One of the most challenging things about singing compared to playing an instrument is memorisation. Singers are expected to perform from memory in most situations, while instrumentalists are much more likely to have the music out in front of them. Certainly, for examinations, singers must sing from memory, but instrumentalists perform from copy.
So how do you go about facing the challenge of memorising lyrics? Well, here are some of my top tips for learning songs in English (or any language you’re fluent in). Foreign language songs have their own challenge – watch out for a follow up post on special tips for learning songs that aren’t in a language you speak.
1. Start learning the song with the lyrics first
When you learn a song, it can be tempting to start with the melody, and leave the lyrics until last. This isn’t actually going to make it quicker and easier, it actually just stores up problems for later… Instead, when you first start learning a song, start by reading the lyrics out aloud several times as though they were a poem or speech from a play. Try to find the natural inflection and absorb the meaning of the words. Then read them a few times in the rhythm of the music – in a well crafted song, this should fit the natural inflections from reading the words as a speech.
By reading the lyrics through a few times on their own, you’ve already started the learning process, and you’re tying the melody and the words together right from the start.
2. Understand the meaning and the journey
This is where acting skills come into play. Once you’re familiar with the song and the melody is secure, the next stage for the song is to develop the emotional understanding needed to convey the song convincingly. Taking time to think about the emotional journey the song makes is vital to a great performance, but it also helps with memorising the lyrics. Let’s take a really famous example, and say you’re memorising I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables. Look at the first lines of the three “verses”, all of which have very similar tunes
I dreamed a dream in time gone by…
He slept a summer by my side…
And still I dream he’ll come to me…
Notice how there’s a sense of order and chronology which means it’s obvious which order they come in – remembering the past, telling the story of the past, sharing the pain of the presence. Click the link above to see the rest of the lyrics and see if you can see the story. By consciously considering the story, it helps you to remember the lyrics in the right order.
3. Write them down. Repeatedly.
One of the most fool-proof methods for lyric memorisation is to write the lyrics down over and over and over and over again. And when I say write, I mean by hand. Typing just won’t cut it. The physical action of forming the letters with a pen or pencil is proven to improve learning (it’s why I took all my university lecture notes by hand, and still do most of my music-related academic study writing by hand).
One method, supposedly used by Barbara Bonney is to write out each line three times, and then write out that verse or section three times before moving on to the next one. Then, write out the whole song three times. Lots of paper, and not quick, but I bet you’ll not forget the words in a hurry!
Once you’ve written them out, carry a hand written copy with you and read them over whenever you have a minute – waiting at the dentist, travelling on a bus, or even just before bed. In fact, just before bedtime is a good time to review them as your brain can continue to learn them while you’re sleeping.
4. Listen to the song. Repeatedly.
Once you’ve done the legwork of learning the song and you’re not going to be overly influenced by someone else’s version, grab a copy of the song and listen to it on repeat. Even better than one copy, see if you can find several versions (YouTube usually has plenty) and listen to them all. Hearing the words over and over in the right order with the music will help your brain to absorb the words and link them with the music. For example, it makes it much easier to find the words for the verse after the instrumental break if you know how the instrumental break sounds.
5. Practice, practice, practice
Finally, the only surefire way to know the lyrics is to practice singing the song diligently. Practicing the song in its entirety is the key, and being bold enough to put down the book as soon as possible is vital. Put the sheet music down as soon as you dare, and don’t sing from a lyrics sheet either. The sooner you get off book, the longer you’re giving your brain to get used to remembering the words without prompting. Remeber, putting the book down doesn’t mean you can’t check them afterwards, or pick it back up again while you’re focusing on getting the notes right.
Lyrics are what makes singing special, as well as what makes it hard. By taking an organised and focussed approach to lyrics, you’ll find they’re your friend in no time!
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