Remembering words

I get this a lot: ‘How do you remember all those words?’

The short answer is, ‘Often I don’t.’ These factors make me forget words:

  • Too much alcohol
  • Not enough alcohol
  • Tiredness/ lack of sleep
  • Not having sung the song in a while
  • Not having worked on the song enough for my mouth to know the words even when my brain forgets them (see ‘muscle memory’ below)
  • Nerves – if someone walks in whom I’d desperately love to impress, I will instantly forget a song I’ve had word-perfect for years
  • Relatedly, singing a song in public for the first time that I know perfectly well in my bedroom, the car or while walking by the creek
  • Trying to play a different instrument from the one I normally play while singing this song (e.g. bodhran rather than guitar or vice versa), or singing without playing when normally I would play along
  • Something goes wrong that I need to pay attention to while singing (e.g. someone next to me is playing the wrong chords, I’m playing the wrong chords, a string breaks, a bar-person drops a glass, etc.)
  • Someone else starts singing the wrong words and I suddenly panic about whether I’m right or not

Without meaning to sound immodest, I do have a large repertoire, which means a lot of the songs I ‘know’ fall out of circulation for long periods. I won’t usually sing a song in a session that I haven’t practised in the last week or so, to refresh my memory.

These factors help me remember words:

  • The song tells a story and therefore follows a clear logic, particularly from verse to verse. The song that stands out for me in this regard is Little Things by Paul Kelly – the story tells itself. Songs where the verses or half-verses are interchangeable are harder to learn – The World Turned Upside Down springs to mind
  • The song has a rhyme scheme that helps me remember how the phrases fit together, to reach the next rhyme
  • The song has punchlines, or individual lines that are lyrically strong and memorable
  • I’ve sung the song a LOT, including many times in public and in varying states of inebriation – my muscle memory overrides the fact that my brain has no idea what’s coming next

Here are some tips for learning the words of songs:

  • Study what the song means. If you know what it’s saying, the words will be easier to remember
  • Make sure you understand the story. As you’re learning the song, summarise what happens in each verse into a word or short phrase you can remember (e.g. ‘In this verse they meet, in this verse they marry, in this verse she dies, in the last verse he’s very sad and dies too’ – oh dear, I just wrote a folk song)
  • I find it helpful to learn the first line, then the first and second together, then the first second and third, and so on. The first verse and chorus; then the first verse, chorus and second verse; and so on. Get the first chunk solid and then build on it step by step
  • A friend of mine recommends playing games with the song as you go along, while you’re learning it. Sing the first verse staccato, the second long and slow, switch to singing in an American accent, switch to drawing all the vowels out as long as possible, and so on. Your brain stubbornly learns the words despite all the distractions being thrown at it – at least, that’s the theory
  • Here’s a biggie: even when you’re first practising, put away the written words as early as possible and sing the ‘chunks’ from memory. At first you’ll need to keep checking if you’re right, and maybe correcting a phrase you’re getting wrong. But don’t sing the song over and over with the words in front of you – that will slow down your learning. Put the book away, trust yourself, take the risk of getting the words wrong or mixed up or forgetting them altogether. No-one’s listening – it’s fine. Then when you do go public, don’t have the words on the table ‘just in case’. I guarantee that if you do, you will never learn the song. Trust your memory, and if its lets you down, no-one will die. Go back to the bedroom, practise some more, try again next week and hey presto! you’ll probably nail it this time.

What if I do forget the words in public?

First, relax – we’ve all done it many times, it ain’t no crime. Keep your cool – don’t stop dead, covered in confusion, and start apologising. That will just leave everyone feeling bad, especially you. You have a number of options:

  • Folkies are usually only too eager to jump in and take over where you’ve fallen off. They’ll do this even when you haven’t forgotten the words but are intentionally leaving an instrumental break – that’s why communication in the session is very important (more on this later). If someone starts singing along and helps you remember the words, jump back on – keep leading the song. They’ll either stop and leave you to it, or continue singing along with you: either way, you’re back in the saddle.
  • Some songs conveniently leave small breaks (or you can create one by putting in an instrumental break), in which you can lean towards someone who knows the words and say, ‘How does the next verse start?’ Hopefully they’ll give you the first line, and the rest will come back to you.
  • Singing nonsense syllables to fill in the lines you’re missing will work for a short time. I’ve heard people do this onstage, and 99% of the audience don’t even notice.
  • Sing the verses out of order, if that’s the best you can manage. If you later remember the words to a verse that should have come earlier, you’ll need to decide whether to go back and sing it now, or cut it loose and continue on to the end. This decision depends on how much the story will be disrupted if you backtrack now (will a character who died touchingly in verse 2 suddenly come back to life in verse 4?), how much anyone’s going to notice or care (probably not much, depending how advanced the evening is), and whether or not you give a damn if they do
  • If absolutely all else fails, and all you can remember is the first verse and the chorus, sing those a few times over, throw in an instrumental break or two, repeat the chorus and end with a flourish. At least everyone’s had the satisfying experience of singing and playing ‘a song’, even if it was kind of short.

A final note on books (or phones, or tablets) in the session: personally, I’d rather you sang a song with the book in front of you, than not sing a song at all. Let’s talk of this more next time.

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11 thoughts on “Remembering words

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  1. As well as most of the tips you suggest, if I’m lying awake at night I repeat lyrics or poems in my head. One of two things happens: I learn the words or I drop into deep sleep

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  2. Great point, Doug – I used to do that a lot to memorise poetry. It can be a useful strategy for memorising song lyrics as well. Also try memorising lyrics AS poetry – teach your mouth and brain to remember the words, even without the support of the tune.

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  3. Like Doug and Andrea, I also find the best way to remember words is to practice them! I know it sounds so bleeding obvious but so many people don’t seem to do that and it really works:-). I also find that practicing the words whilst singing along to a recorded version the best way to build up that muscle memory that Andrea discussed previously. It also really helps with pitch as generally the recorded artist will have the pitch right ! 🙂 Another tip is to not try to learn off by heart (or not learn at all as it turns out) every song you have in your book. Focus down on two or three to start and then build up from there. And sing them over and over and over and over… until you roll into the session and sing it there!

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  4. Thanks for the thoughtful tips. To add to the discussion, I have found that handwriting the lyrics a helpful way to memorize songs. I have bought a special notebook and a calligraphy brush/pen, so the writing becomes deliberate and considered.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. playing games with the song is also a really good way to learn a instrumental tune you are struggling to get your fingers around (slightly off topic I know). Playing jig with a hornpipe rhythm but same melody for example. It also works very well with complicated classical pieces (way off topic now!)

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