How to Learn Complex Song Lyrics

Every now and then I get confronted with a song that has either a ridiculously long set of lyrics containing about twenty verses or one that does not make any sense at all, making it extremely difficult to learn.

Most people think learning lyrics is easy. An average person will assume they know most of the words to many of their favourite albums as they tend to sing along to them every day in the car or workplace.

The one thing I realised when I first started busking is that there’s a big difference between singing along to an accompanying album and trying to play the song on your own with nothing but your self to cue from.

Auto Cue

If a person is provided with even the slightest cue, like the first letter, sound or syllable to the start of a song line, it triggers the brains automatic recognition of the following lyrics allowing you to easily finish the sentence or verse. The brain recognises these cues so fast that it only takes a few milliseconds to register a sound from a cd to trigger your own response and help you sing along. This leads many people into the false belief that they know the song really well when in actual fact they don’t.

It’s only when you switch off the music, give them a mic and tell ’em to sing that people realise they don’t have a clue where to start. I see this happen all the time when people offer to accompany me singing out busking or at a gig or wherever. Even with a guitar strumming the tune, they don’t know where to start or which verse comes first. If I give them one word or an accompanying half line then they’re off. Until a few seconds later when they need another cue for the next line or verse.

Even if you do know all the words in the whole song, it’s not knowing the order of the verses, choruses and middle 8’s that can stop you in your tracks.

There’s nothing worse than singing a song and getting the lyrics right but screwing up the verse order. Ninety percent of the time the audience won’t know or notice anyway, but as a singer it’s vital that you know your words and can project them with confidence.

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Here’s a funny vid proving even pro’s forget their words. The guys from R.E.M. have to go out and buy their own songbooks and CD’s before going on tour just, to remember their own lyrics.

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The Boring Way

There is a big difference in the the way the brain takes in information when trying to memorise things. We all know for instance that a larger percentage is taken in and absorbed by the brain when writing down a piece of information than by just reading it. The same goes for reading and listening, you are much more likely to learn a piece by reading it than just listening to it. This would lead us to believe that if we need to learn a song then the best way would be to keep writing it down, over and over again.

The problem is, it is incredibly boring and takes a lot of time out of your day. Writing out the same song more than once is really tedious and if you’ve got loads of other songs to learn or more important stuff to do, you don’t want to be stuck in a room pushing a pen or sat in the same place listening for hours on end.

It’s even worse if the song doesn’t make sense or is incredibly long winded. By the time you’ve gone through it a couple of times, you’ll be so racked off you’ll probably give up.

The only way to learn a song off by heart with the minimum of effort is to ram it down your own throat and burn it into your brain so badly that you’ll remember it for the rest of your life without even trying. Here’s my fool proof method.

How to Memorise a Song for Life with Minimum Effort

The first thing you need is an MP3 player and some earphones. You don’t need an expensive one like an ipod, just get the smallest, cheapest one you can find and a pair of cheap 99p budget earphones from the nearest supermarket. It doesn’t matter about the sound quality or memory capacity, as long as you can hear it and it holds a few songs it will be fine and you won’t have to worry about replacing expensive equipment if you lose it.

Download the song you want to learn from the internet. You can easily buy it from iTunes or download it from one of the free music sites like If you have it on CD, stick it in your PC and rip it to an MP3 file.

Load the song onto your mp3 player along with any other songs you feel like learning in the near future.

Print or write out the lyrics on a couple of pieces of paper. You can easily find them by visiting the many online lyric sites on the net.

Sit down for ten minutes and listen to the song undisturbed, two or three times over while reading the accompanying lyrics. This will give you an initial understanding of exactly what is being said and the general construction of the song. You’ll also be able to correct any mistakes in the lyrics sheet as most of the time you’ll find they’re wrong anyway.

When you’ve done this, fold the paper up and put it in your back pocket. Make sure you keep it with you over the next couple of days.

Now get up, stick the MP3 player on repeat and get on with your life.

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Intense Exposure

Over the next 48 hrs you must keep the Mp3 player by your side and on repeat at all times, constantly cycling through that same song over and over again without stopping. At work, in bed, out shopping, in the car, walking the dog, everywhere. Every possible second you are awake and can get away with it, play that damn song.

Intense Exposure

When you go to bed at night, stick your earphones in on a low volume and whack it on repeat until you crash out. You’ll wake in the night with the song still ringing in your brain. When you are out shopping or your partner is trying to talk to you, stick one earphone in and respond with the other.

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Be Careful

Whatever you do, always ensure you keep your headphone volumes as low as possible to avoid damaging your hearing. Excess volume over a prolonged period of time can cause permanent damage to the eardrums leading to noise induced hearing loss or tinnitus – a permanent ringing in the ear commonly found in those who misuse mp3 players and portable music devices.

