One of the most essential skills a live singer must develop is the ability to memorize song lyrics. As a singer in a live band you may be called on to memorize 40 songs or more worth of lyrics. That seems like an overwhelming amount of song lyrics to memorize when you look at that number. The fact is, singers do it all the time and believe it or not it’s not an insurmountable task. As with everything that you’ll do in a band, it begins with the first step. Today I’m going to talk about some tips that will help you in your quest to memorize a setlist worth of song lyrics.
All big tasks are easier when you break them down into smaller parts. The first thing you need to do is decide what song you want to memorize. It helps if you’re already familiar with the song but even if it’s a new song that you’re not familiar with there is a specific way to approach memorizing every song that you want to learn. The first thing you should do is find a copy of the lyrics. We used to have to sit with a recording of the song and struggle to figure out what the singer was saying. Doing that took a lot of time and led to a lot of lyrical errors. Nowadays most CD’s come with the lyrics printed in the booklet. If you’re using downloaded MP3’s you can check the artists website for a copy of the lyrics. This way you know you’ll have the correct lyrics for the songs. If you don’t have the CD or you can’t get the lyrics from the artist website you can use Google to search for the lyrics. The best way to search is to use the following search terms “Song Name Lyrics” you will usually get a lot of lyrics results. When you use Internet search to find lyrics, make sure you check them against other versions of the lyrics as well as using your own judgement as to whether or not they have been transcribed correctly. Once you have a copy of the lyrics, it’s time to start memorizing.
Again, simply break it down into the smallest step and memorize the first line of the song. A lot of the time when you’re onstage if you remember the first line of the song, the rest will follow naturally. After you have the first line memorized it’s time to start getting familiar with the song and looking for patterns in the song. A lot of songs repeat sections, such as the chorus, over and over so it might make sense to memorize those sections first. Take a look at the lyrics and see if the song tells a story. If the song tells a continuous story it will be much easier to memorize. You simply memorize the story and then tell it. Some songs seem to be nothing but random words or phrases that sound good together but don’t really say anything. For these times it will be a matter of repetition before you have it down. You will want to listen to the song a lot. Listen in the car, while you exercise, in the shower and while falling asleep. While you listen to the song, use the rhyming that occurs in most songs to help you remember the lyrics. While you’re learning the song it’s a good idea to emphasize the rhymed words by saying them louder than the rest of the line so you can get used to hearing them. Using the rhymes will help you remember the phrases that lead to them. Another thing to really focus on is the rhythm of the lyrics. I can’t stress this enough because if you learn the lyrics in rhythm it will really help you remember them.
After you get the basic patterns of the song figured out, memorize the easy sections first. For instance, start with the Chorus since it will repeat itself more than once. You can also work on memorizing the first lines of each verse. Again, if you learn the first lines the rest of the verse will usually pop into your head naturally. Once you start to get things memorized fold the lyrics sheet in half so you can’t see the lyrics and sing along with the song. Only open the lyrics to look at them if you get stuck while singing. You can also print out a lyrics sheet that only has the first lines of each verse and chorus on it to prompt you if you get stuck. Once you can sing along with the entire song without your lyrics sheet, it’s time to turn off the CD or MP3 player and sing the song without using the original recording.
The best way to make sure you have the lyrics memorized is to sing the song acapella with no accompaniment at all. I like to do this in the shower in the morning. Another thing that will truly help you is to snap your fingers or tap out a beat while you sing the lyrics to yourself. If you get stuck just start tapping or snapping and the lyrics will pop into your head. There is something about having a steady rhythm that will really help you to remember the lyrics. It’s a natural response to sing song lyrics to a beat since they were originally written with a rhythm anyway. Once you can sing the lyrics acapella I guarantee you’ve got them memorized. You won’t look like an amateur by having lyrics with you onstage. That’s a major no-no for a professional singer.
There will always be some songs that are extremely easy to memorize and some that can really make you struggle. Another tip is to always have a copy of the songs you sing on your iPod or MP3 player. When I’m driving to gigs, I will play the songs that are new or that I struggle to remember. By brushing up on them right before the show I rarely forget the lyrics. If you finally get up onstage and have a brain freeze don’t be afraid to repeat a verse you remember or even make up some new words. Just don’t stop singing!! Most of the people in the audience don’t have the lyrics memorized anyway and the bulk of the people won’t even notice that you messed something up. Of course the ones that do know the words will let you know you messed them up, but who cares!! You’re the singer, just remember to get up there and have fun. Some of the best times I’ve had are making up “alternate” lyrics right there onstage. It’s always good for a laugh later on.