How to Memorize Song Lyrics

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Photo Source: Photo by Kamil Feczko on Unsplash

I’m going to start by giving you five words to remember: stale, bring, instant, hanger, move. Memorize them and keep reading.

Have you ever blanked on the words to a song in the middle of a performance? It’s one of the most terrifying things that can happen to a singer. Even small blips in memory can be very unsettling. To spare you from spouting out some embarrassing gibberish, I’m going to share four brain-based memorization strategies that are designed to help you remember song lyrics. Here’s how to memorize lyrics for your next audition or show.

1. Use nasal breathing

A study done in 2016 found that nasal breathing helps you memorize information better than mouth breathing does. The way that the nose regulates airflow seems to be related to coordination in your brain’s neural networks. The researchers also found that memorization was more accurate on inhalation. 

Try this the next time you’re throwing a patter song into your voice for a callback. Consciously inhale slowly and diaphragmatically through your nose as you read the lyrics of the song. When practicing, take a nasal inhale before you start singing. If you’re stressed by memorization, close your right nostril and breathe in through your left while memorizing. Your left nostril connects to your left vagus nerve, which creates a relaxation response in the body. You can do this left-nostril breathing anytime you feel nervous or your heart is racing. 

If you’re bored by memorization, close your left nostril and breathe in through your right while memorizing. Your right nostril connects to your right vagus nerve, which is one of the pathways in your body that gives you energy. You can also try this right-nostril breathing to boost your intensity before a performance.

2. Focus on right-sided movement while practicing

Your short-term memory in your brain lasts for between 30 seconds and two minutes. Beyond that, you have to use a part of your brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for long-term retention of information. If you always remember the notes of your song but sometimes lose the lyrics, you are specifically trying to wake up your left hippocampus before you perform. Because your left brain controls voluntary movement on your right side, doing a complex right-side movement drill makes you more likely to remember “Getting Married Today” in its entirety. Here’s a right-side drill to try before you sing:

3. Take advantage of the optokinetic reflex

The optokinetic reflex is a visual response that is a combination of a smooth pursuit (a slower movement tracking an object) and a saccade (a quick jump to a new target.) The ability to remember your words lives in the temporal lobe, and the optokinetic reflex activates this brain area. It’s easiest to do with an app. I recommend either OKN Strips or Optodrum. You’ll see a series of moving stripes. To do the drill, hold your phone horizontally (so the moving lines are aligned vertically) in front of your eyes. Start the stripes moving at a comfortable speed and hold the phone directly in front of your visual field. The goal is to keep your eyes on the middle of the screen (don’t follow a stripe all the way to the edge of the screen.) To improve lyric retention, you want the stripes moving to the left.

4. Practice basic memory tasks

Do you remember the five words you learned at the beginning of the article? It sounds basic, but to get better at holding on to your lyrics you have to practice memorization. Word memory tasks like the one in this article are a great idea. Pick five random words, write them down, and see if you remember them an hour later.

Ready to memorize lyrics? Looking for remote work? Backstage has got you covered! Click here for auditions you can do from home!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Andrew Byrne
Andrew Byrne is a voice teacher, performer, and composer-lyricist. His songs have been featured in movies, Seth Rudetsky’s “Obsessed!” series, and in many international concert venues. He has served on the University of Michigan musical theater faculty, and has taught internationally at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, The Banff Centre, and the Danish Academy of Musical Theatre.
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