Why did I decide to write about memory techniques for singers?
I think this scenario may be familiar to many people:
“You found a new song that you love and you decide to sing this song at your earliest opportunity.
The song is not too difficult. You have heard it many times before. You have listened to it maybe a hundred times. You’ve sung along to the song on the radio many times before. And you also have sung the song while following the lyrics on paper.
Time to sing the song with only the accompaniment.
You get stuck on the first verse. The lyrics don’t come to you. You try hard but still nothing.”
I have decided to write about memory techniques for singers because I am terrible at remembering song lyrics myself!
I am (was) so terrible that I had to do something about it and now I am going to share with you 23 actionable tips about how to memorize lyrics easily and fast.
Bonus: Get a free checklist to find out if you breathe efficiently for singing and start improving your voice right away. Click here to get it now!
How Memory Works
Let’s start with some basic information about how our brain works (or does not work in my case) when it comes to remembering song lyrics.
There is still a lot of unknown about memory and remembering.
However, there are some basic principals involved in remembering:
It starts with encoding, continues with storage and ends with retrieval.
It starts with encoding …
All throughout the day, we receive information from various sensory channels. These stimuli are analyzed and our brain decides which pieces of information are worth storing (this is an important fact that we examine again a little bit later).
Encoding only happens when we pay attention so most experiences in our daily lives are dismissed as unimportant and are never stored in our memory.
… continues with storage …
When a new piece of information is stored in our brain, a new connection is created between neurons (brain cells). As we learn and practice, new connections are created. If an experience is repeated several times, the connections become “stronger”.
When a piece of information first enters our brain it is stored in short-term memory.
This is a very limited capacity storage and it can hold only about 7 items for 20 to 30 seconds. (Now I know, why I cannot remember any names when introduced to new people at a party.)
However, there are some memory techniques that can help us remember more than 7 items. For example, when remembering a ten digit number, it is helpful to chunk the numbers into groups.
The more you repeat the information, the greater the chance that it will be stored in long-term memory.
And there are no limits in long-term memory! The more you are familiar with the topic, the easier it is to store information in long-term memory.
… and ends with retrieval.
The last stage is retrieval. There is no remembering if you cannot retrieve the information from your long-term storage.
And just for your information – it is normal to “loose” some ability to remember things, including lyrics, as you get older (aha!). But there are ways to improve the process of remembering them too!
Here is a cute short video about how memory works:
(If not, it’s about a girl going through a difficult life situation with the help of her emotions, represented by “little characters inside her head”. It’s one of the best family movies I have seen because it’s a movie that is funny for kids but also entertaining for adults).
I really enjoyed watching this movie because I appreciated the portrayal of memories in our head. So creative!
How to Memorize Lyrics of Songs
In pursuit of memory improvement, I have done some research about learning and memorization.
I knew that there are many ways to boost the memorization process but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of options. That is good because we all learn in different ways. I am a very visual learner but you may prefer other methods. I hope you can find at least one suggestion that suits you.
I have tried a few of these memory techniques and I will tell you, which ones are my favourite.
I have divided these memory techniques into three stages: encoding, storage and retrieval.
Memory Techniques for Encoding
This is probably where I made my biggest mistake.
When I was learning a new song, I just listened to it over and over again without really paying too much attention to the lyrics with the hope that the rote repetition would somehow get into my head.
Well, it did not. Now I understand why.
Here are some suggestions to help you out with this stage of memorization:
1. Pay Attention to Make it Stick
Solid memory is made when we pay attention and when we understand what we are learning. (Read this sentence again!)
Very simply put – the brain will filter out the “noise” from important information so we don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of stimuli that come to our eyes and ears (and other sensory channels). The lyrics will not pass the filter if we don’t put some “effort” into understanding the meaning of the words and the message of the song.
If you are not actively involved in the learning process, the information will not pass the first filter in your brain.
What to do?
Prepare yourself mentally for learning. Make yourself comfortable or prepare some tea to sip on while learning. Put your “thinking caps” on and let’s start.
I caught myself learning lyrics “on autopilot” several times. I am quite sure I am not the only person guilty of this mistake.
2. Get the Big Picture by Understanding the Song Structure
It helps to invest time to understand the overall structure of the song.
How many verses does it have?
When does the chorus start?
Is there a bridge? etc.
Draw a diagram of the song structure to help you visualize it.
Here is an example of a simple diagram that helped me to learn the lyrics.
3. Interpret the Lyrics to Make the Song Yours
There are two levels of understanding the meaning of a song.
First, explore the overall feel of the song:
What is the main message?
What are the emotions you want to evoke in your audience?
This will help you deliver the song and connect with your listeners.
