Updated: Mar 26, 2021
One of the most common non-guitar related questions I get asked is how I remember so many lyrics for all the songs I need to sing. A typical function performance is usually 2 hours of music, which is approximately 36 songs on any given night. I play with several different acts that have different repertoires, and we have to be prepared for the possibility of encores and requests too!
Of course it's possible to have your entire set list on a tablet in front of you now, and there are lots of wonderful set list apps you can download to minimise the need for swiping. But personally I just don't feel like I'm engaging with an audience, or doing my job properly, if I spend the whole night reading off a screen. To me a gig is an opportunity to get away from phones and screens and all that stuff for a couple of hours, so if I can avoid reading my way through a gig I will.
As with anything that someone does well, a lot of people write that level of memorisation off as some kind of innate talent. But the truth is that, like any skill, it’s something that takes work and thought. The thing I always find strangest about lyric learning is that people tend to ask other singers for tips on doing it, when in fact the logical place to look is articles like this one on the science of memory https://www.simplypsychology.org/memory.html
Memorising Song Lyrics
The basic chain for creating a usable memory is encoding – storage – retrieval. As mentioned in the article above, the way you create (encode) a memory affects the way in which your brain stores it. I’m going to take you through the method I use to ensure that the lyrics I learn are stored in a way that allows me to access them any time I wish.
I should mention at this point that I don’t hold any sort of qualification in psychology, but rather this is a method I’ve developed from reading articles like the ones above and trying to apply some of their findings in a practical way that seems to work, along with a lot of trial and some pretty spectacular errors in front of a lot of people! I encourage you to take this as a starting point, do additional reading, and find a way of adapting it that suits you so you don't find yourself tongue tied on stage ever again.
Encoding and Storage
As the article above mentions, the three main ways a memory is encoded are visually, acoustically and semantically. With lyrics you have an opportunity to use all three of these in combination to create a strong link between the song and the words. Start with verse one. Sing it a couple of times while looking at the sheet. Some people advocate writing it out, for me I've always been fine reading printed lyrics, but I definitely find reading off a screen to be a hindrance to my attention span.
1) Sing the melody in its most basic form, forgetting any vocal embellishments the recording artist may have put in as they can come later. Whilst you’re reading the sheet pay attention to the shape of the lyrics on the page. Are lines one and three shorter than lines two and four? Are any words repeated frequently? This is you combining your acoustic (sound) understanding of the way the lyrics sound with your visual image of how they look.
"Making and correcting mistakes is one of the most important tools in learning"
2) Now sing them through again and consider the meaning of the lyrics. In particular you want to think about how each line follows the previous one. Is it carrying on the story? Offering a description of something mentioned in the previous line? Now you’re using your semantic understanding of the song to think about the subject. When the whole song feels like a story you can understand, it’s almost impossible to forget it.
Take the first verse of Blinding Lights by The Weeknd for example.
I’ve been trying to call
I’ve been on my own for long enough
Maybe you can show me how to love.
There are a few things you can use here to aid your memory. Firstly it has an odd structure. The middle two lines are longer than the first and fourth, they use pretty much the same melody, and they rhyme with each other as opposed to the usual 2/4 or 1/3 rhyming patterns you see in most songs. If that’s not enough to make it stand out, there’s also a story to it. The singer has tried to reach out to someone because they’re lonely. Each line gives you a little more information about their state of mind, even that last ‘maybe’ at the end. Repetition is always your friend in music, because all good songs are full of it. But in this case think about why the repetition of the word ‘maybe’ is there. The second usage of it adds doubt to the previous line and betrays a lack of self-belief.
You don’t necessarily have to go ‘that’ deep in to the meaning of the lyrics. But one of the key components of forming a memory is engagement with the thing you’re trying to remember. Passively singing through the whole song from top to bottom doesn’t engage you with the song and gives you no reason to remember it by the time you got to the end.
"Most songs are designed to be catchy and memorable. Use that to your advantage."
3) At the earliest possible opportunity, test yourself by turning the sheet over and singing that same verse. Try to visualise the shape of the words on the page, focus on the rhymes and let the story lead you to either the exact words, or ones that are close enough and mean the same thing (eg ‘maybe you can show me how to love’ and ‘maybe you can tell me how to love’ are fairly interchangeable as an example).
Then go back to the sheet, check how you did and correct yourself if necessary. You’ll almost definitely get some stuff wrong a couple of times, remember those mistakes and think about why you made them. Annoyingly, making and correcting mistakes is one of the most important tools in learning.
4) This next step is the one I find most useful. Before you move on to the next section, walk around the house singing that same verse. A lot of our memory is tied to space (think about how sometimes when you walk in to a room you forget why you went there in the first place, but then remember when you return to the room you came from). So if you learn lyrics in one place and then try to perform them on stage, you can find yourself going blank because you tied that period of learning in with one particular place. Walking around the house, doing some odd jobs that need doing whilst going over your lyrics is a great way to get them burned in to your brain. It'll only take five minutes or so to nail one verse and you'll get the washing up done too.
