Terrible memory inside..
April 10, 2007 9:12 AM   Subscribe

How do you guys memorize song lyrics?

I must've listened to "Bohemian Rhapsody" hundreds of times but I still can't remember much beyond "thunderbolts of lightening, very very frightening".

Then there are people who can sing along to any song on the radio, quoting it verbatim.

I want to be somewhere in the middle. Print out the song lyrics and learn it like a poem? Any other suggestions?
posted by aeighty to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've memorized hundreds of songs but still don't know the words and can only sing along, not sing alone. I've memorized them as sounds instead of as words.

I think how I do it is that I sing along with the parts I know and over many listenings that gradually grows to encompass the whole song. Nothing breeds success like failure and retrying.
posted by DU at 9:23 AM on April 10, 2007

Practice, practice, practice. I listen to songs, sing along with them, rinse, repeat. Internalize the meaning of the words—craft your own little music video, so to speak, to tie down what's going on lyrically.

If I really want to learn a song, I'll seek out the lyrics and use them as reference, but I've only ever really done that when I wanted to play a given cover.

And I screw up my own lyrics on a regular basis.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a bit of an outlier, given how deliberately nonsensical it is, so don't worry so much about that one. Freddy is messing with you from beyond the grave.
posted by cortex at 9:29 AM on April 10, 2007

practicing song lyrics is my whole life. When I prepping for a big night of karaoke or just romancing some beautiful women I might spend a month working on a select number of the best songs in the world.

Take tonight for example. I'll be performing in Washington, DC. I have spent the last two weeks doing nothing less than making sure when I hit the high notes of Lady in Red that my audience won't cringe. I know performance, but I also know quality.

Think of some of the songs you remember best from your childhood. I can think of The Circle Game by Joni Mitchell, Green Grow the Rushes O!, and Strokin' by Clarence Carter. I sing songs legends are made of. Practice. Maybe some day we'll team of for One is the Loneliest Number by Three Dog Night.
posted by parmanparman at 9:38 AM on April 10, 2007

What cortex said. Practice, practice, practice. You need to get to the point of being able to sing it without a lyrics sheet or cues from the song itself, so the best and fastest way to get there is practice singing it without either. Prompt yourself as you must, but get to the point where you can do it without either.

Being a lit major in college helped. I had to memorize ghastly long poems, and this was the only way I could do it. Memorizing songs lyrics by comparison is a breeze.
posted by psmealey at 9:42 AM on April 10, 2007

Well, if I really want to learn the lyrics to a song I'll listen to it over and over again. Your friends who are singing along to the radio probably listen to the same station all the time and hear the same songs all the time.
But if I'm lazy I'll look up the lyrics and either sing them to myself if I can, or play the song and sing along. You'll probably have to do this for Bohemian Rhapsody.
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:45 AM on April 10, 2007

Disclaimer: I memorized The Raven just for fun. I don't make a hobby of it, but I do get pleasure simply from memorization.
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:47 AM on April 10, 2007

Have a copy of the lyrics in front of you. Listen to the song while following along. When you get better, try looking at the lyrics without listening to the song and singing it through in your head.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:50 AM on April 10, 2007

Think of some of the songs you remember best from your childhood. I can think of The Circle Game by Joni Mitchell, Green Grow the Rushes O!, and Strokin' by Clarence Carter.

Where did you grow up?
posted by staggernation at 9:53 AM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I memorize them by listening to them over and over. Sometimes I will sing it in my head up to the point I get lost, then listen, then repeat. I do find it goes in stages though, and very often I stop at the "can sing along" stage, instead of getting to the "can sing without cues" stage.
posted by dame at 9:57 AM on April 10, 2007

This is an interesting question. I tend to learn the lyrics of popular songs after a couple of listens. But I can't memorize virtually anything else. So it may have a lot to do with the way your brain works, and your rate of return on some of these methods may vary tremendously.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:05 AM on April 10, 2007

Listening repeatedly is of course helpful, but the only way to get the lyrics ingrained in your mind is to learn the song one line at a time. I am a professional musician and have had to memorized hundreds of songs.

First, either write the lyrics out or print them. Read the first line and repeat it to yourself without looking at the paper. When you can remember that first line without looking at the paper, only then do you move onto the second line. Now sing the first and second lines until you can do it without the paper. Then move onto the third, etc.

Continue in this way until you have the whole song down.
posted by wsg at 10:14 AM on April 10, 2007

Try to invoke some different sense and motor memories. Type them, write them longhand, and speak them as well as singing them.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:28 AM on April 10, 2007

We have three singers in our band and they all memorize the songs the same way: by remembering the first word or first two words of each verse. They had to learn 35 cover songs in two weeks for a show we did and that is how they did it. Granted, they had a cheat sheet but it was a shorter cheat sheet and it took maybe three shows for them to get it all down. Pretty amazing to me.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:54 AM on April 10, 2007

For me looking up the lyrics is a guarantee that I won't remember them later. If I learn the lyrics from listening to the song a few times it's more likely I'll be able to remember them, specially with things in other languages, which we tend to do quite a lot (in my band).

I also get my own lyrics wrong, like cortex, but only the ones I have to sing in the band (probably because I learn them by writing and reading them), but I remember the lyrics I wrote that one of the other singers in the band sings.

