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Training Your Musical Memory

Posted by on Dec 29, 2016 in Music | 479 comments

Some people find it hard to remember lyrics or chord progressions.

Although these tasks may be difficult to begin with, the more you do it the easier it will become.


How does memory operate?

Memory is the storage and recall of anything we have sensed through smell, touch, taste, sight or sound.

When we recall a memory, many of the same neural pathways used to sense the initial experience are refired, sometimes causing us to almost re-experience the event.

There are two main types of memory, short-term and long-term.

Short-term memory we use to store information needed only for the next 30 seconds or so, for example, numerical calculations, and because it has a small capacity, it can store only about seven items – perfect for phone numbers.

However, information that is going to help us in the future is stored in our long-term memory.

This is more complex and involves the process of encoding, storing and retrieving.

This is how it works:

  • First a new concept or experience is broken into different parts to establish meaning.

Second, as we store the memory, we attach it to other related memories, like “half-time at a soccer match” and thus, consolidate the new concept with older memories.

  • Third, we retrieve the concept, by following some of the pointers that trace the various codes, then decode the stored information to regain meaning.

If I can’t remember just what “delicious orange” means, I might activate any of the pointer-hints, such as “slurpy” or “juice running down my arm.”

Pointers connect with other pointers so one hint may allow me to recover the whole meaning.

If we know how recording long-term memory works, we can use this information to better “encode” our memory of chords and lyrics in the first place.

How To Remember Lyrics

  1. Go through the lyrics and connect them to your own experience.

Since long-term memories are associated with other memories and sensual meanings, when we go about the task of learning lyrics, it is important to attach our individual sensations, thoughts and feelings to the lyrics as we learn them.  (This will also help very much when it comes to song interpretation).

Repeat and practice the lyrics without singing along to someone else’s version.

As you have probably experienced by now, learning music is very much about repetition.

By repeating or rehearsing, you practice retrieval of the lyrics.  It also brings our learning of the lyrics from our short-term memory, into the long-term memory.

You may want to get a backing track and rehearse that way or you can learn lyrics by singing them your head, or quietly humming them as you go for a walk or a drive.

  1. Use as many senses as possible to help learn the lyrics

By following this process you are using many more of your senses, such as:

  • Hearing – when you listen to the song to write down the lyrics, you are paying close attention to sound and associating the sound of the music to the words.
  • Kinesthetic (body or muscle memory), by writing the words you are using your body and paying attention to the formation of the letters on the page which also connects to your…
  • Visual memory.  You may even remember where you are as you are writing, how you are feeling, what you are smelling etc as you write those lyrics.  This is because, as we have seen in an earlier article, listening to music connects with our limbic system.


  1. Work out the form of the song

All music can be broken down into sections that, just about always, have a form or repetition to them. A Live band for hire can teach you this.

Your first task is to recognise this form.  For example, the verse we will call “A”, the chorus we will call “B” and there may be a bridge or pre-chorus we will call “C”.

Look at the song and work out in what order these sections appear.  Is it AABA or ABCA, or something different?  This is what we call the form of the song.

  1. Choose one section to memorise at a time

When you are memorising a section, say part A, you will notice there is probably a pattern there as well, it may be just two lots of a 4 chord progression.  So, try to find an order within each section.

Once you can see that order, look at the chords and see how they relate to each other.


  1. Practice the song and actively rehearse

Again, this is about moving the information from the short-term to long-term memory.

In this case, you are using your hearing and kinesthetic senses, which help to retain and retrieve the information.


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