Second, think about each sentence and each word of the song and its role:
Why is it worded this way?
Why did the lyricist choose this word over another?
Dissect the song into sentences and words like a surgeon. This will help you memorize the words.
Let’s take Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph” as an example:
I could go on but you get my point.
Now, let’s look at the specific words:
“So you can keep me
Inside the pocket of your ripped jeans
Holding me closer ‘til our eyes meet …”
The word “keep” is used because it has a more permanent feeling than for example “put”.
The phrase “ripped jeans” was used to resonate with younger generation versus the word “old jeans”.
The phrase “holding me closer” instead of “holding me tight” was chosen maybe just because it has more syllables. Who knows?
Songs can be interpreted in many different ways but that is not the point of this exercise.
The end goal is to memorize the lyrics so interpret the lyrics in a way that makes sense to you.
For example, if you’ve just broke up with a partner, your interpretation of this song may be very different from someone who is in a long-term relationship.
How to memorize lyrics? Understand them first!
Here are some websites to help you get started with the interpretation of songs:
This website offers not only the song lyrics but also the “behind the scene” information about each song. The website has a team of journalists and researchers who love to write about music. My go-to website for researching songs.
What I like about this website is that its users can post their interpretations of the lyrics and the meaning of the song. This is a great place to do your research if you are stuck and don’t know what the song is all about.
4. Get the Song Facts to Make it Memorable
Do your research about the song.
Who are the interpreter, composer and lyricist?
Under what circumstances was the song created?
If the song is from a musical, learn more about the plot, characters, and background of the musical. Who performed the song? etc.
You can always turn to Wiki for more information about songs.
Also the website Song Facts will give you some insights into the background of songs.
Memory Techniques for Storing Information
In this section, I am going to give you a long list of memory techniques to help you store the lyrics in your long term memory.
We are all different creatures with different learning styles so “chose your weapon”.
Some memory techniques may not work for you at all but I hope that you can find some that will eventually make your job of memorizing lyrics easier.
1. Learn the Song as a Poem to Make it Easy
I do this all the time. I learn the lyrics separately. It is much easier than trying to take in all aspects of the song.
What to do?
Separate the lyrics from the melody and rhythm and learn them first as a poem.
Print out sheet music or lyrics sheet (or write the lyrics down on paper – see suggestion #2).
Memorize the words.
It is easier to deal with “just” the words initially. Then add the melody as a next step.
2. Learn by Doing: Write Down the Lyrics
This is one of my favourite methods.
I am a visual learner and seeing the lyrics on a piece of paper in my own handwriting helps me a lot.
This strategy also combines visual stimuli with kinesthetic (movement) learning. People who learn by doing instead of watching or listening will benefit from this strategy.
However, it takes time to write all the lyrics (and it may be necessary to write them down a few times). So this strategy may not work for you if you are in a rush.
I have not tried it but you can type the lyrics if that sounds easier to you.
3. Use it or Lose it: Repeat to Make it Permanent
There is no way around it.
Repetition (with attention!) will make the connections in your brain stronger every time you practice the lyrics.
The more you say them, the easier it will become.
How to remember lyrics? Repeat them often and on regular basis.
Notice which parts of the song are hardest to remember. Often, it is the beginnings of verses.
Sometimes, the verses are very similar, which can be confusing. Practice the hard parts more often than the rest of the song.
4. Beat the Lyrics with the Beat
Speak the lyrics in the rhythm of the song.
That means that you say some syllables longer than others.
This strategy assumes that you already know the rhythm of the song.
If not, just listen to a recording of the song and “read” the lyrics with the original interpreter while keeping the rhythm.
5. Learn The Lyrics Before Going to Bed to Make a Long-Lasting Impression
Research suggests that we retain the information that was learned before going to bed better than the information learned during the day.
The scientists don’t know the exact reasons for this phenomenon but it works for me.
Maybe, a good night’s sleep creates stronger connections in our brain because there is nothing competing with the newly learned information. (But don’t quote me on this explanation.)
6. Make It Happen by Planning Ahead
Make a schedule for your learning sessions.
Memorizing lyrics is not an “exciting” task and I don’t know anyone who gets thrilled about it.
(If you get excited about lyrics memorization, please let me know. I would love to learn some new tricks.)
The time for learning lyrics does not just come about. You need to plan ahead. Once planned, stick to your schedule and do it!
7. Trick Your Brain by Lying Down
I found some research data that suggest that memorization is easier when lying on your back.
I thought it was a great idea (I call it “comfortable learning”) so I tried it. However, I fell asleep so it did not work for me.
But don’t ditch this idea.
Try it, maybe the research was right and it will work for you. In a worst case scenario, you will have a refreshing nap.
