Wednesday, February 03, 2010

How to deal with song lyrics 1

This is part 1 of a revised version of two posts which first appeared as The writing’s on the wall and Words are flowing out like endless rain ... in January 2007.

Unless we’re singing vocalises or songs with just one word (“alleluia”, “mravalzamier”), we have to deal with lyrics at some point.


How do we first encounter them – written down or heard? How can we best learn and remember them? What about foreign words? How do we deal with many verses when first learning a song?

when do we need the words?

Sometimes words get in the way. If we’re trying to learn a new song, then the simpler and fewer the words, the easier it seems to be to learn the song.

Because of this, I’ve tried teaching songs without using the words at first, but just ‘la, la, la’ or similar. In that way people can focus on the shape of the melody and harmonies without the ‘meaning’ part of their brain being engaged.

This works brilliantly, but … when it comes time to add the words, the whole process slows down. The melody seems to get forgotten. People struggle with how the syllables fit the notes.

I’ve decided that this is not necessarily the best way to teach a song! I think you have to confront the lyrics from the very start.

seen or heard?

So then the question becomes: how do we introduce the lyrics? Should we write them down for the singers, or just drill them by ear?

There’s no simple answer to this. If a song has two, three or four simple words which are repeated, then I would always do them by ear.

However, some people (including me) are very visual, and in order to really nail the lyrics and make sure we’ve got the vowel sounds right, we need to see the words written down. Just the once. So we can get an internal image of them. Then we can continue by ear.

I ran a workshop this weekend and prepared large lyric sheets for some of the simple songs, thinking that I would need them. In the end, I decided to have a go at teaching them by ear. We spoke them in rhythm a few times, and then launched into learning the tune. I was surprised how quickly people picked them up (and they were in foreign languages!).

It’s very much a judgment call. I was in a workshop once where we drilled and drilled and drilled the words for ages. It was boring, and when it came time to learn the tune, I’d forgotten the bloody things any way! I think it’s vitally important to learn the words and the music at the same time. I believe that we store song lyrics in a different part of our brain to where we store poetry (more on this next week).

As long as the drilling of the lyrics doesn’t get in the way of the fun or the learning, then try to do it by ear. If the words are tricky, or there are lots of them, then write them down.

the tyranny of bits of paper

If you hand out individual lyric sheets too early in the process, you’re doomed! As soon as people have a visual aid in their hands – even if they know the words already – their eyes will gravitate to the paper. They will stop looking at you and stop paying full attention to the melody.

I’ve sung songs which I’ve known inside out and committed to memory for years, but even then, whenever I have lyrics – either in my hand or on the wall – I end up looking at them. We are very much a visual culture, not an aural one.

I think the next best solution to learning by ear is to put the lyrics up on big sheets of paper so that everyone can see them easily. If you have a big group, and/ or if you work in a circle, this can be a problem. You may have to have several copies of the lyrics dotted around the room.

High tech choir leaders might even use projectors!

Basically you want people to focus outwards, to feel that they’re all in the process together, and to pay attention to you.

becoming trapped by associations

Just as a piece of paper in the hand can become a security blanket, so can big lyrics on the wall.

At the weekend, we sang a fairly short song many times during the day, but always with the lyric sheet on the wall. Even though people really knew the words (it had sunk into their subconscious by then), when we came to revive the song at the end of the weekend, somebody grabbed the lyrics and put them up on the wall!

Partly this is a form of security because people don’t believe that they’re truly learnt the words. But it’s also something to do with how you learn the song in the first place and the associations you make.

If you learn a song facing the window with the basses to your left, then you sometimes struggle if you try to sing it later with your back to the window and the basses on your right.

When first learning the song you also encoded where you were standing, what you were doing, who was with you, etc. Part of this was the action of looking at the words on the wall. You have embodied this experience, so need to recreate it when you sing the song later. Even if you know the words perfectly well, part of you needs the lyrics up on the wall for it to feel familiar.

For these reasons, I believe that it’s important to change things around as much as possible when learning a song. You then remove the learning of the song from any specifics such as where you’re standing in the room. You end up singing the song in so many different contexts, that it becomes properly embedded in your memory independently of how you learnt it.

when to take the lyrics down?

So when can we take the lyrics down? How early can we take the prop of words away without disrupting the learning experience? Given the choice, singers will want to leave the lyrics up there forever as security!

I’ve tried various ways of doing this. One obvious way is after you’ve been learning a new song for a while, then run it through one last time with the lyrics up, then try it without. If it’s a disaster, then repeat the process.

Another way is to keep singing the song, but each time round, cover up one line of the lyrics, starting at the top.

repeat after me …

One side effect of repetition and the fact that time moves forward (unless you’re Doctor Who!), is that the early lines of a song get sung far more than the later lines. This also applies to the first verse compared with subsequent verses.

As we slowly build up a song one line at a time, we keep going back to the beginning and adding new bits one line at a time. That means that we sing the first line more than the second line, which we sing more than the third line, etc.

The danger is that the first part of the song gets rehearsed loads, whereas the ending is always under-rehearsed. This imbalance doesn’t go until the entire song has been sung many, many times.

One way round this, and – I believe – a good way of really learning a song, is to work backwards once the whole song has been taught.

Divide the song up into sensible musical/ lyrical phrases, then start by just singing the last phrase. Then add the phrase before this, so you sing the penultimate phrase, followed by the final phrase. Keep this process up until you’re back at the start of the song.

This is an excellent way of really getting to grips with how each phrase joins with the next, it also allows for more attention to be paid to the end of the song, and finally, it forces people to really concentrate as we look at the new song in an entirely different way.

more on lyrics next week

Next Wednesday I’ll be looking at foreign vs. English lyrics; how to fit syllables to notes; looking beyond the first verse; and how the memory for lyrics actually works.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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