DECONSTRUCTION: THE QUICKEST WAY TO LEARN A SONG

I can think of several reasons why you might want to learn a song quickly.  Maybe you have a theatre call-back tomorrow and they’ve sprung an unexpected song or selection on you.  Or perhaps the bride has changed her mind about the song she wants for the bridal waltz…and the wedding is this weekend.  Maybe you forgot to do your homework for music class and that new song has to be delivered in front of your peers tomorrow.  

Clearly, having an efficient and swift means of learning a song is a very handy tool as a singer.  The more practiced you are at this process, the more independently you can execute it, and the more confident you’ll be in accepting performance opportunities.

But – do you have a fool proof method of learning the song quickly?

Is it possible for that new song to be learned easily and accurately the first time around?

Will you be able to avoid going back later and fixing an error you embedded to memory?

The choices you make as you interact with the song could determine how you import that song to your brain and nervous system.  And that will directly affect the ease or difficulty you find in singing it independently and consistently.

You are almost better off when you have to learn a song you’ve never heard before, because you will carry no assumptions into your individual rendering of it.  You will attend to the job methodically and carefully and not rely on past memory, which may be less reliable than you think.

Does that mean you shouldn’t learn to sing a song that you’ve loved listening to for years?  Not at all!  But that familiarity of the listening- and car-sing-along experience might be giving you false confidence in how well you really know it when you take away the prop of the recording artist.  It also means you may have subconsciously adopted a lot of style and technique choices from that artist.

But wait…what about your never-fail strategy of listening to that Broadway soundtrack on incessant repeat to fast track your learning for next week’s audition?  Well, keep reading!  That listening can still be harnessed for good!

DISCLAIMER:

This advice is particularly targeted at people who need to learn a song from sheet music, such as singers of musical theatre and choral works, where the composers and arrangers actually notated the musical instructions themselves.  This means that the value of learning from what they wrote down is immeasurable.  

By contrast, it is the audio recordings of pop and other contemporary genres that are more faithful to the writers’ intentions. We recognise that in most of those situations, the songwriters themselves didn’t notate the published music that we buy.  It is more likely that the pop artist wrote down the lyrics and chords but preserved the detail of their song writing in audio recording formats.  Later on, an employee in the publishing company was tasked with transcribing the fully recorded and released song.  

WHY IS THIS A THING?

YOUR MUSICAL BRAIN 

Your brain has a sort of musical library installed. The first item placed on the shelf was the melodic voice of your mother while you were still in the womb. Ever since then you’ve been repeating and filing items away in that library, ready for quick recall. Jingles, car horns, TV themes, a love song for a broken heart, birdsong…

So, whether you observe it or not, every time you hear a new song, your brain runs a kind of tracking over it to compare it to what is familiar and already in the library.  How you react to the unfamiliar can be a part of how long it takes you to add it to the library. Creating a positive experience will aid your learning. Getting grumpy about it or deciding you dislike it will make very hard work of it. 

And the assumptions you make about the familiar need checking too.

As you interact with the song you need to learn, take time:

Top tip:

This is vital growth work for you as a musician. This is the discipline that other people might later perceive as talent. And so it turns out that talent is really hard work and a fair dash of passion. 

EVERY SONG IS DIFFERENT

It is useful to remember that every song is different and will require subtle differences in how you approach it.  One song might have a highly recognisable melodic shape and feel quick to pick up, but the lyrics might have unusual idioms that are nothing like your personal speech patterns.  That song will require dedicated lyric and rhythm work.  But the next song might have more jazz like melodic writing, with chromatic intervals and several key changes; yet straightforward lyrics.  That song will require dedicated interval and phrase learning.

Therefore, every song deserves the respect of your time and dedicated focus.  It also deserves the treatment only you can give it from your unique vocal instrument.  

What does that mean?

Top Tip:

Singing along with the original artist is not the best way to learn the melody.  You will inevitably take on the vocal traits of the recorded singer, and lag behind and rely on them for melodic confidence.

