Sunday, July 08, 2012

How long does it take to learn a song?

Of course it depends on how complex the song is and how many verses there are.

passing time
Photo by Frodo Babbs

But how long does it take to really get a song under your belt so you can sing it confidently without referring to either lyrics or sheet music?

There are some people who believe they can’t ‘sing’ because they can’t pick up a song perfectly the very first time they hear it. When I tell them that it takes professional singers many months before a song is truly bedded in, they are surprised.

I tend to teach songs really fast (see How many songs can you teach in an hour?) in the belief that people pick things up more quickly if you keep up the momentum and don’t break songs down into chunks that are too small. Once people have an overall feel for the structure of a song, then we can go back and focus on the details. However, I also believe that “quickly learnt means quickly forgotten”.

Sometimes I forget that people have come to sing (see We’ve come to sing, not to learn!) and need to keep repeating a song until it really sinks in. Repetition is the key, no matter how boring it might feel.
I teach by ear (see How to teach (and learn) a song by ear) so don’t have the sheet music issue, but we have other problems, especially going beyond the first verse (see How to deal with song lyrics).

In many cases, especially with traditional songs, we are trying to short circuit years of hearing a song and allowing it to sink in naturally. What we are doing is quite artificial.

Remember those songs we learnt as children? They seem to always be there and we have no trouble remembering them. Even many years after first learning a song we can be surprised as we watch the words tumble out of our mouths (see How songs are stored in your brain).

questions, questions ...

I want to know:
  • how long does it takes to learn a song well? – so that you don’t have to think about it and can really express yourself through it. Months? Years? Can you learn a song in just a day and not forget it the following week?
  • does more frequent practice help? – I’ve sometimes left a hard song for a while only for it to pop out perfectly some months later, as if my subconscious has been working on it in the meantime.
  • can you completely forget a song once it’s really well learnt? – or does it always linger somewhere in your brain? You might think you don’t remember a song, but with the right prompt it can re-appear as if by magic.
  • does it make a difference if you’re an experienced singer? – I find that I pick up songs more easily than when I first started out, but do I remember them any better??!!
  • are there particular rehearsal/ practice techniques that help? – see How to practice a choir song on your own (and a big concert’s coming up)
  • do some people learn songs better than others? – and if so, why? Famous actors can often recall whole speeches from plays they did many years ago, but I can’t remember a song I learnt last month!
I’d love to hear what you think. Do leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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