Forgotten the words to a song? Have problems memorising lyrics for a show?
Whether you’re an absolute beginner or a seasoned pro in the music industry, memorising song lyrics is an essential part of being a singer. For some, learning lyrics comes naturally, but for others, it can be a daunting task.
If the thought of memorising lyrics makes you break out in a cold sweat, then fear not. We’ve put together a plethora of memory techniques to get your lyric-learning skills in tip-top shape.
1. Listen on repeat
The more you listen to a song, the more likely you are to remember it and commit the lyrics to memory. Whilst passive listening is helpful, listening carefully with intent will result in much faster results.
Listening to a song multiple times can help you become more familiar with the rhythm and structure of the song, which in turn can make it easier for you to pick out individual words and phrases. Over time, your brain will associate the sounds of the song with the lyrics, making learning the lyrics a breeze.
2. Write out the lyrics by hand
Writing out words by hand is a tried and tested learning method that’s been used for centuries.
It engages multiple senses and cognitive processes, which can help with memory and retention. When you write something out by hand, you’re using your visual and tactile senses to take in the information, creating extra neural connections in your brain, making it easier to recall later.
Plus, physically writing the words can help you process and internalise their meaning, which makes them easier to remember.
Writing out the lyrics by hand also forces you to slow down and focus on each word and phrase, allowing you to pick up subtleties in the lyrics that you might miss if you’re reading or singing through the words quickly.
This is especially useful if you’re working on a complex song with multiple verses, as it allows you to break down the song into more manageable chunks.
3. Chunking: Break the song down into sections
Breaking lyrics down into small chunks is essential when learning lyrics to a new song.
When you’re learning a new song, it can be overwhelming to try and remember all the lyrics in one go. By breaking the lyrics down into small chunks, you’re allowing your brain to process the information more efficiently. This will make it far easier to commit the lyrics to memory as you absorb them bit by bit.
By learning each verse, bridge and chorus separately, you can focus on each part and get a better understanding of the song lyrics instead of juggling multiple lines or phrases in your head simultaneously.
It can also help you identify any tricky or challenging parts of the song, so you can spend extra time working on those sections until you’ve got them down.
4. Use Mnemonic Devices
What are mnemonic devices I hear you say? Mnemonic devices are strategies or techniques to help you remember information more easily. They can be particularly handy when learning lyrics because they can help you associate the words with something else that’s easier to remember.
Here are some examples to help you get started:
- Acronyms: An acronym is a word formed from the first letters of a series of words. For example, the acronym “KISS” is an acronym for the phrase ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’.
- Visualisation: Visualisation involves creating a mental image to help you remember something. For example, you might visualise a scene or story that relates to the lyrics you’re trying to learn.
- Rhymes: Rhymes are a helpful tool to remember just about anything, and lucky for us, most songs have them built in already. If you focus on learning the first line of a couplet, chances are the second will come naturally.
5. Create flashcards
Flashcards are a fun and stress-free way to learn lyrics quickly, and it’s not just for kids!
Break the lyrics down and create a flashcard for each verse, bridge and chorus. Review the flashcards regularly, ideally a few times a day to begin with.
Use the flashcards to test yourself. Pick a random flashcard and try to recall the lyrics from memory. If you struggle with a particular card, go back and review that flashcard more frequently until the lyrics are engrained in your memory!
6. Enunciate key words
Try singing along with the song, focusing on enunciating each word clearly.
When you enunciate a word, you’re making a conscious effort to shape your mouth and tongue in a specific way to produce a particular sound. By paying close attention to the sounds and rhythm of the lyrics, you’ll find it easier to remember each line.
Enunciating key words can also help you internalise the meaning of the lyrics, as you’re engaging with the words on a deeper level. Emphasising certain words or phrases will help bring out the emotions or themes of the song, making it more meaningful and memorable.
7. Use Apple Music Sing
In December 2022, Apple launched Apple Music Sing, a cool new feature in Apple Music that displays the words to a song and allows you to sing along with adjustable vocals and real-time lyrics. This is one step beyond the Karaoke style feature that Spotify already has integrated into their player.
This type of lyric app is a great way to get started. By highlighting the lyrics as you sing, you can follow the track easily and gently ease yourself into the learning process.
Other lyric apps offer annotations or translations to help you understand the meaning of the lyrics more fully – especially helpful if you’re working on a song in a foreign language.
Learning the Words
It’s important to understand that everyone has their own way of learning – what may work for one, may not work for another. Try each method above and combine them until you find what works for you.
Visual learners find it easier to have a printed copy to learn from and writing or typing out the words several times helps them to memorise the lyrics.
