Music-brainLast spring I set out to memorize a half hour set of original songs to perform at an outdoor concert in just a few weeks. I was rewarded with a successful performance (for the most part), and was all ready to make a habit of regularly memorizing new music, but then life happened . . . a summer full of performances with my ukulele ensemble, another Original Utah Uke Fest to organize, music to prepare for the fall season for my children’s choirs, then our house was flooded and by the time we got that all fixed up it was Christmas and time to prepare music for the next semester.

So, here I am, a year later and ready to take another shot with a goal to memorize two songs a week (four down already). I’d love to increase that number, so I’ve been poking around online to collect tips on memorizing faster with better retention. Below are my summary notes from a number of articles; please visit the originating articles for more in-depth information on the techniques.

The Techniques

Singer’s Secret talks specifically about lyrics in this article:

  • Listen and copy the phrases of the song, using a reference recording and a minus track as your tools.
  • Slow down and make sure you understand what you are singing about.
  • Write the lyric down yourself, by hand. Note: I know this works. It’s so tempting to just copy and paste off a website (guilty as charged), but the act of writing the lyric out long-hand helps me embed the song in my memory.

Pamelia Phillips offers another lyric suggestion:

  • Turn your lyric into a monologue, “If you keep forgetting the words, speak through the text quickly until you no longer stumble on the words. You can also use key words in phrases to help you remember what comes next. Create a system to help you remember the order of each phrase’s key word. Just knowing whether the list has some common characteristics can help you remember key words to get to the next phrase.”

Tennyson Williams has a five-point method that starts with breaking the song down into bite-size chunks (this is basically what I did last year with my half-hour set):

  1. Isolate and memorize one phrase of the song.
  2. Work on the phrasing for this section until you’re satisfied with it musically.
  3. Repeat the above with the next phrase.
  4. Practice the transitions between phrases.
  5. Rehearse the song as a whole.

StringKick makes a strong argument for rehearsing a song from end to beginning as a more efficient way to memorize a song, claiming that practicing with the end in mind can cut your memorization time down by half and be more fun and motivating: “with the backwards strategy, things get easier and easier as you go along. It’s like rolling down hill.”

Jazz saxophonist Bob Reynolds uses a Trello-like system on a white board to learn 20+ songs in a week (he definitely got my attention with this article). He also is an advocate of transcribing the song into your head, rather than onto a sheet of paper using looping software. This Kanban-style project approach involves:

  • A white board
  • Painter’s tape
  • Different colored sticky notes (to ‘triage’ the songs into different categories)

The SonicBids blog offers a 4-step process that includes:

  1. Mapping the structure of the song
  2. Practicing one section at a time (paying particular attention to transitions)
  3. Running through the song with a recording
  4. Running the song without the recording (no safety net)

Aside from a few paragraphs about why you should be memorizing your songs, Hub Guitar offers these suggestions:

  • Divide and conquer : breaking it down into bite-sized pieces means you’ll have a strong middle, not just a strong beginning and ending.
  • Experiment with different methods of memorization and ditch the ones that don’t work for you.
  • Do small gigs to put yourself to the test.
  • Be choosy about what you memorize as it takes effort to do it. Only memorize what you love or what you need to for professional reasons.
  • Review: rotating your songs so they can be played in any order. Three different ideas on how to review your songs based on your goals.

Dorit on Guitar World suggests “the best way to start memorizing a song you didn’t write is to listen to it as much as possible.” I know that sounds like common sense, but as someone brought up on sheet music, I can say that for some of us it is not so common. Other suggestions include:

  • Memorizing the lyrics as a monologue, without the rhythms of the song.
  • Write out the chord progressions on their own and practice them separately.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat.
  • Begin with the end.

GuitarHabits posts a list of ten ways to help memorize lyrics (visit the site if some of these feel cryptic to you):

  1. Go into detail with your analysis of the lyrics.
  2. Let the feelings of the song become part of you.
  3. Write down the song repeatedly.
  4. Visualize the song.
  5. Learn the lyrics separately from the melody (monologue it).
  6. Use karaoke to your advantage.
  7. Repeat the words in short phrases.
  8. Go slowly.
  9. Sing yourself to sleep.
  10. Create a list.

WikiHow also has a number of suggestions on how to memorize a song:

  • Listen to the song repeatedly
  • Read/study the lyrics
  • Map out the song
  • Learn the melody
  • Analyze the lyrics in more depth
  • Study the song in sections
  • Create memory aids to help you sing the song back. Among the flashcard ideas, this one struck me as one that I might enjoy, “If you want to challenge yourself to come up with all of the words on your own, try drawing pictures on the flashcards that depict specific sections of the song to help you remember the lyrics.”
  • Sing with a recording
  • Sing without a recording

Off Beat Band blogs on how to memorize songs (this is one of my favorites as it offers some ideas not seen elsewhere and tells a good story as well):

  • Be correct (don’t learn the song wrong).
  • Use mnemonics and emotional triggers to remember lyrics.
  • Practice the harder parts more often.
  • Stop after you can play the song through and wait until tomorrow to review it.
  • Review regularly, but don’t play a song 100 times in a day (counterproductive).
  • Make a list of songs you’ve memorized. Review one time a day, no more. Correct any parts that gave you problems and move on.
  • Don’t use crutches (lyric sheets, tabs, sheet music, fake books, etc.).
  • Try using Spaced Repetition Software, like Anki, to review songs.


Although there is quite a bit of overlap, there are some unique ideas that I’d like to give a go. I’ve already downloaded Anki and plan to try it out. I also liked the article that highlighted a Trello-like white board. Creating some visual aids could be fun as well, but might be too time-consuming for my schedule. It was interesting to learn that practicing in reverse order may actually save time. Something most of the authors agree on is to break it down into small chunks which I believe is sound advice.

Hope you enjoy this survey of articles and find something helpful in your memorization efforts. If you have additional ideas, please leave a comment. :-)

Post filed under All UkulelePlay! Blog Posts, Memorization.