You might think the steps of learning a song obvious: learn the words; learn the melody. But there is actually more to it and ways to make it faster and easier. When learning a song, first construct its skeleton: the technical details. Then give it a soul – your interpretation of its meaning which in turn inspires your musical styling and song performance.
1. Map the Song Form. Every song has its own structure known as the song form or arrangement. This is based on the order and number of verses, pre-choruses, choruses, a possible bridge section and/or tag ending. I call this the map of the song. Type the lyrics and label each section so you can see the entire song arrangement. This gives you the outline and prediction needed to quickly learn it.
2. Establish the best key. Singers: you do not have just one right key in which to sing all songs. A song melody has a lowest note and a highest note. Make sure that the melody note you start on permits you to sing the lowest and highest notes comfortably. Put your best foot forward and choose a key for which you can sing the entire melody range with ease while also sounding appropriate for the style and mood.
3. Learn the Melody. Don’t worry about memorizing the words just yet. If you are singing someone else’s song, put on a recording with the other vocalist singing it. Or, if you read music and have the sheet music, you can practice it that way. With this step you will isolate the melody and work on it until you have gained complete familiarity. There is a secret reason and wonderful result achieved when you practice the melody separately from the lyrics.
4. Learn the Lyrics. Learning the lyrics and understanding their meaning go hand in hand. Write or type out the lyrics. Define any words you don’t know in a dictionary. If you don’t understand the lyrics, you will not be able to deliver a believable message to the audience. Develop a personal interpretation of what you’re saying with them; which also helps you remember the order of the lyrics, verse to verse.
5. Map the lyrics with your mouth. Learn them by saying as well as singing them repetitively with and without musical accompaniment. Do this as though you are singing with meaning to someone, not just mouthing words. The live communication frame of mind really helps! It is much better than silent memorization.
6. Resolve any pitch or range difficulties. If you have chosen the right key for the song, any pitch difficulties and straining can come from mis-management of the vowel and consonants of the word you are singing. Consonants can cause muscle tension in the tongue which will adversely affect the functioning of your voice.
Isolate what the vowel sound is (not vowel name, but vowel sound) for the notes and phrase or word giving you the problem. Example: in the word “life” the vowel is “I” but the sound of it (in the context of a particular song) is a combination of A (apple) and Ah (wand). To discover the vowel sound, say the word and sustain the vowel before you end the word. Listen to yourself. Find the vowel sound that is natural for you in the context of the word.
Next sing the phrase. Discover what the vowel sound is for any word or syllable that is not totally on pitch or easy to sing. Let that be your focus as you again sing the phrase. A key to singing with ease and sounding pro is how you deal with vowels and maintaining consistency of pronunciation while not choking your voice with over-emphasized consonants.
In Part 2 of “Learning a Song,” I’ll tell you how to use musical and rhythmic cues as well as dynamics in learning and performing a song.
Until then, all my best,
This free lesson is adapted from Jeannie Deva’s eBook “Singer’s Guide to Powerful Performances” which is available from this site or on eReaders like Kindle and Nook. It contains all the things you need to know to achieve powerful and unforgettable performances.