THE DANGER OF THE HALF-KNOWN SONG

AVOID ENCODING BAD HABITS

Who has time to relearn a song later?  And you’d better believe that fixing that one note that you learned incorrectly will take ten times longer to change than it did to learn it in the first place.


“Tune recognition dramatically increases the complexity of the neural system necessary for processing music.  Separating the invariant properties from the momentary ones is a huge computational problem.”

Daniel Levitin

Why do these mistakes happen?


MAP IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME

“How well you learn the song at the start will impact on how effectively you will eventually memorise it.  Learning and memorising are not the same thing.” 

Gillyanne Kayes & Jeremy Fisher

It’s helpful to think of a song as a set of sequences or elements that need to be mapped (or programmed like computer code) into your brain (computer).  These include:


USE YOUR EARS

The key to this process is the way that you LISTEN to the learning information.  As soon as you start the active vocal learning, it will be important to stop listening to the recording artist and get your hands on a recording of just the melody line.

But first, for some initial impressions, taking one or two repetitions of the song to listen WITHOUT SINGING ALONG will give you new information.  However, do NOT sing along!  Just listen. 

I recently discovered the inspired work of drummer Larnell Lewis.  I was particularly impressed with the way he has learned to listen in order to learn a song quickly.  Here are a couple of examples of this listening in action…notice how he listens without drumsticks in hand.  And he takes notes about what he hears!

Check out these samples of his work…I promise you it makes compelling viewing:

Larnell Lewis learning a jazz song 

Larnell Lewis learning a rock/metal song 


ASSESS YOUR CURRENT KNOWLEDGE OF THE SONG

While you are listening, take time to determine how well you know the song you’re about to work on.  

When we begin to learn to sing a song, it may present in one of three ways:

  1. We have never heard it before.
    It contains some predictable and definable elements…there is a good chance this new song has some ingredients you’ve encountered before.
  2. We have heard it before but never sung it.
    This is a slight danger zone as you may have made some assumptions about how easy or hard it is, or what technical skills it requires.
  3. We have heard it before, can sing it flawlessly along with the original artist, and are confident that we can sing it on our own.
    Check your assumptions carefully because you will have already mapped a lot of elements through imitation.

It is important to be as honest as possible in this assessment.  None of us can make all the necessary choices about singing a song just from listening to it or singing along with it.  Therefore, there is no gain to be made in fooling yourself about how well you think you know the song.  


A SAMPLE PROCESS

What follows is a fairly detailed array of possibilities.  Please note that I am not suggesting that you undertake all of them every time.  But I do suggest you try them out and see what works for you.  You might find that the familiarity of the song you are learning will dictate the terms, depending on how many mislearned elements have to be reprogrammed.  Regardless, have a go at these ideas with a couple of different songs and figure out what works for you.

Note – I recommend you have 3 types of recording for this process:


MAP THE BIG PICTURE


CREATE A LYRIC SHEET

The way we see lyrics on a page of music is quite unnatural for a decent reading of the text.  Words are hyphenated, sometimes spread from one page to another; one sentence might drape over three lines of music; and verses can be stacked atop each other.

If we are to discover the inner light of a song and create our own personal rendition of it, then an in-depth reflection of the lyrics is a must.

Click here to download a tipsheet on how to create a lyric sheet.


EMBRACE THE MINUTIAE

Now you’ve listened to it thoroughly several times without singing, it’s time to dive in. 

Start with the first section you’ve marked out (whatever the size) and follow these steps, using a melody-only track.


“Mirening…mouth the words at the front of the mouth while keeping the ‘ng’ hum at the back.  The tongue is very agile and you can separate the actions of the tongue tip, the blade , the sides and the back.”

Kayes & Fisher


“The shortest pencil is longer than the longest memory.” Mark Batterson


Note anything you want to remember – use a pencil in case you need to change it later.

