While there’s nothing wrong with singing lines from a piece of paper or a tablet, there’s a lot to be said for singing the lyrics off the top of your head, especially since memorising the words is not as hard as you might think. It’s just a matter of knowing the right tricks and putting in the hours.
Let’s begin by going back to prehistoric times. Before humankind started writing stuff down, any and all information had to be passed down orally. Rooted in stories and probably songs as well, this oral tradition is still maintained by various indigenous cultures today. Aboriginal Australian culture, for instance, revolves around passing on stories from generation to generation. In fact, some Aboriginals are able to tell really long stories based on a single drawing. Aboriginals are even known to chant their entire history from the very beginning to the present off the top of their heads – a narrative that takes days to recite.
“You had to memorise everything back in the day,” says vocal coach Alfons Verreijt. “We were able to do so through endless repetition, but since we’ve come up with writing systems in the meantime, passing on information has become much easier and more efficient. That said, the written word is both a blessing and a curse since it’s made us lazy when it comes to wanting to remember things, and also makes it harder for us to put aside our cheat sheets.” Take Barbara Streisand, who had the stage filled with display monitors so she could sing off the autocue. “That’s not necessarily a weird thing to do,” Alfons says. “Throughout her career, Streisand has mainly been a studio singer and never performed on stage a lot, meaning she’s missed out on repetition.” Then there’s Bob Dylan, who was once asked during an interview how he managed to memorise all of his chords and lyrics. Dylan answered: “I didn’t memorise them. I just bought a copy of ‘The Best of Bob Dylan’ and re-learned the songs by heart through the book.”
Whether it’s topographical knowledge, times tables, chord progressions or lyrics, there are practical advantages to learning things by heart. It’s even beneficial for the brain. So what are some arguments for memorising lyrics? Starting with a classic argument, Alfons says: “Singing from a piece of paper is simply uncool. Not only that, being fixated on a piece of paper limits your freedom to move around the stage, which in turn curbs the dynamics of the act. Constantly looking at the lyrics also results in less interaction and communication with your fellow band members, affecting the way you make music together. Singing off the top of your head allows you to enjoy the live-playing experience a little more. And that’s not all.” Alfons continues: “Having the lyrics memorised also takes a load off your brain since there’s no need to scan a page to see where you’re at – a process that takes up brain power you’d be better off reserving for the actual singing and music-making. Also, learning the lyrics of a song by heart makes you more connected to the story it’s trying to tell, resulting in a more engaged performance.”
What about situations in which you might actually want a piece of paper in front of you – are there any? According to Alfons, there certainly are. “Imagine the lyrics are still a work-in-progress and you’ve just made a bunch of tweaks. If you don’t scribble them down, you might not remember them. Or say you’re singing in a band that has a repertoire of over 400 songs. Memorising all of those lyrics is going to be pretty much impossible. On the other hand, if the repertoire of your band is made up of 30 to 40 songs, memorising them all is a good idea and shouldn’t be a problem.”
The Right Approach
So what’s the best way to go about memorising lyrics? “Everyone has their own way,” says Alfons. “But there are certain strategies that work well for most people, though there’s a difference between memorising tunes you’ve heard a lot of times before and songs that are completely new to you.” Take Hotel California by The Eagles. Remember the first couple of lines? You probably don’t, until you hear the first line being sung – ‘On a dark desert highway’ – after which, hopefully, the second line immediately pops into your head: ‘…cool wind in my hair.’
“A lot of well-known songs are already largely stored in the back of our minds,” Alfons notes. “The best way to memorise any in full is by writing the lyrics down on paper. This is more effective than typing. Once you’ve done that, write down the first sentence of every verse and chorus. The rest usually comes automatically because the first line is like a trigger.” The next step is to rinse and repeat until there’s nothing on your cheat sheet but the first part of the first verse and the first chorus. After that, the step to learning the whole thing by heart is pretty small. “This study method comes with another advantage,” Alfons remarks. “Every verse is stored in your brain as a whole, making it easier to correct any little mistakes. If you accidentally start singing the wrong verse, just finish it and sing the verse you should’ve sung next. Most people won’t even notice.”
Dealing With Unfamiliar Songs
Now that we’ve covered memorising known songs, let’s look at tackling totally unfamiliar tunes and freshly written material. Alfons: “Say you’re covering an existing song. The first thing you need to do is figure out the narrative so you know what you’re singing about.” While textual analysis isn’t always easy and lyrics can be as clear as mud, fortunately, there’s a thing called the internet these days. Websites like Wikipedia usually offer a lot of background information on well known songs, even though some pieces of info are conflicting. Just look up Ticket To Ride by the Beatles. Lennon and McCartney, who co-penned the song, each offer a different interpretation of the lyrics.
“It’s no big deal If you’re struggling to find the true meaning of a song,” Alfons says. “Just stick to what you think the story is, even if you know you might be wrong. In any case, it helps to have the lyrics memorised. Adding meaning to the words is like labelling them, which helps to ingrain them in your brain. That’s because any text you’ve assigned meaning to will create more connections (synapses) in your brain than ‘empty’ words. The more connections there are, the easier it will be to recall what you’ve stored up there.”
Stop Yourself from Singing Along
Whether it’s familiar or unfamiliar, you’ll want to listen to any song you’re trying to remember as often as possible, so stick it on in the car, at home and during your work-out. “Just don’t sing along,” Alfons suggests. “Singing along will make you make it ‘your own’ and miss out on important details. What you are allowed to do is lip-sync because it helps you actively observe the song and the singer’s breathing patterns. Of course, at some point you have to start actually singing, but even then it’s important that you don’t simply sing along. Either sing it for real or listen to it. Practise the lyrics line by line before moving on to singing multiple lines and eventually entire verses. Also, accept that studying songs initially takes a lot of time and effort. The process will speed up a little once you get used to it, so be sure to give your brain some time to adjust. Lastly, make sure you practise in different circumstances. If your home studio and rehearsal space are the only places where you can go, you run the risk of getting into trouble on stage. You want to be able to sing your songs no matter the situation. Being nervous before you go on can also affect your ability to recall lyrics. What can help here is writing down the lyrics of the first two songs you’ll be performing. This will calm you down and activate the right parts of your brain, allowing you to get through to the first part of the show and pave the way for the songs that follow.”
Good to Know
Don’t Blindly Trust the Internet
In the article, we mentioned something about unravelling lyrics and using the internet as a tool. Here, it’s important to bear in mind that the internet is home to a lot of false information, meaning you shouldn’t always go off everything you find online. In fact, a lot of webpages listing chord progressions and lyrics are just a disaster. Our advice? Trust your own ears.
In Case of Emergency
If you’re on stage without a cheat sheet and suddenly can’t remember your lyrics, the best thing to do is to start singing in a kind of pseudo-English. Put on a poker face and just pretend you’re taking poetic licence. You’d be surprised how easily you can get away with it.
The Memory Palace Method
Technically, we humans can store an infinite number of lyrics in our minds. There are various ways to make the most of your ability to memorise things, one of which is the method of loci (also known as the mind palace technique). While it may not be suitable for learning lyrics by heart per se, it is a pretty interesting concept that can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Worked out by the Romans, Roman senators used the method of loci to help them recite lengthy speeches This visualisation-style method is based on a metaphor of a house where each room is filled with different objects that symbolise talking points. It’s certainly worth looking into if your job depends on having knowledge at the ready.
Found this article interesting? Check out Tips To Help You Memorise Sheet Music.