8. Minimize Distractions by Working Backwards
Some people suggest that learning the lyrics in reverse order is helpful.
I have not tried this memorization technique but some people swear by it.
How to do it?
Start with the last verse and move backwards to the beginning of the song. It eliminates all the distractions.
9. See the Lyrics by Creating Visual Images
This strategy is very helpful and I use it often.
While learning the lyrics, I create images in my head that go along with the words.
Sometimes it helps to watch a music video or a musical to create meaningful images.
For example, when singing “The Sound of Music”, I imagine myself in a hilly forest with high trees and birds singing around me. I imagine my heart beating in my hands. I imagine hearing songs from all directions …
Creating pictures in your mind helps to bring the words to life (literally).
10. Third Time is the Charm
Three repetitions without any mistakes work for me.
Some musicians use five as their magic number.
Choose a number that works for you.
If you can repeat the lyrics (or parts of the song) three times without any mistakes, there is a good chance that the information is getting stored.
11. Multiple Channels Make it Unforgettable
Use different types of memory techniques such as conceptual, auditory (listening), kinesthetic (movement) and visual learning methods.
I am primarily a visual learner but I do not stick to just one way.
Seeing the lyrics is a must for me so sheet music is my best friend.
(Read this article, in which I share the website where I buy my sheet music and why.)
I also like to write down the lyrics on a separate sheet of paper when memorizing them.
Understanding the main ideas/concepts helps me get the big picture.
Movement and dramatization makes learning more fun. This works especially for musical pieces that require acting.
When I practice my songs, I move around the room. If that is not possible, I move my body and arms to engage my whole body in singing.
Some people suggest that doing a repetitive chore (such as washing the dishes or vacuuming) helps memorization.
Research data suggests that repetitive and undemanding tasks such as squeezing a stress ball or pacing up and down may aid the memorization process.
Try it to see what works for you.
12. Top Up Your Effort with Silent Practice
Once you’ve learned the lyrics, rehearse them in your head.
Sometimes, when I am falling asleep, I go over new lyrics in my head without singing.
But you can do this anytime your mind is not occupied, such as when lining up or waiting for a bus.
13. Memory Needs Every Method Of Nurturing Its Capacity
The title of this memory strategy spells MNEMONIC.
Mnemonics are memory devices that help us recall pieces of information (my husband calls them “letter codes”).
You can assign letters, numbers or words to memorized items for easier storage and recall.
Mnemonics are widely used in schools (for example, can you name five Great Lakes with the help of the acronym HOMES?)
I found an example of the use of mnemonics for memorizing lyrics (Source: How to Memorize Lyrics):
“In The Beatles song “Hey Jude” the verses are all very similar, and I kept mixing them up until I assigned a mnemonic (in this case, just a single letter) to each of them. Taking the first letter of the key word in each verse, we can make BAD (Bad, Afraid, Down). Needless to say, I don’t have problems remembering it anymore.”
14. Chart the Song for Flowing Recall
Some songs with long or complicated lyrics may require a more structured approach such as drawing a diagram or flowchart.
It helps you visualize the order of words. See this example.
But of course, you can use this memroy technique even for simple songs to aid your learning.
If you type “song flowchart” or “lyrics flowchart” in Google search, you can see more examples of this strategy. Here is one example for the song Hey Jude by The Beatles.
15. Cut them Up for Easy Storage
Chunking is a memory technique that breaks the song into small and more manageable batches of information.
How to do it?
Split a song into lines or verses and memorize them one by one. Slowly manage longer and longer parts of the song.
There is a research study, which examined the effectiveness of four different methods to learn a piece of music. The research concluded that some memory techniques were more effective and longer lasting that others.
If we loosely apply these methods on singing, we could describe them like this:
Holistic approach: Start at the beginning of the song and learn the lyrics through to the end. Go back only a tiny bit if you make a mistake.
Additive approach: Start at the beginning and memorize the first part of the song. Then add another small segment to the first one, until it grows into a larger and larger chunk. Eventually, it contains the whole piece.
Segmented approach: Break the whole song into small parts. Memorize the chunks in isolation. Only after you memorize them all, link the chunks together into a whole song.
Serial approach: Starting at the beginning of the song and memorize the lyrics. Recite or sing the song again until you make a mistake. Stop and go back to the beginning and give it another go. Hopefully, this time you can get further.
The research concluded that the holistic and additive approach may be more effective than the segmented and serial approaches.
I personally really like the additive approach.
Here are step-by-step instructions for my approach (it’s a combination of the additive and segmented approaches).
It works really well for me.
Try it yourself and see if it works for you. You need either the sheet music with written lyrics or the lyrics written on a piece of paper.
