While memorizing song lyrics comes easily to some people, it isn’t easy for everybody.
Last month, one of my students called me in a panic because he had to memorize an entire setlist of new songs for an upcoming performance. While she was able to sing all the songs perfectly well, she could only do so with the printed lyrics in her hand.
Printed lyrics are fine for rehearsals, but not great for a live performance.
Fortunately, I have a good understanding of how our memory works and the methods and techniques that could help her speed up the memorization process.
In this guide, I will share with you a variety of methods and tools you can use to almost effortlessly memorize song lyrics.
These aren’t just random tips or tricks like you’ll see on other websites. These are solid methods developed backed by science. I’ll explain the basic science behind the methods and why the methods work.
If you want to practice these methods with some songs, check out this lesson that will teach you songs that use simple open chords.
Which Memorization Methods Are Right For You
The important point with these methods is that you need to choose the ones that work best for you. The best way to find out which methods you like the best is to try all of them.
Give each method at least a week’s worth of effort to get a feeling for how you like using it. If after a week you find yourself avoiding the method, it’s a sign it’s not right for you.
On the other hand, if you find after a week that one or more of these methods are a pleasure to use and you notice progress in your memorization of song lyrics, take that as a sign that you’ve found your ideal methods. Really focus on those methods to get the best results.
A combination of methods works best
To understand why a combination of memorization methods is the best approach, try to imagine in your mind an apple.
Pretty simple, right?
You can probably effortlessly imagine an apple in your mind.
Now imagine biting into a bright red apple, hearing the crunch as your teeth pierce the skin, tasting the sweet juice in your mouth, smelling the fresh apple and feeling the crispy apple texture against your tongue.
How much more vivid do you imagine the apple now?
The red apple you visualize biting into is far more vivid in your mind because you’re pulling from many different memories of apples from a range of different senses.
You will have a lot of visual memories of seeing apples. Unless you don’t eat apples at all, you’ll also have a lot of memories of the taste of apple, memories of the smell of apple, and memories of the sound of biting into an apple.
When you use multiple senses, your memories are much more vivid. It’s the same reason why a simple scent can instantly bring back vivid childhood memories.
The point to remember is that the more ways you can try to memorize something (eg: different senses, different methods, different situations), the stronger those memories will be.
If you’ve only tried to memorize song lyrics using one method in the past, you’re making the job harder than it needs to be.
If you use a variety of the below memorization methods, not only will you be able to memorize song lyrics faster, but you’ll find it much easier to recall those lyrics during a performance.
Focus is key
With all of the below methods, the most important tip to remember is to focus intently on the method.
If you only half-heartedly work through the methods while thinking about other things, they won’t work. Research has found that the amount of focus you put in plays a massive role in memorization.
Here are some tips on how to focus when you want to work on memorizing song lyrics:
- Put all other things out of your mind and say to yourself that you’ll worry about them later
- Go to a quiet space that allows you to focus and let other people know you’re going to need privacy to practice your songs
- Put your phone on airplane mode or leave it in another room to avoid distractions
If you’re able to truly focus while working through these methods, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you’re able to memorize the lyrics.
Method 1: Write the lyrics out
You probably already have a printed lyrics sheet for the song you want to learn, so why would you want to write the lyrics out again?
As explained above, the more different ways you can practice memorizing song lyrics, the stronger that memory will become.
Reading lyrics off of a sheet is one way to memorize lyrics and writing those lyrics out is a different way of forming a memory.
Writing lyrics is a far more effective memorization method than reading lyrics because it forces you to slow down and think about each word. Not only will you need to read the lyrics first, but then you need to focus on writing each word.
If you’re a messy and slow writer like me, you’ll take a long time writing the lyrics out. That means you’ll be giving yourself plenty of time to work on your memory as you write the lyrics out.
As you write the lyrics, really focus on each word. Say the words out loud and when you finish writing a line, sing or read that line out loud.
After each verse, sing the lyrics by reading what you have just written, then sing it again without looking at the page.
If you’ve never done this before, you might be surprised by how effective it can be. Writing lyrics on paper takes a lot more effort than printing lyrics off, so it really focuses your attention on each word.
Summary of the method:
- Write the lyrics out on paper and focus on each word as you write
- Write slowly and neatly to force yourself to really focus on each word
- Read each word out loud as you write and after each line, read or sing the line out loud
- After you finish writing each verse, sing the verse out loud
- Rewrite the song every day to get the most out of this method
If you have a lot of songs to memorize this might seem like a lot of work, but when it comes to memory, more effort = faster progress.
Method 2: Song Lyrics Memorization Tools or Apps
There are many memorization tools and apps out there designed to help you memorize a range of different materials. You can try downloading a few different apps to see what works for you as they all use different memorization methods and techniques.