Keeping a low volume on your player will avoid damaging your hearing and getting on peoples nerves. If you can barely hear it yourself then neither can anyone else. Thousands of people each year do permanent damage to their hearing by blasting music through earphones so everyone within thirty yards can hear. Be careful or you could find yourself dealing with serious problems in the future.

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Test Yourself

Every now and then, when you just can’t bear listening to the song anymore, switch off the player and try and sing it to yourself. See how far you get. If you get stuck, pull out the piece of paper with the lyrics on and give yourself a cue. Go through the song quietly in your head at every opportunity, referring to the sheet when you need it.

You will find that within a few hours you become completely obsessed with the song. Even if you can’t stand it, you will find yourself constantly thinking it, speaking it, singing it and dreaming about it. You basically live walk and sleep the song at every opportunity for two days while getting on with your normal life.

Lyric Interpretation – Association

As you get to grips with the lyrics, a great technique is to equate various lines and verses with your own interpretations of what is going on in the song. Think of imaginative scenes depicting the story that is being told as the song unfolds. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the scenes you imagine are, it is the act of equating words with sounds and pictures in your mind that creates and strengthens new electrochemical bonds and memory paths between the cells in your brain.

These new associating images actually create physical links in the brain making the memories much stronger, more permanent and easier to retrieve.

Permanent Recall

Sights, sounds, smells and images often remind us of things long forgotten buried deep in our past memories. The links created and associated with that memory at the time were so strong that many years later a simple smell or sound can bring it all rushing back.

The power of mind association is widely used by memory masters and helps them achieve great feats of the mind like memorising packs of cards in minutes. It’s because they associate each card they pass on their journey through the deck with an imaginary journey they take in their mind. This equates cards and numbers to powerful and familiar thoughts, images and colours.

This technique is a little more advanced that I’m suggesting. You don’t necessarily have to take an imaginary journey through the whole song, but just allow your imagination to guide you through the song picking up any obvious anchor points you can equate to images in order to help you through.

Check out some of the lyrics to Can’t Stop – By the Chili’s. They are brilliant but totally absurd. A real nightmare to learn, but easily conquered using mass exposure and image association techniques. See if you can equate some of the lines to imaginative scenes you can think of yourself.

Can’t Stop

Can’t stop addicted to the shin dig
Cop top he says I’m gonna win big
Choose not a life of imitation
Distant cousin to the reservation
Defunkt the pistol that you pay for
This punk the feeling that you stay for
In time I want to be your best friend
Eastside love is living on the westend
Knock out but boy you better come to
Don’t die you know the truth is some do
Go write your message on the pavement
Burnin so bright I wonder what the wave meant
White heat is screaming in the jungle
Complete the motion if you stumble
Go ask the dust for any answers
Come back strong with 50 belly dancers

Sweetheart is bleeding in the snowcone
So smart she’s leading me to ozone
Music the great communicator
Use two sticks to make it in the nature
I’ll get you into penetration
The gender of a generation
The birth of every other nation
Worth your weight the gold of meditation
This chapters going to be a close one
Smoke rings I know your going to blow one
All on a spaceship persevering
Use my hands for everything but steering
Can’t stop the spirits when they need you
Mop tops are happy when they feed you
J. butterfly is in the treetop
Birds that blow the meaning into bebop


The sort of things that go through my head when singing this one are pretty bizarre I can tell you.

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Once you’ve got to the point where you can recite the song faultlessly in your head with no backup or accompanying music, you’re done. You brain is fried and the song is imprinted (more like branded) in your head for good. From then on, your normal practice will keep the song fresh in your mind for years to come.

It sounds intense but in reality it is a very simple and easy way of learning absolutely any song, no matter how long or complex with the minimum of effort. To lessen the interruption to your normal life, you need to be imaginative and get at least one earphone on the go whenever you can. Monotonous tasks like cooking, exercising and work are the ideal times to fire up the mp3 player.

Learn Anything – Anywhere

This technique works for just about any method of learning. I spent a few days learning Spanish using this method a couple of years ago and most of it is still in my head.

You can use these methods to learn music theory, maths, formulas, recipes, languages or anything else. Give them a try and see how well it works.

The funny thing is, because it is so intense but still allows you the freedom to get on with your life, you will always remember exactly what you did over the couple of days you learned the song. You will remember what the piece of paper looked like, how the words and verses were written, what you were doing and how you felt.

I learned ‘From The Ritz to The Rubble’ on the motorway, checking out a van for sale half way up the country, three Travis songs rebuilding the chimneys on the roof of my Dad’s house and Outside – by Staind while fitting a new kitchen to name a few.

Give it a try and see if it works for you.

Posted 11.11.09

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