I already knew at least half of them. I charted them out with my special codes.
I can look at my notes an in about three seconds know what to play.
The only issue I had was that the band leader did not use a set list. He would just call out what ever song he felt like playing.
So it was like impossible to have the notes available instantly for every song.
The gig did not work out well. I was very nervous. It sucked all of the fun out of playing.
Next time if I have to learn a bunch of songs for a gig, I will insist that the band use a set list.
Lesson learned.



Platinum Member
So what did they give you-hopefully a recording of them playing the songs ? or a list of songs-that you might memorize the original and find that the band doesn't play it like that at all ROFL. Have had that happen a bunch. Still I entrench myself into the song so it gets integrated into memory-you have plenty of time for that. I can't sight read either but I did "make up" my own charts-I had special 'codes" too and funny how the association thing seems so natural-I did the same. It's funny the things you will associate to spur your memory. It takes some time for it to store in your memory but you have plenty of time.

It is a great challenge-but I think you will easily rise to the occasion and wonder why all the angst. But Hollywood Jim's story is a cautionary tale-being so nervous can suck all the fun in playing and make you prone to screw up-done that before myself. it's like going into shock when it goes bad-and a wreck because the disaster seems like slow motion. I can't hear so well and I've lost the band at times-which I'd just do this quiet white noise buzz roll on snare edge and ride so within nanoseconds I pick up where I'm at and I'm back on track and no one really notices it that much-better than a pause or a pronounced off beat. And you really do need a set list-so you can mentally prepare for upcoming parts. Still if you get lost all together follow your instincts/music/groove and that will probably serve you better than anything-and being nervous will screw that all up for sure. Good luck but make it fun in your mind.


Senior Member
I have been there. My process is similar to others.

First thing I recommend is put the lists side by side, and note songs that are on both. With any luck, that will bring the total number down a bit. See, you are a more relaxed already :D

Next categorize the songs by familiarity.
1) Can play in my sleep.
2) Blow the cobwebs off.
3) Heard before, but never played.
4) That's new.
5) That's new, and sounds challenging.

Make songs under 4 and 5 the soundtrack of life. I usually do up quickie, picket fence charts and take time each day to read through them while listening to those songs. The combination of visual reference and auditory input works wonders for me. It might for you too.

Behind the kit, identify and focus on the essentials of the songs. Top of that list for new songs are the section grooves. If you can play through a song from start to finish, that means everyone else can as well. Once the main grooves are solid - you can play them with authority - start adding the decorations.

Good luck. Have fun!
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Well-known member
Congrats on you gig landings! I don't have much more to add than what already said. However, it this was a rush job, I would:

1) Prioritize Intros & Endings....these are sure ways to mess up a song and much harder to coverup
2) Get a metronome app and just log the tempos
3) Get a set list order in advance if possible and listen in order, it will help memorize the songs easier

Good luck!