World Choir Games Flanders 2023

How to deal with song lyrics 1: written down or learnt by ear?

  • [this is a version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]


    Unless you’re singing vocalises or songs with just one word (‘alleluia’, ‘mravalžamier’), you have to deal with lyrics at some point.



    How do you first encounter them – written down or heard? How can you best learn and remember them? What about foreign words? How do you deal with many verses when first learning a song?


    This is going to be a three-part series of posts. Part 2 will look at leaving the written word behind, and Part 3 will look at foreign lyrics and going beyond the first verse.


    Although mainly addressed at those who learn by ear, these posts have some relevance to those who use sheet music, especially with those songs which have lots of verses which are often not written directly under the notes!


    when do we need the words?

    Sometimes words get in the way.


    If you’re trying to learn a new song, then the simpler and fewer the words, the easier it seems to be to learn the song.


    Because of this, I’ve tried teaching songs without using the words at first, but just ‘la, la, la’ or similar. In that way people can focus on the shape of the melody and harmonies without the ‘meaning’ part of their brain being engaged.


    This works brilliantly, but … when it comes time to add the words, the whole process slows down. The melody seems to get forgotten. People struggle with how the syllables fit the notes.


    You can also try it the other way round: drill the words until they’re learnt, then add the melody. Again, even if you’re word perfect, as soon as the melody is introduced all the words disappear.


    Neither of these methods are the best way to teach a song. You have to confront the lyrics from the very start since I believe they’re stored together in the brain. I’ll be writing more about this in a later post.


    seen or heard?

    So then the question becomes: how should lyrics be introduced? Should they be written down for the singers, or just drilled by ear?


    There is no simple answer to this. If a song has two, three or four simple words which are repeated, then I will always do them by ear.


    However, some people (including me) are very visual, and in order to really nail the lyrics and make sure we’ve got the vowel sounds right, we need to see the words written down. Even if it’s just the once. Then we can get an internal image of them. Then we can continue by ear.


    I ran a workshop recently and prepared large lyric sheets for some of the simple songs, thinking that I would need them. In the end, I decided to have a go at teaching them by ear. We spoke them in rhythm a few times, and then launched into learning the tune. I was surprised how quickly people picked them up (and they were in foreign languages!).


    It’s very much a judgment call.


    I was in a workshop once where we drilled and drilled and drilled the words for ages. It was boring, and when it came time to learn the tune, I’d forgotten the bloody things any way! I think it’s vitally important to learn the words and the music at the same time. I believe that we store song lyrics in a different part of our brain to where we store poetry.


    As long as the drilling of the lyrics doesn’t get in the way of the fun or the learning, then try to do it by ear. If the words are tricky, or there are lots of them, then write them down.


    the tyranny of bits of paper

    If lyric sheets are handed out too early in the process, you’re doomed! As soon as you have a visual aid in your hands – even if you know the words already – your eyes will gravitate to the paper. You will stop looking at your choir leader and stop paying full attention to the melody.


    I’ve sung songs which I’ve known inside out and committed to memory for years, but even then, whenever I have lyrics – either in my hand or on the wall – I end up looking at them. We are very much a visual culture, not an aural one.


    I once taught a bass line consisting entirely of ‘dum dums’ and as soon as I’d put the lyrics for the other parts on the wall, the basses all looked at the sheet of words as they sang. And the ‘dum dums’ weren’t even on there!


    I think the next best solution to learning by ear is to put the lyrics up on big sheets of paper so that everyone can see them easily. If you have a big group, and/ or if you work in a circle, this can be a problem. You may have to have several copies of the lyrics dotted around the room.


    High tech choir leaders might even use projectors!


    Basically you want people to focus outwards, to feel that they’re all in the process together, and to pay attention to you.


    Next week, in Part 2, I’ll look at leaving the written word behind.



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