Learning Lyrics

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Anyone else who sings something like ‘Gaudete’ from memory at Christmas will be facing Magenta’s annual memory challenge of four verses of Latin. Doesn’t sound so very much in itself, but alongside other challenges like the rest of the seasonal repertoire to commit to heart and a reasonably sprightly tempo, it feels like a bit of a stretch.

So, here’s what we did in a 20-minute blitz to kick-start the process.

First, we assigned each verse a colour: red, green, yellow and blue respectively. We then took each verse in turn, and I asked random singers to give me a number between 1 and 12, which gave an exercise from a pre-prepared list:

  1. Say it in a stage whisper
  2. Mime the words while pulling your cheeks forward (this is to inhibit being too overactive and ‘wordy’ in the articulation)
  3. Sing to a single note in the style of a character animated by Nick Park (this is exaggerate articulation in the wrong direction under the Inner Game principle of Will)
  4. Sing the verse to an ‘ng’ while mouthing the words over the top
  5. Read the words silently to yourself in the voice of a Disney character
  6. Sing to a single note focusing on getting all the vowels ‘in line’
  7. Sing the verse with your tongue out as far as it will go
  8. Say the words to your neighbour as if it’s an urgent, but secret, bit of news
  9. Sing the verse to the vowels only
  10. Say the verse omitting all the vowels
  11. Recite the verse as a dramatic Shakespearean speech
  12. Sing the verse very fast and very quiet, twice

Each verse used three of these exercises, then we put the music aside and sang it by memory. We also went back and revised our memory of previous verses after we had done each new one.

When we had covered all four, we then randomised by colour. After 20 minutes, all four verses were safely in short-medium memory, so we all had the homework to go through the verses once or twice each day until the next rehearsal in order to hand them over into medium-long term memory. From the success of the singing the following week, the singers appeared to have done their homework.

So, there were three main things going on here that were intended to boost the memorising process.

First, there was the colour-association. This was intended to give a mental structure that would keep the verses distinct from each other, along the same kinds of principles as the ancient Roman rhetorical method of loci.

Second, there were all the silly exercises. These made us manipulate the content, not just parrot it. This induces a deeper learning, in much the same way that summarising your notes or doing practise questions is a more effective revision method than simply reading through things. It is an active rather than passive engagement with the content you want to memorise.

It is also more fun than just going over and over the same thing. This matters not just because I like people who come to my rehearsals to have a nice time, but because emotional state has such an impact on learning. Negative affects like anxiety or boredom put up barriers to learning and makes the rehearsal less efficient. (I can cope with misery if need be, but inefficiency goes against the grain…)

And of course, the exercises also gave some useful opportunities for technical work on how to deliver the verses as well as simply uploading them into our brains. All that stuff on vowels placement and articulation, all the analysis of language into its constituent sounds, not to mention the way that exercises 1 and 7 facilitated breath support and the shedding of extraneous tension.

Third there was the intermittent revisiting - working on one verse, then coming back to it after work on the others. As this recent article in the Guardian suggests,* the best time to revise something is just before you forget it, as this makes you dig deeper to find it and thus makes the memory stronger. And you could certainly hear in the spaced repetition we did where people were losing bits of memory, and then actively going back and patching those bits up.

And you know what? It’s amazing how much more aplomb people bring to their performance when they are confident they actually know what they are singing.

*Hat-tip to my friend Georgie for pointing me to that article.

Excellent post Liz, and very timely (except maybe a bit too late for our concert this Saturday!).

As always a variety of approaches work best and I love some of your 'silly' exercises.

Now here's the biggest problem I have with learning lyrics, especially foreign ones: when first learning the tune, it's a bit too much to take on ALL the verses, so we tend to focus on verse 1, which means the others are never learnt as well. Maybe this applies most when learing by ear. Any suggestions on how to avoid this?

From the Front of the Choir

Good question, Chris!

One approach would be to completely dissociate words and music - so learning the tune as just a musical entity, and approaching the words separately. Particularly with foreign words, as you say, people need to wrap their brains round (a) pronunciation and (b) meaning as independent problems from singing them to the tune.

I think the picking random verses approach could be quite useful when putting words and music back together again, as it serves to treat all verses equally.

And yes I guess I did post this a little late to be helpful this year - that's what comes of writing about things after you've had the experience! But I'm happy to report that the words came out clearly and confidently in our first gig of the Christmas season.

In my experience, words MUST be linked with the music. I've tried teaching to 'la la la' and adding words later, and also tried drilling words and adding music later. Neither seem to work!

I think that music and lyrics are stored in a different part of the brain from, say, learnt poetry or just melodies. Often when I can't remember a tune I need the first word (even if it's 'the'!) to get me going. It's as if they're stored together as a unity. If we try to learn words OR music separately, it doesn't help the song-learning process.

Same with adding gestures/ choreography to songs: they need to be learn at the same time or it takes MUCH longer later on.


Hmm, well it may make a difference whether you're working by rote or from sheet music. Western notation makes the conceptual separation and recombination of words and music very clear, whereas rote learning is much more likely to hook them up together inherently.

But I would say that the problem of people getting the first verse in the memory and then struggling to learn subsequent verses is precisely the failure to get the two dimensions dissociated. If someone's concept of melody is inextricably linked with the first words they learned it to, then that will make it harder to substitute in the words from subsequent verses.

If you want to always learn the words and music together, though, it may help to start with a verse that's 2/3 - 3/4 way through rather than verse 1, since this is the verse that's always most likely to get forgotten as the low-point in the musical attention span.

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