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Do you have problems remembering lyrics ? Have you ever been singing on stage and suddenly, you realized that you couldn’t recall how that next verse starts?! The adrenaline and stress can rise in peeks in these moments and you can remember how uncomfortable it all felt! You would never want this to happen again but you don’t know how to make sure it won’t ? Here is my way to memorize lyrics!
First of all, what does it mean to memorize lyrics well enough?
When you don’t have to think about them once on stage. At all. And that’s our goal here!
The last time I had to remember a lot of new lyrics was when I got invited to share the stage with Tarja in January 2020. I was singing 2 duets and the backing vocals on another 16 songs! So let’s get into it and follow these guidelines that I’ve put together for my own use, to help you memorize your lyrics and never forget them!
This will make us go deeper into the preparation work a singer has to go through before going on stage. If you want to have an overview of the whole process, I’ll walk you through the 5 steps to arrive prepared for a live show here.
Memorizing lyrics can look difficult and stressful at first. We don’t really know the song yet, we see all the words and we just wish we could be done with the learning part fast. We are putting pressure on ourselves before we even got started.
Let’s relax! Learning the whole lyrics of a song is like climbing a mountain. You can’t arrive at the top in one move. It’s a step by step process. Let’s get into them!
The 9 steps to memorize lyrics and never forget them
- Listen. Listen to the song as often as you can. At home, in your car, in public transports, while cooking, while working out… Get used to songs, listen to the words and the rhymes. If you can already sing along some sentences at this point, without looking at the written lyrics, go for it!
- Read. After you’ve trained your auditory memory, you can train your visual memory! Print the lyrics sheet and read the lyrics alone without the music. Read them out loud. Get used to the words, the orders of the sentences, the rhymes.
- Read while listening. Read the lyrics while listening to the song. This way you get to train both auditory AND visual memory.
- Sing along. Sing the whole song reading the lyrics along 3 times in a row.
- Start training to memorize lyrics. Here’s where we want to go too fast sometimes. Divide the song into small parts. Start with 2 lines at once if the sentences are long, or with a full verse if they are short. Sing along to the song the part you chose, without looking at the lyrics. Do it until you remember the words exactly, without hesitation. Then move to the next part and do the same. Once you know 2 parts very well, sing from the start until the last sentence you’ve learnt. Do this for the entire song. By always starting from the beginning of the song, you will remember the order of the parts and they will flow easily from one to the other. On the opposite, if you learn the parts separately and don’t train singing from the start of the song, you might get confused with the order and mix the verses or pre-chorus up afterwards.
- Have a break. If you’ve done the last 4 steps at once, give yourself a break. Your brain needs time to process what it learnt. Better even sleep on it!
- Find the meaning. We remember things better when they make sense to us. When I learnt “Paparazzi” from Lady Gaga to perform it with my band EXIT EDEN (watch the video here), I have to admit I couldn’t always get what some of the lyrics meant. I created pictures in my head. I created a story I could recall because I connected it to the song. This story and meaning are highly personal and are tools to help you remember what you are singing about. Use your imagination to create a visual universe for the song where the words you sing match either the ambience or the actions that the characters in the song are doing.
- Add emotions. Once you’ve created a story, you can add emotions to them. We know that emotions are a strong pillar of a good live performance, but they also help memorize words because they give an essence to the song. The meaning of a song can be rational but the emotions add the irrational aspect which completes the whole thing. There’s no art if there’s no emotion. Words guide emotions and emotions guide words. Get into the character’s skin, feel what he or she feels. Bring life to the story. When you are interpreting the song and connecting to its full meaning through your emotions, you are more likely to easily remember the words.
- Sing the song using a karaoke version. The best way to make sure you know your lyrics is to sing the song on the instrumental version, without the recorded voice.
Once you’ve done all this, you should have learnt the lyrics part by part and as a whole, they should have a meaning and be connected to your emotions. You should know the song quite well, almost perfectly. But how to make sure that it’s going to be enough once on stage? How to make sure they won’t slip from your memory at the last minute? How to make sure you won’t lose them if something distracts you?
Here are 3 tricks to help you check how well you have memorized your lyrics:
1. Write the lyrics down. Once you’ve done all of the above, you can double check how well you know the songs by writing the lyrics down, without the music, just from memory. This trains your brain in a different way. It also shows you where they flow and where you get slightly stuck. It reveals where the lyrics don’t come out automatically yet and what you still have to learn using step #5.
2. Recite the lyrics. Recite the lyrics out loud as if they were a poem. Put the intention and the emotions you will portray on stage, exaggerate, make it fun! It will show you clearly where you still hesitate.
3. Sing acapella and very fast. Another way to check how the lyrics flow is to sing the song without the music and as fast as you can. You’ll once again see where words come out automatically and where they don’t.
When you’ll rehearse with your band, keep the lyrics close to you but don’t open them. Start training singing the songs and using your memory and emotions. Knowing you have the lyrics near-by will help you relax, will give you confidence.
Once on stage, relax. You know your lyrics perfectly if you’ve followed these guidelines. Trust yourself, get into the emotions of the song and let it flow.
Before I conclude this article about memorizing lyrics, I want to share with you the fact that I used to be part of a band where the lead singer singing with me didn’t take time to learn lyrics. On one tour promoting our new record he had printed the lyrics and placed them on the stage monitors. He was professional enough to act on stage and hide the fact that he would sometimes read but I highly recommend not doing this at all!
If you don’t know the words, you can’t get into the emotions which means you won’t be able to share them with your audience. Being a singer is about transmitting emotions and words are the vessels; there is no excuse not to know your lyrics perfectly .
Some singers, past a certain age or when they are to perform a real long show, use prompter screens for lyrics and announcements. It can totally be helpful but I honestly think that you don’t need any, unless you have actual memory issues (which I guess is also something that can be trained). The less you depend on technology – which isn’t failure-proof – the more you hold the key within yourself for a great live performance!
So, I hope this was helpful for you if you suffered from memory loss on stage or are afraid of forgetting lyrics when you sing live. I’d love to hear your stories and how you handled these moments if it happened to you in the past. You’re welcome to use the comment section below or email me directly!
What else do you struggle with the most when it comes to stage performance?
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I love this process, and I think I can apply the concepts to my keyboard-playing as well. I definitely have moments where in the moment, on stage, I blank on the next chord to play and have the same situation of panic that you mention for singing. I hate when this happens and hopefully implementing this process will help keep it from happening anymore.
Thank you so much for these incredibly useful tips ! They are helping me so much !
I wish you a beautiful happy new year filled with love, beautiful words and melodies !
Another valuable article. Particularly the part about “Being a singer is about transmitting emotions…” As I watched you perform on the new Visions Of Atlantis DVD “A Symphonic Journey To Remember,” it’s very apparent all the preparation that you and the rest of the band put into a performance before even taking the stage. It’s hard not to think of the hours you must have put in memorizing lyrics, rehearsing as a band and even conveying these songs through your motions. It’s hard not to think of all of that, but yet when then the music starts…and the music’s all I can feel. True artistry. Your articles have increased my appreciation for artists, and I am even more excited to see performances live once again—especially VOA!