But the main vocalist of the band won't remember lyrics, not ever. In a couple of the slower ones what we used to do is that I would come near him and say the first word out of each phrase (which is kinda similar to what KevinSkomsvold said) and that's the only way he can remember them. That or having the piece of paper in front of him.
posted by micayetoca at 11:29 AM on April 10, 2007

in your mind, walk into a house (or building, park, whatever - just as long as you know the layout.) attach "cues" for each verse to a room, or parts of the room... then when you sing the song, just "walk" your way through the house/lyrics

works good for long songs like Rush or Dylan.
posted by mrmarley at 11:48 AM on April 10, 2007

Are you aware of whether it's easier for you to learn things visually or by doing them? (I'm guessing not so much by listening, or else you would know all the words to Bohemian Rhapsody after a hundred listens - I'm an auditory learner, and I know them without having tried.) Either way, Wolfdog's on the right track: your chances of success go up if you engage more than one sense when you learn. You're giving the information multiple pathways to get itself into your brain.
posted by clavicle at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2007

I have a great memory for lyrics and I'm sure it's 90% due to the fact that I play guitar. Do you play an instrument? Piano, guitar? If so, learn how to play it and it will sort of force you to learn the lyrics. I went through a phase where I basically became obsessed and tried to learn every song I ever knew on the guitar, and now several years later I am imbued with a vast supply of lyrics, for better or worse.

I realize learning Bohemian Rhapsody on an instrument may be hard, but I'm only talking chords here, not specific tabs.
posted by ORthey at 12:17 PM on April 10, 2007

It just sort of happens for me from listening to the song and singing along. If I'm unclear on something, I'll get the lyrics and stare at them while singing, but that's usually not necessary.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:33 PM on April 10, 2007

Like the first responder, I never know the lyrics to even my favorite songs. I'm a professional musician (classical/jazz) and I hear the vocalist as just another instrument -- the voice is no more important than the bass or the hi-hat to me, so I tend to hear the sounds of the words rather than the words themselves. Repeated listening does not help me to memorize the words unless I consciously sit down and focus on *only* the words, which is very hard for me (and even when I do it, I tend to mishear and overthink words--I tend to sing along to songs in a "fill-in-the-blanks-with-any-word-that-has-the-same-vowels sort of way").

When I have to learn lyrics, I've found that the only way to do it is to read them while listening. Once I get the picture of the words in my head, they tend to stick.

If you're talking about not just hearing and learning lyrics, but actually memorizing long songs for performance, I'd suggest trying something along mrmarley's suggestion -- creating a visual "world" in your head to attach to story progression to it. Back when I used to perform in musicals, I was able to memorize lyrics by visualizing the stories they told.
posted by Alabaster at 1:30 PM on April 10, 2007

Memorize by singing along. I've realized that I don't have to memorize the words, just the sounds. I've memorized entire songs even though I have no idea what they are saying.
posted by lain at 2:19 PM on April 10, 2007

I like to pull up the lyrics online, and then sing along with the lyrics up a couple times. This doesn't help at first, but later, when singing along in my car, having read the lyrics helps with the hard to discern/hard to remember parts.
posted by messylissa at 3:15 PM on April 10, 2007

Alabaster's I tend to sing along to songs in a "fill-in-the-blanks-with-any-word-that-has-the-same-vowels sort of way"

Reminded me of this. There you have Queen's entry. Perhaps you could contribute your own while you try to memorize it.
posted by micayetoca at 3:36 PM on April 10, 2007

Admittedly I skimmed but I don't think it's been mentioned. As a child during the great age of the cassette I would tape songs off the radio. Then stop start them writting out each line. I noticed after doing that I didn't actually need the words to refer to apart from a word here or there.

Something I do now and actually is quite similar. Copy lyrics by hand and hearing myself singing each word as it's being written (elongating as needed) while being written and sounding as I would sing it. Not quite as effective, perhaps due to having to find my place on the screen diverting my attention instead of a simple tap of the pause button ect. But still works a treat. I write them knowing I won't need them, as long as I write them.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 4:15 PM on April 10, 2007

Listening along with a lyric sheet, falling asleep to music and listening to music on the bus first thing in the morning. Whenever I'm trying to memorize something I find it helps to think about it as I'm falling asleep and then pretty soon after I get up, so I'm thinking about it all day.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:54 PM on April 10, 2007

I studied a lot of theatre when I was younger, and no one ever had a trick for remembering lines. Also, it seemed completely random whether or not the person would continue to remember or forget without practice. Some actors would remember lines five years later to a play they were in for a couple nights, others wouldn't remember any lines a week later for a show they had been in for years. Unfortunately, I fell into the latter category....

So - go into a room and just keep singing them over and over again in different ways. Think about the lines and what they mean. Play with them. Then cross your fingers.
posted by xammerboy at 5:02 PM on April 10, 2007

I look up the lyrics, then put it on repeat and: Once or twice, read along while listening to it, and then, try to sing (or at least sort of mumble the lyrics under my breath) along (while still having the lyrics on hand).
posted by Many bubbles at 8:37 PM on April 10, 2007

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