Why You Should STOP Using Lyric Sheets To Learn Songs ASAP

Act 2 Scene 1Whether you’re working with a choir, praise team, group or even if you’re a solo act, chances are you’re experiencing (or have at some time or other) trouble remembering the lyrics and keys to new songs. This is an especially common issue in Gospel music ministries where sheet music is almost never used. Often it can really take a while to get both the lyrics and the harmony locked in and memorized. Even once it seems like you finally have it down at rehearsal, many groups find that they have forgotten much of it by Sunday morning.

One thing choir directors and Music Ministers do to help keep the rehearsal moving along and assist with the learning process is to pass out lyric sheets. Ironically though, lyric sheets do much more to cause the problem than they do to fix it. I’d say the single most effective thing you can do to cut learning time and improve retention is to STOP using lyric sheets at your rehearsals.
Lyric sheets are a “mental crutch” of sorts because they cripple your ability to memorize the lyrics and melodies that are being sung to you. Think for a minute about the way we learned things as a child. Consider the alphabet, for example. Most of us already knew the alphabet way before we got to kindergarten. For a child It’s 26 random letters in no particular order. And most of us never saw it in print until we got to kindergarten. Wouldn’t matter anyway, because we couldn’t read!

So how did we learn the alphabet, some of us before we could even talk? That little song, of course. Our parents sang that little song over and over to us. To our brains, the letters and the melody they were sang over became one inseparable thing. We are only able to recite the alphabet now without music because we learned that song first. If you don’t think so, try saying them backwards right now. You’ll be able to do it but you’ll have to put much more thought into it than going forward. Why? There’s no backward alphabet song, lol!

If you were blessed enough to be a kid during the School-House Rock era you can think of all kinds of things you know today because of those songs they sang to us every Saturday morning. But here’s the amazing thing; you still know those songs decades later! Go ahead, sing “We The People”. How about “Conjunction Junction”? Go ahead, I’ll wait. 🙂

The unique thing about learning songs in particular is that process I mentioned earler where your brain actually uses the melody to memorize the lyrics, and vice-versa. Place a lyric sheet in front of you and the process is interrupted. First of all your brain will not make the effort to memorize lyrics as long as you have them in front of you.

That beautiful process our brain does without lyrics- that marrying of words and melody into one inseparable thing- gets “separated” by lyric sheets. When you’re looking at the words as they’re being sung to you your brain focuses less on the melody so you tend to have a harder time memorizing your part. But you also have a harder time memorizing the lyrics because they’re right in front of you. So your brain just reads instead of memorizing.

Then the instructor goes back over your part again, only now you can’t remember the words without looking at the lyrics. They have a way of switching your brain off. In fact chances are you’ve found yourself looking at a lyric sheet and not even really focusing on the words in front if you. Or tried to follow along on a lyric sheet while you listened to the song and actually having trouble keeping up. Or looked at a lyric sheet when you already had the words memorized, just because it’s in front of you. So lyric sheets actually do much more to slow down the song learning process than they do to speed it along.

Left to do its work as God designed it, our brain uses the melody to teach us the words and the words to remember the melody. So when you get up Sunday morning to sing a new song, nervous because you think you’ve forgotten the words, it all comes flooding back as soon as you hear the band start the intro. Then the director mouths just the first 2 or 3 words and there it is. the whole song, words and parts, ready to burst forth.

To be sure, there are certain situations when having lyric sheets is practical. Mass rehearsals where you must cover a large number of songs, for instance. If you have 10 songs to rehearse it makes sense to have the lyrics just to keep things moving. Even then though, you should be strongly encouraging the group to use them as little as possible and move away from them completely once you’ve gone over all the material enough that everyone should be familiar.

So whether you’re the person responsible for teaching new material or just a member of the choir or group, using lyric sheets as little as possible is the fastest way to dramatically speed up the song learning process and improve retention. Try it at the next rehearsal and let me know how it goes!

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15 Responses to Why You Should STOP Using Lyric Sheets To Learn Songs ASAP

  1. Lynn Pearson says:

    I totally agree! I belonged to a church for 15 years and never sang in the choir. One of the reasons was on Sunday mornings, choir members would whip out various pieces of paper to sing from and it would just make my blood boil. My music mentor would NEVER have allowed such. My current MOM allows it but if I’m directing, those papers GOT TO GO!!!!!!!

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  4. Demetria Carlton says:

    I agree that lyric sheets hold you back. When we are given songs that we are going to learn, I listen to the song repeatedly. I learn the melody first, then I learn the other parts. By the time we learn the song in rehearsal I have it memorized. If I use lyric sheets at that point, I forget all the lyrics I’ve already learned. I I’d rather be “fed” the lyrics and just repeat them instead of using lyric sheets.

