April 21, 2022
If you’re a singer, nothing messes with your confidence more than flubbed lyrics - but you don’t always have weeks on end to memorize them. So, if you’ve got plenty of songs to put to memory, it helps to have a few pro techniques for memorizing lyrics faster and with more solid accuracy. Here, we’ll go over some tips for making lyrics stick.
Understanding the story a song tells goes a long way to remembering the lyrics. Print lyrics out and study them. For each line, try to understand its meaning, how it relates to the rest of the story, and what comes before and after. “I love you but…” leads to something – what?
While you’re at it, dig into why each word needs to be what it is and nothing else to avoid “gisting” – singing the same story with slightly different lyrics. Gisting is a decent way to keep the performance on track if you can’t conjure a word, but it can also throw you off later. So, it’s good to dig deep to understand lyrics at all levels from broad strokes to single words.
Several studies have revealed that writing notes by hand is superior for retention and understanding to other methods like typing. So, take the time to write out lyrics by hand. Doing this repeatedly is a solid way to stick them in your mind for good.
There’s no substitute for repetition when it comes to memorization. Sometimes you just need to use brute force; repeat, repeat, repeat.
Try using a method called spaced repetition. This simply means repeating rehearsals of a given set of material at regular intervals – not too close together. Practice for 30 minutes at most and stop, then come back to that same material two or three days later and practice for another 30 minutes. This method flattens out what’s called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, a phenomenon where anything you study is strongly in memory in the minutes after a practice session but is quickly forgotten over the next day or so.
The rest between sessions here is important. Don’t try to cram 10 sessions into one day and come back. In that situation, the curve looks the same as if you only practice once.
Many performers swear by this method. It’s simple. Run through a set of lyrics two or three times as you’re falling asleep. When you wake up, immediately run through them again. This method takes advantage of the fact that the brain does a lot of the work of consolidating memories during sleep.
If you watch “Get Back”, the 2021 documentary on the recording of the Beatles “Let It Be”, you’ll notice most of their song repetitions are done in funny accents, different voices, and crazy tempos. Whether they knew it or not, this is a great way to lock lyrics into the brain – as well as discover interesting performance possibilities. Run the song fast, slow, a capella, on different instruments, with a karaoke track – as many ways as you can think to do it. All these count as reps, and you’re looking to keep your brain engaged while racking up reps.
Having a lyric sheet on hand is necessary at first, especially if you’re called upon to perform before you’ve memorized something. But especially in rehearsal, get rid of the sheet ASAP, lest your brain connect reading the lyrics to performing in a way you can’t escape. You can start by folding up the paper and putting it your pocket or try a stacked memorizing session: Check the paper, run a line, check the paper, run two lines, and so on, until you’ve run the whole thing – then put the paper away and sing the song.
If you’re asked to remember the number 546977665544 as 12 distinct numbers – a 5, a 4, a 6 – and so on, you may have trouble. But it turns out the brain does a great job when it can group things. So, if instead you remember five thousand sixty-nine, seven thousand seven-hundred seventy-six, and five thousand five hundred forty-four, your brain now only has three things to remember.
This phenomenon can help you with lyrics too. Instead of memorizing the entire song as one long, separated set of lines, work each section as modules. The obvious place to start is the chorus. Run the chorus until that’s set. Then run verse one and set it. Then verse 2, etc.
Now you have modular blocks that can be put in order. If you understand the story, you understand the order. Verse one is the one about losing your love in a snowstorm (use the first word as a trigger to conjure the rest). The chorus is about hating snowstorms. Verse 2 is about digging through the snow. The bridge is about learning to love the snow.
Memorizing comes naturally to some and not so much for others. But it’s always doable if you know what to do and pay attention to what works best for you. You can use these tips as a starting point, but as you work, you may discover effective new methods, and that’s great. Once you know how your brain works, you’ll be able to memorize anything.
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"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all of the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm." - Psalm 98:4-5