Sister Singers Network

A Cooperative Web of Feminist Choruses

Music Memorization

Compiled and Edited by
Carrie Cooper, 2nd Soprano, Desert Voices, Tucson, AZ
Revised 10-16-2001

The following tips are from the ChorusWomen e-mail discussion list.

Before trying to memorize a piece think about how you pick up and process information. Are you an auditory learner (you can hear a song on the radio and soon sing along without much thought to the words or tune)? Or are you more of a visual learner (you learn faster by looking at the words, creating an outline or visualizing the page in your mind)? Most of us use a combination of both techniques but may have a preference toward one of the other.

Don't try all these ideas at once! Experiment and choose the ones that work for you.

–Jane Ramseyer Miller, Artistic Director One Voice Mixed Chorus, Minneapolis 651-290-0766
(please include this contact information if copying or using the information above).

Know that you can. Stay relaxed when performing. Start early. Start singing off book right away, even if it's just for a measure.

Repetition is the mother of retention. Handle the material in as many different ways as possible: look at the sheet music, write out the words, analyze the patterns, count the beats, recite the words, and sing it. Make rehearsal tapes -- and play them later. Write out the lyrics and post them where you can see them. I like to hang the typed lyrics on my cubicle wall and periodically look at them at work. Try to hum the tune while you read the words.

Sing along with rehearsal tapes in the car.

     – Carrie Cooper

  1. Read the words all the way through, thinking about what they mean. (This is a good thing to do early, and with the whole chorus, because it can help with phrasing.)
  2. Look for patterns. If it's 'cat' in the first verse, 'dog' in the second, 'elephant' in the third, it's alphabetical. Or maybe it's reverse alphabetical. Or maybe its 'rocks', 'grass', 'trees', so it goes from low to high.
  3. Count. How many times do we go back to that chorus? How many times does that particular la-la pattern repeat before we go back to words? How many beats is the one held note in a tricky place?

     – Midge Stocker, one of Artemis Singers multisectional singers and directors

Everybody learns differently. Many people aren't good aural learners. I prefer NOT to use a tape, because I don't feel that I internalize the music that way. Not to mention if there is a mistake on the tape you learn that too. I'm classically trained, and was an instrumentalist before I got serious about singing. So I always start from the score. I also do some basic analysis. How does my part fit in with the others? Do the accidentals have a specific function; are they leading to important landmarks in the piece? I do work at the keyboard for hard sections and intervals. For me the other problem with a parts tape is that I really need to hear my part in context.

Since I get the music down first, I then do the lyrics by themselves, typed out. Until I get it all down, I do the things Midge suggested about looking for patterns in the text. For me the relationship to the music helps me memorize the text.

    – Carol E. Wheeler, Fortissima: DC's Feminist Singers

I try to play my rehearsal tape in the car (and I drive as part of my job at least 20 minutes each way). It helps a lot with memorization.

Somewhere along the line, fairly early, I put the words to the song on a 3x5 card. (I used to write them out by hand; these days I type them on the computer, cut them out, and glue them to the card.) I almost always know the music first anyway, and when I see the words on a tiny piece of paper like that, I know I can memorize them easily -- after all, there's not much there. There's something psychological about getting out of that big score of music that you have to turn pages on to a small card you can hold in the palm of your hand and stick in your pocket when you're not using it.

The other thing (partly alluded to already) that writing out the words like this will do is show you patterns. Give you the structure of the song, as well as let you know that you really sing the same refrain 3 times, or whatever. Sometimes I label sections (A) or (B) so that when we sing the same thing again, I can just put (A) instead of writing out the whole section.

I usually memorize easily, which is fortunate for me. But occasionally I really have to buckle down and spend time outside of rehearsal memorizing. That's when I actually sit down to write out the words. I read a line, and then say it without looking. Then two lines, say them without looking. Etc., until I have the song by heart. Then I sing it (again in my car) without benefit of the words in front of me.

 – Sylvan Rainwater, Portland, Oregon

Work from the end of the song. Like, rehearse the last verse and chorus, then go to the 2d to last verse and work through the end of the song. Too often we always start at the beginning of the song, and skimp on the end.

    – Jennifer "Diva J" Raison, DIVA: Saucy Women Singing With a Queer Sensibility

Tips From The Web

Memorization – an integral part of musicianship at every level
Published in the Alfred Sheet Music Club Newsletter, Fall, 1995
Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University.

Primarily for piano players. Excerpts follow:

"Strong memory skills do not result from magic, wishful thinking, great intellect, or good luck. They can be developed like the other aspects of playing."

Read the full story at:

Memorizing Vocal Music - How to Memorize Vocal Music by Bruce Schoonmaker.

Excerpts follow:

Read the full text at:

Tips For Memorizing Music Part I
by John Sloan
Primarily for guitar players, but applicable to singers.
Excerpts follow:

Many musicians...try to memorize by repetition and rote, without fitting [notes] into meaningful patterns. Yet, virtually all music is based on patterns of some kind: forms, chord progressions, key signatures, melodies, rhythms, etc. These patterns can and should be used in memorizing music.

Memorizing starts from the moment you first look at a new score or hear it played by someone else. Your familiarity with the music, and your memory of it begins to form and grow from this point. So, contrary to popular opinion, memorizing is not the last step in preparing a piece for performance. How you practice a new piece from day one will determine whether you eventually "get" it or "forget" it. ...

Always practice at a slow enough tempo which allows you to [sing] WITHOUT ERRORS... never increase the tempo until you can play the piece from beginning to end at any particular tempo with complete confidence, fluidity and ease.

Any piece of music can be memorized on three different levels:

  1. the smallest parts, single notes,
  2. the overall form of the piece, and
  3. all intermediate structures and patterns of organization in between.

Read the full story at
Also recommended:

Memorizing music and the benfits on playing
Excerpts follow.

It is not necessary to have a "photographic" memory - this could be a distraction as one really has to remember the music, which is essentially "aural" not "visual."...

It is much more satisfactory to perform well within your technical capabilites and play really beautifully than the opposite.

Read the full story at:


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