Learning the Lyrics to a Song
Singing a song and learning the lyrics to a song must be one of the first musical actions any new musician makes. As we grow older, we take in more music, our taste broadens, and we commit songs to memory which relate to very intimate parts of our soul. When I was 14 I used to make tapes of the radio and listen to them transcribing the words to certain songs that caught my attention and sparked my imagination. One of these tunes was a song called “Burn and Rob” by an indie folk artist named Paleface the college radio station at Tech used to play occasionally.
This song is a satiric take on a man who listens to a rock and roll record in a store and then commits his life to depravity, violence, and anarchy. The song is really funny and the kind of thing that appeals to a nerdy 14-year old.
After taping the song, I sat down and transcribed the lyrics into a tattered spiral notebook. In my weird day dreams I thought there might be a situation where I might need to know the lyrics to this song— so I set out to learn the words.
I can’t remember exactly if I had any sort of system. Most likely I listened to the tape of the song repeatedly, trying to absorb the lyrics of the tune subconsciously. I thought, repetition was the key to learning what seemed like a large amount of material. For me, this was a mistake, and I later learned to approach learning the lyrics to the song (and thereby learning the song) in a much different manner.
Through a lot of practice with varying results, I have come upon a good way to learn a modern rock or pop song.
- Find an overall “narrative” for the song - what kind of song is this? Is it telling a story? Is it a conversation? How is it divided, organized, and set up? Answering these questions and “outlining” the structure of a new song is helpful to set up as the first and strongest memory of the song. In the event that you mis-sing a lyric or get distracted, you have a good reference to allow you to just to the next portion of the song in a confident way.
- Learn the first lines of each verse - This is a critical component of the strategy set out in the first step. As long as you know the first line or two of a verse, even during a disastrous performance, you have a reference for the location in the song a diverse enough snap shot of what the song is about for the listener to follow along.
- Start practicing early from memory. This one initially wasn't obvious as I spent a lot of time looking at the lyric sheet to make recordings. The problem is when you read, your brain isn't set to "memorize mode" without some serious concentration. Go ahead and sing a verse by memory. Then get the first line of the next verse and on and on until you've got the song down. Memorizing the song isn't just about the words, it's the muscle memory from the "feeling" of singing it. Even if you you know all the pitches of the lyrical notes, you still need the feeling and experience which comes from making the actual noise with your actual instrument (or voice).
My last bit of advice is to get out and play new things for people. Family and friends of musicians often have to endure this, but it is a special experience to hear a song from its terrible, infant stages, to a middle part where you start to hear improvement, and then to the performance of a completely memorized song performed live. You are giving those people a peek behind the curtain and maybe in a subconscious way letting them in to hear how the sausage is made. It's not pretty a lot of times, but not everyone has heard it either.
Good luck on your song-memorization adventures. What techniques do you use to memorize the lyrics to a song? What is the most difficult song you've ever memorized?