Areas that might merit attention include: diphthongs, the way your air needs to work for certain intervals, notes or words you’re getting stuck on, and placement or registration choices you intuitively made. 

You will find that you will do the most work on the early sections. As your ears and eyes absorb the work of the songwriter, and you align the writing and vocal demands with other songs you’ve learned and sung, you will probably assimilate the later sections quickly. 

However, if the style of songwriting is quite unfamiliar to you, it may require longer. This is the extra fun part! You get to learn new rhythm and pitch patterns that will be available to you in the future. 


STORY

When you are confident in your melodic rendering of the song, it’s time to move onto interpretation and story telling.  Click here for a tipsheet that gives you a number of options on how to approach this activity.


ACCOMPANIMENT

I recommend that you repeat the listening phases of your learning process with the accompaniment.  

THEN

Ok – so now you know the song…what’s next?

Ripen it!

Rest it!


“If you’re doing deliberate practice correctly, it will produce mental fatigue.  Only solution is a break…Constant hard work isn’t a good thing – it diminishes the quality of our work.”

Gregg Goodhart

Record it!


“Record yourself so the brain has time to reflect and pick things up and make adjustments.  Record and Listen.  Record and Listen.  In the moment of making sound, we don’t hear ourselves the same way, so our brain doesn’t have a chance to make a response.”

Rodney Brim

Reflect on it!


“Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in neural tissue.  The more experiences we have with something, the stronger the memory/learning trace for that experience becomes…The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced.” 

Daniel Levitin

WHAT TO DO WITH ELEMENTS THAT STILL MISBEHAVE

Those little areas that are still non-compliant are super frustrating.  You don’t want to keep deconstructing their section – you’re ready to get on with the song story and delivery work, right? 

And yet…if you persist in neglecting little niggles, like a wonky diphthong, wrong note or misplaced syllable, then you will end up rehearsing the problem.  Pretty soon that will create muscle memory and invariably you’ll have a dreaded mental block embedded.

The best thing to do is muster up a big shot of patience and deconstruct just the phrases immediately surrounding the problem.  Perhaps it’s time to dig a little deeper into the nature of the problem.  This is where a vocal coach can be so helpful.  In the meantime, record yourself singing the problem phrase, in the context of the whole section it comes from.  Try to listen for the specific offending element as objectively as possible.

At a conference many years ago, a presenter used the idea of “phrase fixers” to tackle these situations (apologies to the presenter that I don’t remember your name).   Here’s a snapshot of that idea as our final process of this blog.


SOURCES:

Bonetti, R.  (2002).  Practice is a Dirty Word: How to clean up your act.  Words & Music, Brisbane

Brim, Rodney (2019).  Brain Hacking for Spedding Up your Jazz Improv Success on the The Musicality Podcast.  Episode 159: 18 March 2019

Edwards, M. (ed.)  (2018).   So You Want to Sing CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music): A Guide for Performers.   A project of NATS.  Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland

Edwards, M.  (2014).   So You Want to Sing Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Guide for Professionals.   A project of NATS.  Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland. 

Goodhart, Gregg (2019).  How to Learn Like a Genius on the The Musicality Podcast.  Episode 213: 27 November 2019

Kayes, G. & Fisher, J.  (2002).  Successful Singing Auditions.  Routledge, New York

Levitin, D.  (2007).  This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.  Plume Publishing, New York

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Robinson, D. K. (2015).   How To Sing with More Emotion: Communicate the Subtext.  YouTube clip: https://youtu.be/W7PbliDFeA8

Westney, W.  (2006).  The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self.  Amadeus Press, New Jersey

Wilson, P.  (2005).  Pat Wilson’s Song Workbook (http://www.patwilson.com.au)

Wilson, P. H.  (2013).  The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual.  (2nd edition).  Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney.

Zangger Borch, D.  (2005).  Ultimate Vocal Voyage.  Notfabriken Music Publishing, Sweden.

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