5) Assuming your song has two verses before the first chorus, go back and learn the second verse. Start by repeating the same process as above, but then straight away start tying it to the first verse. Sing all the way through verse one and straight in to verse two. From now on you're only ever going to sing these two sections as a single unit. Considering it as a story where each line leads you on to the next will make it almost impossible to forget. Again, use the rhyming patterns to help you, remember that most songs are designed to be catchy and memorable. Use that to your advantage.
So verses one and two of Blinding Lights look like this
I’ve been trying to call.
I’ve been on my own for long enough,
Maybe you can show me how to love.
I’m going through withdrawals.
You don’t even have to do too much,
You can turn me on with just a touch.
See how there is now a rhyme connecting the first and last lines across the two verses? That’s going to help you treat this all as a single memory. The story also develops a little here too.
6) Again walk around the house singing verse one straight in to verse two. Allow yourself to make mistakes, even on things you thought you had memorised just a moment ago. The human brain is a frustrating bit of machinery that learns things by doing them slightly less wrong each time. As long as your mistake was close to the correct answer in some way, understanding your mistake helps you to not make it the next time [Reference]. Keeping this in mind will hopefully see you be less frustrated and more relaxed as the process goes on.
7) When you get to the chorus you can celebrate a little. Choruses are usually easier to learn because they’re designed to have people remember them by the time they’ve finished hearing the song for the first time. They also tend to repeat three or more times throughout the song, so it’s like learning half the song in one go! Use the same process outlined above to take you in to the chorus, and then on to the other sections of the song until you’re finally ready to try the whole thing from top to bottom. When you can do it twice without the sheet you’re ready to move on to the next song. Be realistic with yourself as to how many songs you can learn in a day with the time you have. To do the whole process I’ve outlined above can take around 10-20 minutes for a standard pop/rock song, so you can learn about 3-6 songs per hour with this method. But once they’re learnt they stay learnt, so think of that time as an investment.
Recalling Song Lyrics
Now we’ve dealt with encoding and storage, the very last step is recall. Come back to all the songs you’ve learnt on another day. Your brain treats short and long term memories differently, and by doing this you’re telling it that the information you’ve put effort in to retaining is information you’re going to need again and again.
1) Go through each song one at a time and get as far through it as you can without looking at your sheets. For any sections you forget repeat the steps outlined above, taking the time to pay particular attention to why you may have forgotten them. Does the melody change at some point? Does the singer break the rhyming pattern? Any little variation can cause a break in the flow of the song that makes it harder to recall. Go over it and focus on the variation. Working on it a second time should be enough to cement it in your long term memory, but you may want to come back and check it again on another day to be sure.
2) Another handy tip is to make a playlist of all the songs you need to learn. Once you’ve completed all the steps above, every listen through of a song will reinforce your memory of learning it. You can listen to it in the car on the way to the gig if you like. But I like to avoid doing that when I can.
3) The final tip I can give you for recalling lyrics well on stage is to just relax and let whatever happens happen. My mantra before I go on stage is “The right time to learn this was yesterday.” I used to get really nervous and sit backstage practicing parts and running over lyrics for fear of forgetting them, but eventually I realised that this nervousness was clouding my thoughts and spoiling my enjoyment of the performance. I decided to work twice as hard in the days leading up to a gig and then treat the actual performance as fun, even if I still didn't feel as prepared as I would like. You play best when you are relaxed, and so if you learn to recover well from the inevitable mistakes you will make on stage you’ll be able to go out there more confidently and actually enjoy yourself.
Anomalies and Difficult to Remember Tunes
A quick note on difficult to learn lyrics. The hardest set of lyrics I’ve ever had to learn was ‘Rocks’ by Primal Scream. There’s nothing inherently complicated about the song or the words, but the lyrics follow a hugely repetitive ‘Nouns keep Verbing’ format that means every phrase rhymes with almost every other phrase, and they’re all hugely interchangeable. Also knocking and auction do not rhyme, regardless of what accent you're singing in!!
Creeps keeep a crawlin' Drunks keep a fallin' Teasers keep a teasein' Holy joes are preachin' Cops just keep bustin' Hustlers keep a hustlin' Death just keeps knockin' Souls are up for auction
With songs like this, the steps I outlined above are a little harder to follow because there’s no real story, flow or logic to this song. That’s no insult to Primal Scream, they’re doing just fine without me, but it does make songs like this and Higher Ground by Stevie Wonder a lot harder to learn. My advice would be to take a quick look through the set list you have to learn and take these songs on first. They will inevitably take up more of your time, but fortunately they are a rarity in popular music so you should only ever have two or three in your list. The good thing is that, if you can’t learn them, most other people probably won’t know them either. So you can fudge the order a little bit and get away with it. As long as you sing ‘something’ you’re ok!
So hopefully you feel a little more prepared to learn your lyrics now. Are there any tips you’ve learnt over the years that I’ve missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments!