Monday, February 20, 2023

Are written lyrics a hindrance or a help when learning a song?

Many choir leaders hand out sheet music or lyric sheets to their singers when teaching a song.

But does this do more harm than good? Is it better to learn the lyrics by ear?

Most songs have lyrics. Some have many verses and lots of words. Plenty are in English, but some are in other languages.

What’s the best way to learn lyrics, especially if you are going to perform the songs later?

Lyrics are usually written down in some form when teaching songs. Either as part of the sheet music, or as separate sheets of lyrics, or in large print projected or pinned to the wall so everyone can see.

There is an advantage to having lyrics on the wall as it means that the singers won’t have their heads buried in sheets of paper. They will also be easier to read for those who need larger print.

But whichever way you present the lyrics, singers will be reading them whilst they learn the song. They will be using the visual part of their brain to process the words, and won’t feel they need to commit them to memory since they are there in front of them.

However, that often means that the singers become dependent on seeing the lyrics written.

It might be a struggle, but if lyrics are learnt by ear, they will stay longer in the memory. It also means you won’t have that problem of getting singers to put their lyrics aside when a concert comes along.

You will find that many singers will protest, and it may take longer, but I think it’s worthwhile in the end.

It also means that there’s a level playing field. Singers who are not neurotypical or who struggle with things like dyslexia may find it hard to read words fast enough when learning.

On the other hand, although the idea of learning styles has been debunked, some of us (me included!) like to see the written lyrics just once before we go ahead with learning by ear.

Here are some strategies for learning lyrics to songs without having written lyrics:

  • choose songs that have fewer lyrics (not always possible)
  • put large written lyrics on the wall rather than handing out individual sheets of paper
  • take the lyrics down soon after starting to learn the song, or maybe delete one line at a time
  • gradually replace some of the words with written pictograms or other visual cues (maybe gestures or mime), continue until most of the words have been replaced (involves quite a lot of work)
  • begin with simple songs, then move onto more complex and longer lyrics as they get used to the process. If you start your choir off learning by ear, it’s easier than introducing it later
  • make recordings available of the lyrics being sung slowly
  • remind singers of how good a choir looks when performing without sheets of paper in their hands – gives them an incentive to learn
  • don’t always start with the first verse, and when revising a song, try the verses in a different order each time. I like sometimes to revise songs starting with the last line and working backwards to the first line, adding one line at a time.
  • a lot of people panic when learning as it reminds them of school and getting things ‘wrong’. Let your singers know that it takes time, it’s OK to make mistakes, and if they can’t remember a word, just mumble something and it will come to them later.
  • counter-intuitively it can be easier to learn songs in a language other than English. When lyrics are in English, singers tend to paraphrase the meaning. Whereas with an unfamiliar language, singers only need to remember the sounds.


songs with many verses

There is no easy way to commit a song with many verses to memory.

One big danger is that when learning the tune and harmonies, only the words of the first verse are used (because you don’t want to burden the singers with too much learning at the start). Then it becomes harder to learn and remember subsequent verses.

One possibility is to learn the song one line at a time. Once the tune and harmony have been learnt for the first line, then try them out with the first line of every other verse. Then move onto the second line and so on. This will take a long time, but at least it will be committed to memory.

If you decide to present the lyrics in a written form, that means loads of sheets of paper in the hand or on the wall. And if the lyrics are part of a written score, it can be hard for the eye to jump between lyrics and notation.

One solution, if you’re going to perform a song with lots of verses, is to have lyrics displayed for the choir only. Either as a head-up display above the audience or sheets of paper on music stands.

other posts

You might find these earlier posts useful:

How to deal with song lyrics 1

How to deal with song lyrics 2

Why learning songs with foreign lyrics need not be scary

What’s the best way to present lyrics when teaching a song?

6 different ways of presenting lyrics when teaching and learning songs


Chris Rowbury


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