Professional singers make remembering lyrics look easy, but anyone who has tried to quickly learn a set of music knows it can be quite a task. It’s always nerve wracking to get up in front of a crowd and sing a bunch of words you’ve only just learned.
In this guide, we’re going to teach you how to memorize lyrics. We have several proven techniques coming to you from a guy who once thought “I can’t remember lyrics, I’ll just have to play instruments”. I got better at memorizing lyrics, and so can you. Here's how singers remember their lyrics.
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How To Memorize Lyrics More Effectively
I recently took a psychology course. It was a little out of character for someone who dropped out of university after one year, but it was interesting, and it taught some important things about how to learn effectively.
Over the years, I had developed several techniques to memorize lyrics quickly and effectively. As it turns out, I was using several techniques that are proven to help you learn.
Here's what you need to know about applying memorization techniques.
Find A Method That Works For You
While the old audio learner, visual learner, tactile learner idea has been largely disproven, there is no question that some methods work better than others for different people.
It has less to do with what kind of learner you are, and more to do with which activities you can commit to and enjoy. If you do not enjoy the process, you are far less likely to do it.
Give a method a try, and if you find yourself avoiding it after a week or so of dedicated practice, it is probably time to try another technique.
After some trial and error, you will find something that you enjoy. Stick with whatever method brings you joy or is at least somewhat fun.
Use A Combination Of Methods
It is important to note that a combination of learning methods will work best. When you use multiple senses, your memories will be more vivid. The more ways you try to memorize something, the stronger your memories will be.
Spaced Repetition Creates Stronger Memories
Alright, this tip is no fun. When you learn a new set of lyrics, you will be good at remembering them for the first few hours, and then will get progressively worse as the days go by.
This is called Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve. This curve is the reason why it becomes difficult to remember what you had for lunch three days ago, and even harder to remember what you had three weeks ago.
When you start learning lyrics, you will gradually start forgetting them unless you repeat the practice.
In order to avoid losing your lyrics, you should study them in spaced intervals. That way, when you start forgetting the lyrics between practice sessions, the baseline is raised. Eventually, you will remember all the lyrics, potentially forever.
What I am saying, is that cramming is not effective. Teachers have been telling students to practice regularly instead of cramming for years. Turns out, they had the right idea.
When you begin, you can practice memorizing the lyrics several times in a day. Eventually, you want to practice once every day, or once every couple days. It is the time between practice sessions that helps you remember, because you are training your brain to recall those lyrics.
Method 1: Writing Out Lyrics
Writing out lyrics was the first way I learned to memorize lyrics. I was in a musical, and had lots of lyrics to learn. One day, I started absent-mindedly writing out all the lyrics on a page. It worked, and I could recall the lyrics much better after that.
Writing lyrics is more effective than simply printing them off a page. You need to take time to write the lyrics out. It gives you a chance to think about the story that the lyrics tell, the meaning, and understand the structure.
As you write, try singing or speaking each word aloud. This will form a stronger memory, because it uses more than one sense.
Rewrite the song again as many times as needed. After some practice, you may find that you only need to write out the lyrics once to remember them.
This method also works for memorizing the music to a song. When I have to learn several new songs for a gig, I listen to the songs, figure out the structure, and then I hand-write a chart for the songs.
I rarely use the chart at the gig, because the simple act of intentionally writing a chart and thinking about the structure of the song is enough to memorize the song.
Method 2: Listening To The Song & Different Versions Of The Song
This should go without saying, but the more you listen to the song, the easier the lyrics will come to you.
When I have to learn a lot of new music, I make a playlist of the set list on my streaming service and listen to it while I do the dishes, go to the grocery shop, or work out. Soon enough, I know the song intimately.
The key is to immerse yourself in the song. If you really want to know a song well, you need to listen to it so many times that you can breathe the song. If the song is especially long or complicated, immersion will help.
It can help to listen to several versions of the song. As you know, incorporating different senses and experiences will form stronger memories.
Listen To Acoustic Versions
Acoustic versions of most well-known songs are easy to find. Look for acoustic versions on YouTube, and for more famous songs, find acoustic versions on Spotify or Apple Music.
Listen To Covers
Search YouTube or your streaming service for a cover of the song you are trying to learn. Listening to this alternate version will help you store the lyrics in your brain, because you are associated different singers and sounds with the lyrics.