Auditory learners learn best from using practice tapes or practising with an accompanist. ‘Hearing’ how the song is performed and singing along to the music provides a guideline for the singer which helps them to memorise the words.
Kinaesthetic learners find imitation, practice, touch and movement the best way to learn. Associating movements with the song can help to provide imagery, although more repetitions may be required as people who use this method have the most trouble memorising music.
Don’t Put It Off
Whichever methods you choose, don’t wait until the last minute to get your act together!
Live performance brings lots of distractions, and it’s easy to forget the words if you’re dancing or moving around. At first, you’ll need to concentrate to recall the lyrics, so the more you repeat them, the easier it becomes. Keep working at it until you can recall the words automatically, even if you get nervous or distracted on stage.
Lyric Learning Exercises
Choose a short phrase, then talk and sing the words repeatedly until you can sing it without looking at the music. Repeat this with the second phrase then put them both together, repeating from memory, keep doing this until you can repeat the whole song. When a large amount of songs need to be memorised for a theatrical show or opera performance, learn the ones you like the least first!
- Read and repeat the words in short bursts – little and often is more effective than trying to cram it in over several hours.
- Make notes about the themes and imagery of the song.
- Make a recording of yourself speaking and singing the lyrics.
- Speak and sing the rhythm of the song.
- Write or type the words whilst repeating them.
- Associate foreign words with ones you already know.
- Learn the words while playing a practice track in the car or doing chores.
- Learn the lyrics in reverse order (last verse first) and repeat the words at various times during the day.
- Repeat the song daily, singing or saying the words out loud.
- Use vivid, humorous and exaggerated images or symbols to help associate the words.
- Associate each word with an image, combining these to create a journey through the song.
- Memorise the words without the music, then put it together with the music.
- Try to ‘hear’ the song and the words in your head whilst watching tv or listening to another song.
- Your brain keeps working at night so run through what you have learnt before you go to sleep.
- Play the song at low volume as you’re falling asleep.
- When learning ‘harmonies’ or ‘backing vocals, ‘ make a recording of your part and one with the other singer’s parts. Practice to your part, then along with the other singer’s parts.
- Practice a verse whilst doing something repetitive (like washing up!)
- Listen to the song at every opportunity! Whether you’re in the car, bathroom or kitchen, make sure Alexa or Spotify is on repeat!
- Reward yourself with a treat when you have successfully memorised the words and can sing the song in front of friends without referring to the lyrics.
- Once you’ve learnt the song, review it often to keep it fresh and reinforce the memory.
Tips for Performing on the Night
Some singers have real problems memorising lyrics, to the point that they cannot sing without referring to the words. Perhaps the singer deputises for others and requires a larger-than-usual repertoire of songs.
Whatever the reason, a few things can be done to avoid appearing amateurish and unprofessional.
Learn to ‘read ahead’ of the music. Quickly scanning the words ahead of the point you’re at allows you to look at the audience whilst singing – instead of the words!
Try not to look at the words or sheet music unless you’re really stuck! If you only need to look at the words occasionally for reference, put the iPad or sheet music at the side of the stage. Wander over between songs to take a quick look, keep talking to the audience or take a sip of water whilst you do this so that it looks natural and not as though you’re brushing up on the words!
Learn to improvise
Learn to ‘improvise’ or replace the words with your own if you forget the originals – it’s not as professional and some members of the audience will notice, but singing something rather than stopping altogether is more likely to ‘jog’ the memory and help you to pick up the song at a point you remember (like the chorus).
Use Cue Cards and Prompts
Try using ‘Cue Cards’ – write the first word or line of each verse and chorus onto a large card at the side of the stage. Reading a prompt will enable you to remember the rest of the verse or chorus.
Learning Lyrics FAQS
Q. Do I need to learn the words?
A. If you’re singing for fun, then it isn’t necessary to learn the lyrics, however, if you wish to become a singer and perform on stage or seek a recording career, then learning the words that make up the storyline for the song is essential. How would you feel if you saw your favourite artist reading the lyrics to one of their top hits from a piece of paper clasped in their hands? Hmmm, not too professional.
Q. What are the benefits of learning the lyrics?
A. Memorising the words to a song allows you to concentrate on singing the song instead of trying to remember the words! Carrying a songbook, iPad or lyric sheet hampers movement, making you appear nervous and preventing you from expressing yourself.
Q. Is it acceptable to use an iPad or tablet on stage?
A. You can use a tablet or iPad on stage but it won’t look as professional as a singer who knows their repertoire inside out. If learning lyrics is an issue, then using a tablet as a prompt will help you avoid a sticky situation.