  5. Ruby says:

    I’m terrible with lyrics. So I do rely on them to get the right words but after that I force myself to memorize them

  6. Lakia Johnson says:

    Growing up in choirs as a child we never used lyric sheets. My director would sing the lyrics and give notes for each section and we repeated. This has helped me over my singer career to not rely on printed lyrics. When I study a song I simply listen to the song “1000” times until the words start flowing out of me as if I’ve been singing it for months.

  7. Alisa Williams says:

    It can depend on the song … if it has many lyrics, then it’s more helpful to see the words. But when you’re doing a song with 5 words … and they look for lyric sheets … that’s a funny!

  8. Tiffany Hayes says:

    Totally agree with this great article. Lyric sheets are a crutch and they hold you back. I also think people don’t put as much effort into learning the words as long as they know they have the words right in front of them. It’s more challenging without the words and can give the choir or praise team something to look forward to while their learning. I’ve seen some can get so use to them that they get frustrated when they can’t have words right in front of them.Your articles are always right on time and I love sharing with others to give them insight as well.

  9. Traci says:

    Yes, lyric sheets & video monitors can become a crutch! I was very good at retaining song lyrics, but now that we have video monitors, I notice that I rely on the monitor to my left for a lot of songs.
    The church where Itransferw up had an adult choir that had been singing a lot of the same songs since before I was born. Two leaders, ALWAYS had their lyric sheets – my late mother was one of them :0) Every 1st Sunday she’d transfer her “words” into the purse that matched her outfit. Going through her things the other day, I found more lyric sheets :0)

  10. saif anam says:

    Sheet music is a written recording of music. You could think of sheet music like a book; musicians can read sheet music to visualize a musical composition, and the sheet music can be played out loud just like a book can be read aloud. Reading Brass sheet music also requires a unique form of literacy, as the ability to read musical notation requires some education. Various stores which focus on musical instruments and performance sell sheet music, and it can also be purchased directly from companies which specialize in printing sheet music.

  11. Alyce says:

    Blessed morning! Am asking because I don’t know about these things. Are “lyric sheets” essentially “lyrics only” sheets? Would that be the difference between “lyrics & music” sheets? Is “sheet music” a music only thing with no lyrics involved? I know it’s very elementary stuff, but I don’t know the differences and had never given it any thought.

    • Ron Cross says:

      Hey Alyce,
      Great question! A lyric sheet as its discussed here is just a sheet of paper with the words to the song on it and nothing else (besides simple Directions or labels for the various sections of the song). Lyric sheets don’t include musical notation.
      Sheet music is the actual musical notation of a song. It may or not include the lyrics. It depends on who the sheet music is for.

      For example a professional background singer who does session work would need sheet music with both the musical notation and the lyrics, since her voice is the instrument she uses to play the notes. But the band members may not have the lyrics on their sheet music since they really don’t need the words.

      • alyce says:

        Bro. Ron!
        Thanks for clearing that up for me. And leads to my next question…or comments. I’ve always loved hymnals. I don’t find them in a lot of churches. Sometimes a church ‘passes them out’ and collects them.

        One church we meet in has hymnals and bibles in their pews. The hymnal is fabulous! One reason I like them so much is that; I don’t ‘read music’ but I like seeing the words and the notes, and I can ‘follow.’

        What that reminds me of is my video introduction of what you had “Natalie’ (I do hope I’ve gotten her name right) do by using her hand to indicate where the music was going. That’s something I would do sporatically, and it did help me follow along and “stay with the group.” After I saw Natalie do that, I do it a LOT. It especially helps when someone near is loudly singing and has no clue what ‘a key’ is…that throws me all out of whack and I’m barely in whack to begin with!

        If I have a hymnal (lyrics & music) I am able to maintain a semblance of melody because the road map is on the page. The pages are like art work that sings. My thoughts on not using lyric sheets to learn songs: I think you’re right. But at some point, having those lyrics written down somewhere has got to help; especially the difference when the phrases and sentences are spaced out according to the way they’re preformed. And if you have 50-11 songs in the repetoire!

        Often when I work on a message, it may have been inspired by music, or music further inspires the message. In which case, I’m writing it out for MY reference! I’m not going to sing it…but music does read like the poetry it is. So in order to have the rhythm or cadence correct, all that spacing, and some punctuation is needed. As I know I’ve said before…I need all the help I can get!

        First time I did that was with Walter Hawkins’ Thank You. And that has spoken lyrics prior to the vocals. So now I’m unafraid to do that. Probably should amend this is say “I’m not singing anything…unless the spirit moves me to do so!”

        much love & many blessings all over you and your ministry!!!

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