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!
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:
- to notice what is familiar and fits into place quickly
- to identify the parts that are less familiar and require patience and perseverance to unravel
- to make good decisions about all of the elements once and then rehearse those decisions
- to allow your brain to have one focal point at a time, followed by the sequential pairing of functions.
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?
- Free yourself from the expectation of sounding like the original recording artist, or like a YouTube cover.
- Aim to sing the song with your vocal identity.
- Try to be as accurate as possible in the learning phase so that you don’t set mistakes into muscle memory. Relearning a note or word later on is much more difficult. Take care and get it right the first time.
- Allow yourself to be curious and experimental. Try different tools and approaches while practicing and observe what feels easy, vibrant and true to the story.
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?
- Some song elements sound enough like something else you’ve learned before that you assume it is the same, and you don’t double check.
- You sang along with the recording artist and they always led you, so you didn’t notice that you weren’t confident about it. It is hard to believe that we subconsciously lag behind them ever so slightly…yet we do!
- You try to combine all the song elements at once and your brain can’t give that much dedicated focus to so much detail from so many different areas of brain function. So the brain prioritises what you subconsciously think is the most important element, and you allow the other parts to be a little fuzzy.
- You rush the process and don’t give the song the time it actually needs on each learning step – even if the deadline is tomorrow!
- You might be like me and also try to play and sing it at once the first time! (Insert sheepish grin…)
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:
- Form – structure of the song, eg verses and choruses
- Melody – ascending and descending pitch intervals of various sizes, repetitions and positions in your range
- Rhythm – note lengths, syncopation, rests, style, tempo
- Lyric – familiar and unfamiliar words, with a broad range of pure vowels, diphthongs and consonants which can get discombobulated when applied to the rhythm and tempo
- Technique – breath management, register choices and resonance placement
- Accompaniment – a music track you sing along with which may or may not make the melody and rhythm obvious; or working with a live accompanist or band
- Story – expression, interpretation, dynamics and style
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Original track
- Melody only (you might need to ask a pianist friend to make one for you if this is a new idea)
- Accompaniment only
MAP THE BIG PICTURE
- Take a pencil & sheet of blank paper
- Close your eyes and listen to the original recording of the song without trying to remember anything. Just notice shapes and nuances, tone colours and moods. (NB…if you want to avoid hearing/absorbing someone else’s interpretation of the song until after you’ve learned it…skip ahead two steps.)
- Open your eyes, listen again, and map the big picture. This could be as simple as a list of verse/chorus sections; or it could include more detail like how many bars you count per section.
- Listen again, noting the time stamp for each section (eg chorus 1 occurs at 1:12). This will allow you to have points of reference when you want to zone in on specific sections.
- Now listen to the melody only recording. Note any differences in the timestamps.
- Are those major sections small enough for the focussed learning you’re about to do? Break the sections into smaller units if you feel the chunks are still a bit large. Sections could be as large as a verse or chorus, or as small as a bar or phrase.
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.
- Now listen to the song and read the lyric sheet without speaking/singing along.
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.
- Speak the words aloud, out of rhythm.
- Sing the melody on an SOVT sound (eg straw phonation, lip trill, V, Z, Zjh etc) sound and mark in the breathing as you go. This will help you to learn the melody and start mapping your breath management with the phrasing. (Click the link for a tipsheet).
- Sing the melody on a pure vowel, retaining the same breath energy and phrasing.
- Speak the words aloud in rhythm.
“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
- Vowel map on melody (click the link for a tipsheet)
- Sing the lyric on melody
“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.
- Repeat this deconstructed process for the next section. If it is melodically similar to the first section, for instance a second verse, then you will find the process will go faster. You may only need to spot slight melodic or rhythmic variations. However, if it is a new melody then you will need to be just as thorough.
- Repeat until you have done this task for all the sections of the song.
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.
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.
I recommend that you repeat the listening phases of your learning process with the accompaniment.
- Listen to it without singing along, eyes closed.
- Listen to it without singing along, eyes following the sheet music for the accompaniment.
- Now listen to it and imagine yourself singing along.
- Ok – go ahead and sing along!
- Make notes about the sticking points – they might be to do with counting rests, or pitching intervals – and apply your deconstruction process to the work of combining melody and accompaniment.
Ok – so now you know the song…what’s next?
- Performance practice
- Allow your subconscious time to assimilate it by doing an entirely different mental and physical activity.
- Goodhart proposes the 3:1 rule. For example, work for 45, rest for 15.
- Try several 3 minute chunks. Intense focus, released frequently.
“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
- Listening to yourself takes practice but can be very useful when there isn’t time to book in with your vocal coach for a rehearsal.
- First of all, inventory what you’re doing well.
- Then notice what you’d like to develop or change.
“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!
- Consider what has worked for you, celebrate the learning you have accomplished, and remind yourself to be realistic.
- Measure your results against your own accomplishments, not someone else’s.
- And remind yourself to remember the most important thing – your job as a singer is to be an authentic storyteller, not a perfect machine.
- In case you missed it the first time…CELEBRATE that you just learned a new song in a new way!
“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.
- Rehearse a phrase in a variety of repetitive ways to serve the outcome you’re seeking
- Breath – lip trills, fricatives (v, z, zjh), nasals (m, n, ng), hiss
- Registration – using lip trills at various volumes
- Resonance – vowel map (sing on a neutral vowel, then sing only the vowels of the lyric…click here for a tipsheet)
- Expression – focus intensely on the meaning of the lyric
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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
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