The tool I’ll recommend here is a simple website at memorizer.me
To use this tool, you start by pasting the lyrics into the box as shown below:
Check out this guide for best Guitar TAB websites where you can find song lyrics, chords, and more.
I recommend starting by only pasting in one verse or chorus. Practice that verse over and over, then go back and replace it with the next verse or chorus. Work on each part of the song separately and once you feel fairly confident with each part, you can paste the entire song and work on it from start to end.
When you click the ‘Help me memorize it!’ button, the instructions tell you to first read (or sing) the words a few times.
This first step is like a warm-up for your memory. Try to look at the screen as little as possible to test yourself and see how well you’ve already memorized the lyrics.
When you click the button to go to the next step, you’ll see that only the first letter of each word appears:
This step tests how well you really know the lyrics by only giving you a basic prompt for each word.
Sing the lyrics while keeping your eyes on the screen to see how well you can follow the words.
If you get stuck, take note of those areas and go back to the previous step to refresh your memory on those tough areas.
The next step mixes things up by only giving you the first two words for each line:
This helps you work on your memory in a different way. Instead of giving you a little clue for each word like in the previous step, this time you’re giving the start of the line and you need to rely on your memory for the rest of the line.
Remember that the more different methods you use, the stronger your memory will be. So spend equal time at this step as you did in the previous step. The two different steps will reinforce your memory in different ways.
After you run through the steps a couple of times, try to sing the entire song without looking at the screen at all.
Important: even if you feel confident with the song today, commit to walking through the steps again every day for the next week. Every time you do it, you will strengthen your memory. A stronger memory means you’ll be less likely to suddenly forget some lyrics during a performance.
Method 3: Spaced Repetition
After you first learn a new song’s lyrics (or anything else), this is what happens:
The blue line in that chart is your memory gradually forgetting the new song’s lyrics over the next few days after your first practice session. Within a few weeks, you will have forgotten most of the lyrics.
This is called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, and it sucks. It’s why we forget where we left our keys, forget what a movie was about a month after watching it, or completely forget what was taught in class by the time exams come around.
Every time you try to memorize the lyrics to a new song, the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve kicks in and you gradually start forgetting the lyrics.
Fortunately, there is a method you can use to flatten this curve out so you never forget the lyrics.
The method is called ‘Spaced Repetition’ and it will flatten out the above curve which means it stops you from naturally forgetting what you have learned.
As you might guess, the way we do this is by repeating practice sessions. Every time you repeat a practice session on a song’s lyrics, that blue line will start to flatten out as shown below:
Notice that the second blue curve leveled out higher than the first blue curve? That’s what happens when we regularly practice and it’s why it’s so important to keep practicing often.
Of course, you’ll notice that there’s still a big drop-off in how much we remember after the second practice session.
But if you space your practice sessions out in a smart way, with enough practice sessions this is what happens:
Notice that last line level out? That means even if you were to stop practicing at this point, you’ll never forget the lyrics again.
The key to Spaced Repetition is spacing each practice session out in a smart way.
When you first work on memorizing a song’s lyrics, you need to keep a short space between practice sessions. If you leave too large a gap between practice sessions, your memory will drop too much and it’s like starting all over again.
The above chart, you can see that by having short breaks between practice sessions, you’re able to prevent the curved line from dropping too much and forgetting too much of the song.
In the beginning, practice memorizing the lyrics multiple times a day.
Then after a few days of intense practice, you can gradually increase the gap between practice sessions. The forgetting curve starts to flatten out, so you’re able to retain the lyrics for longer.
Now by spacing the practice sessions out further, it gives your mind a chance to work on recalling the lyrics from memory.
Start with four times per day, then three per day, then two, then one.
By the time you only need to practice the song once per day, you’ve locked those lyrics into your long-term memory. You’ll be at that last blue line in the above chart.
Why not cram your practice? You might think that instead of spacing practice sessions out, you would be better off doing a big session of non-stop practice. Unfortunately, that will have the opposite effect. It’s actually the breaks between practice sessions that help you memorize something.
Here’s what happens when you cram practice sessions together:
Even after a week of intense cramming, you’ll still forget most of what you’ve worked on.
Every time you take a break, it gives your brain a chance to process what you just did. If you don’t take breaks, you’ll end up overwhelming your brain and you’ll waste most of your effort.
Don’t practice for more than 30-minutes without taking a break. The shorter and more frequent your practice sessions, the better effect it will have on your memory.