Watch Music Videos
Watching music videos is a great way to memorize lyrics. Music videos create new narratives and new ideas about the song in your brain. They also give you visual stimulation that is directly associated with the song.
Watch the video several times, and focus on it. This will work best if you watch the video without distraction, and really take it in.
Watch Lyric Videos
Lyrics videos are also a fun way to memorize songs. You can sing along to the video, have the lyrics shown right in front of you, and listen to the song itself, all at the same time.
Singing along to lyric videos are a great way to start memorizing a song, because the lyrics will give you quick prompts, and you can start working on your memory.
Record & Listen To Yourself
Finally, making simple recordings – even on the Voice Memos app or your computer camera – will help you memorize the song. When you are recording the song, you are trying to get a good take, which forces your brain to focus on the song.
After you are done recording it, throw your version into rotation with the original. This will help you memorize the lyrics, and it will also help you improve.
Over time, you will notice things about your performance that could be improved. Try making better versions of the recording – by the end of this process, the lyrics will be easily memorized.
Method 3: Sing Yourself To Sleep
Researchers have found that learning and memorizing before you go to sleep can have an advantageous impact on your memory. As you sleep, your brain processes things it has learned during the day, and it might give extra attention to things you learned before going to bed.
Practicing before sleeping or literally running through the lyrics in your mind while lying in bed is a great way to get in extra practice, and allow your mind to work on the song while you sleep.
Note that getting a good night’s sleep is extra important when you are trying to learn new skills or memorizing new information. Not only does your brain go over the things it learned during the day, but it also creates new pathways for learning while you are asleep – freeing up thousands of neurons for use the next day.
The better you sleep, the better you will learn.
Method 4: Memorization Apps
There are a variety of tools and apps out there to help you memorize song lyrics, stats, information from a class – whatever. Try downloading a few apps and see if they work for you.
One tool that I found online is Memorizer.
All you must do is paste the lyrics into the screen. The app will show you the lyrics and ask you to say it a few times and glance at the screen briefly if you need to. It also suggests that you copy down the lyrics by hand, because we all know that is a good way to memorize.
In the next step, the app takes away everything but the first letter of each word, leaving just the form and first letters. You can then practice reading through with only the subtle cue from the letters. It is harder than it sounds!
Lastly, the app asks you to say the whole piece through without pausing. It gives you the first two words of every line, but that is all. If you make a mistake, you are supposed to go back to the first step.
The app then encourages you to repeat these steps every hour or every day until it is memorized.
This app works because it challenges you to remember the lyrics in different ways and provides you with different prompts. Your brain works best when it is being surprised and challenged to create connections and recall memories.
Tip 5: Take Time To Rest
Make sure to take time to rest between practice sessions. Again, this is where your best learning gets done. Sometimes, drilling things over and over can be frustrating and inefficient.
All of these methods will work. Guaranteed. They take practice, focus, and commitment, but they will work.
If you screw up the lyrics during your next practice session, cut yourself some slack – that is how you learn. You forget, and are surprised by the forgetting, so you go back and check the lyrics, and then reinforce your learning that way.
Trying to cram practice sessions and doing extremely long practice sessions is not advised without regular breaks and rest. You need time to process the lyrics.
Last Tip: Get Up And Perform, Don’t Read Your Lyrics
This last tip is a bit nerve-wracking, but in my experience, if you get up and perform with no music, and no printed lyrics, your brain will kick into overdrive and remember those lyrics.
If you have put time and effort into memorizing lyrics and practicing them, you will almost certainly remember them under pressure.
The more comfortable you are performing, the more easily this part will come to you. You need to learn to trust yourself – you do know how to play this song, and being in front of a crowd does not change that.
When I learn songs for artists, I very rarely, if ever show up to the rehearsal with charts. I made charts beforehand, practiced the songs, and when the time comes I have faith that my memory will kick in.
If I make a mistake, I make a note of the mistake, and keep going. That is what rehearsals are for.
When the time comes to perform, I like to be long past the point of requiring a chart or lyrics. Just working off memory and letting myself get lost in the music. When you reach this stage, you can give a really great performance.
How To Memorize Lyrics; Final Thoughts
You do not need to use every method in this guide, just choose a couple that work for you, and stick with it. You will find a routine, and then learning songs will become a cinch.
Remember: practice often, space out your practice sessions, don’t cram, and try to incorporate different senses into your memorization.