When I was going to music school, I was told that you needed to learn 1000 songs before you could even consider calling yourself a professional musician. At the time, the number blew my mind. How would it be possible to learn that many songs when I have to take at least a month to thoroughly learn one song?
As I’ve learned more songs over the years, though, it seems like an attainable goal. As a matter of fact, I don’t really think it’s a difficult task anymore but merely a time-consuming one. In other words, the only constraint I feel is the necessary time to invest in this goal rather than my ability.
You see, the more songs you learn, the easier it is to learn more songs. There’s a positive feedback loop built into this. If you have a decent understanding of music theory, you begin to notice that the majority of music is built around similar chord progressions, scales, rhythms, and song forms with slight variations. There are thousands of songs built around a major scale and its I-IV-V chords, alone. The more musical vocabulary you acquire, the easier it becomes to see a song as a patchwork of these musical cliches.
Realistically, I probably haven’t learned 1000 songs. I’m probably only about half-way there. I’m also considered a professional and have been for about 10 years now. I think 1000 is just a convenient number to throw out there as a ballpark. Looking back, I feel like at around the 200 song mark is where you will have experienced most common musical structures. This is especially true if you learn a lot jazz standards, as they tend to be diverse in musical structures.
It’s also important to be selective of the songs you choose to learn, as part of this 1000. For example, Giant Steps is considered an important tune for jazz musicians to learn but you will rarely encounter this type of chord progression outside of this song. This is why musicians still dedicate many hours of study to this one tune. Many jazz musicians will also dedicate time into studying the blues and rhythm changes song forms, because of their ubiquity in the jazz standards repertoire. Your 1000 songs should have a healthy balance of commonly played songs/forms and uniquely challenging tunes.
This is a long-term goal so give yourself at least a few years to achieve it! If you do, I’m sure you’ll have no problem learning a thousand more after that 😉 Good luck!