Key points to remember with Spaced Repetition:
- Without regular practice, we naturally start forgetting anything new
- By repeating our practice in a smart way, we can counter the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and memorize lyrics for good
- Start by doing regular memorization practice sessions with very little breaks (eg: one hour)
- Over the next few days, increase the gap between practice sessions
- Don’t try to cram in long practice sessions. Keep practice sessions short and use breaks to give your brain time to process the lyrics
The good thing about Spaced Repetition is you can use it with any memorization method you want. Combine it with the memorizer.me website or writing out the lyrics to get the most out of those techniques.
Method 4: Listen to Different Versions of the Song
Every time you try to memorize a song’s lyrics in a different way, it gives you a fresh way to strengthen that memory.
If you only work on one method to memorize lyrics, you can memorize them, but your memory will be weak.
On the other hand, if you work on 5 different methods, you’ll end up with a far stronger memory that makes it easier to recall the lyrics during a performance. In five years’ time, you might be able to effortlessly perform the song from memory – even if you don’t practice it during that time!
The below methods only work if you’re memorizing lyrics for a well-known song. If you’re trying to memorize lyrics to an original song you wrote, there won’t be music videos or karaoke tracks available.
Here are some different ways you can work on a song to try and develop your memory:
Watch music videos
Remember that incorporating different senses is a powerful way to strengthen memory. Your memory of an apple is strong because you know what an apple smells, tastes, looks, feels, and sounds like. Those senses reinforce the memory.
Music videos give you an opportunity to bring in a new sense for your song.
To get the most out of a music video from a memorization point of view, really focus on watching it multiple times. If you watch it once or are doing something else with it in the background, it’s not going to do anything for your memorization.
With any of these methods, we really need to focus on it for it to work. If you focus on the video, you’ll build a stronger memory.
Lyric videos / Karaoke backing tracks
Search for your song on YouTube and you’ll likely find a few lyrics videos for the song. These videos simply display the lyrics along with the song and they’re a great way to add another type of practice.
Singing along with these videos can help you in the beginning stages of memorizing lyrics. They give you a quick prompt of what the upcoming line is, which is a great way to start working on your memory.
Karaoke backing tracks are also a great practicing tool because they give you the lyrics while removing the vocals from the song. If you’re able to find a karaoke backing track for the song you want to memorize, practice with it.
Listen to cover versions
Search for cover versions of your song on YouTube and you’ll likely find a lot for any given song. Cover versions are great to help you memorize the song because they’re all different.
Hearing an acoustic version of a full-band song (or vice versa) gives you a chance of hearing the lyrics in a new way. Hearing a male sing a female vocals part (or vice versa) also gives you a fresh way to hear the lyrics.
The point of listening to cover versions is to give your memory yet another way of trying to memorize the lyrics. Every time you hear somebody different sing those lyrics, you’ll add to your existing memory in new ways.
Record yourself and listen back to it
The goal is for you to memorize a song’s lyrics, so what better way than listening to yourself sing the lyrics?
When you hear yourself sing the lyrics, it gives you yet another way to think about the lyrics. Because it’s in your voice, your brain will find it easier to add to your memory of the lyrics.
To record yourself, simply download an app on your phone and get started. It doesn’t need to be a high-quality recording, it just needs to be clear enough for you to hear the lyrics clearly.
Watch live versions
Search for live versions of the song at focus on the singer during the performance. Hearing a song performed live is often different enough from the recorded version that your brain takes notice and adds it in a new way to your existing memory of the song.
Live versions are also great because sometimes the vocalists like to sing parts of the song in slightly different ways. Every time you hear the singer do something slightly different than the original song, it will add to your memory.
Give Yourself Time
The above methods are foolproof if you use them. But it’s important to remember that our memories aren’t perfect and it does take time for a memory to properly set it.
Even if you feel like you’ve memorized a song’s lyrics today, don’t feel upset if tomorrow you notice you’ve forgotten a few words or lines. That’s the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve in action and it’s something everybody has to deal with.
If you use Spaced Repetition properly and give yourself enough time to properly memorize the lyrics, you’ll be set for any performance.
Don’t try to cram practice sessions and don’t try to do extremely long practice sessions without regular breaks. As I’ve explained above, we need to work with how our memories work. That means taking breaks and giving your mind a chance to process the song lyrics.
Extra Tip: Practice Before Going to Bed
Memory research has found that working on somebody before you go to sleep can have a significant impact on our memory. Your brain processes things as you sleep and it gives extra attention to anything you were doing before going to bed.
By adding a short practice session before you go to bed, you’re giving yourself an extra opportunity for your mind to work on your song while you sleep.
This also tells us why it’s so important you get a good night’s sleep. Your memory depends on sleep so if you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, don’t expect amazing results from trying to memorize song lyrics.
The better quality sleep you have, the better results you’ll get from memorizing song lyrics.