I like to call this memory technique “Growing Chunks”:
Read the lyrics once out loud.
Read the first line/sentence/phrase (whatever makes sense) of the song out loud.
Cover the line and say it out loud again.
Check if you said it correctly. If you are correct, move onto the next step.
If you make a mistake, repeat step 2 until you get it right.
Read the next line out loud, cover it and say it out loud.
Check for accuracy. Repeat step 3 until you get it right.
Continue with each and every line of the song.
First read it out loud; then say it from memory.
Complete the whole song in this manner.
Go back to the beginning of the song.
Now read the first TWO lines out loud.
Cover them and say them from memory.
Check accuracy and continue to the next step if you are right.
If you make a mistake, repeat step 4.
Read the next two lines, cover them and recite them out loud.
Check for accuracy.
Repeat step 5 until you get it right.
Move on to the next two lines.
First read them out loud; then say them from memory.
Complete the whole song in this manner.
Repeat the process of reading, covering and reciting 3, 4, 5 etc. lines at a time.
Hopefully, at some point of this process, you will be able to say the whole song without the help of written lyrics.
Say all the lyrics out loud.
Step 8 (optional):
Rehearse the lyrics in your mind before going to bed.
Memory Techniques for Retrieval of the Lyrics
In the previous stage, we created strong connections – memories of the lyrics. However, this memory will fade over time. Therefore, repetition and rehearsal of the lyrics are important.
Here are some memory techniques to help you pull the lyrics out of your memory:
1. Win the Battle with Mental Preparation
Stay sharp, stay focused.
Prepare yourself mentally for retrieving the lyrics from your mind. Imagine yourself on the stage singing the song.
Visualize every step you are going to make.
Feel every movement you are going to do.
Hear every word you are going to sing.
2. Put the Lyrics on the Tip of Your Tongue by Thinking Ahead
As you start singing the song, think about what is coming.
Retrieve the lyrics from storage milliseconds before you say them.
In this way, they will literally be on the tip of your tongue, ready to be sung (ah – that rhymes!).
3. You Have to Believe it to Sing it
Singing is a mental game so trust yourself.
Believe in your ability to recall the lyrics. No doubts please!
Before you step onto the stage, tell yourself some positive statements, such as “I love singing! I will do this! This moment is mine!”
Positive attitude is half of the battle.
4. No Aids Please!
A few weeks ago, I discovered a device called StagePrompter MK2 (its review was posted in Voice Council Magazine). It is an autocue device that helps singers to recall the lyrics.
At first, I thought this was a great idea.
Then, I noticed the hefty price tag. This device is definitely not for “recreational” singers or beginners.
Sheet music and lyric sheets are the cheaper option.
Later, I gave some more thought to memory aids and came to the conclusion that they may actually hinder the memorization process. If you know that there will be an aid present at the performance, you will rely on it and you will not fully commit to the memorization process.
Practice is your best friend. And if you forget some lyrics on stage, improvise.
It happens to everyone and it makes us human.
Don’t forget that memorizing lyrics is just one step in a complex process of mastering a song.
Once you commit the lyrics to memory, you can start focusing on other aspects of the performance, such as technique, style, emotion, etc.
Websites with Lyrics
Useful Lyrics Apps
MetroLyrics By CBS Interactive
This lyrics app offers song lyrics as well as music videos, pictures and information about artists. This database has over a million song lyrics from the website metrolyrics.com. You can search for songs by typing only a few words from the song, or by title or artist.
Shazam By Shazam Entertainment Ltd.
Price: free or 7.99 US (ad-free version)
This is an apps that I have discovered only recently. It is more than a lyrics app and it has some very cool features. You can identify songs and lyrics or discover new music. Shazam integrates with Rdio and Apple Music, has YouTube playback, Lyric search, Artist news etc. You can buy tracks from iTunes and more.
Price: free or $ 2.99 US
A useful lyrics app that gives you access to millions of song lyrics. If a song is playing on your iPhone or iPad, you can conveniently switch to Lyrics Pro and the app will automatically recognize the song currently playing and display the lyrics so you can sing along. It is a more convenient way of finding lyrics than searching the web.
Soundhound by SoundHound Inc.
Price: $6.99 US
I love this app. Again, it is more than a lyrics app. The Sound Hound app (similarly to Shazam) recognizes the song currently playing and displays the name of the song and the artist. It also shows you the lyrics so you can sing along! You can even sing a few lines from a song and it will recognize the song and display the lyrics.
To see more apps for aspiring singers, click here.
Bonus: Get a free checklist to find out if you breathe efficiently for singing and start improving your voice right away. Click here to get it now!
Well, I hope you found this list of memory techniques practical. But before your go, please share this post with friends whose memory might need some boost.