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Connecticut Shoreline Studio for Music Lessons
in Voice, Piano, Guitar & the Fundamentals of Music

Clef Notes

10 Steps for Memorizing Lyrics

Cheat Sheet for Postcards from Hell

Let’s Memorize Our Song Lyrics Together

Personally, I think a vocal performance is more powerful when you have memorized the lyrics. So, whenever possible, I encourage students and even a few performing friends to do so. I feel so strongly about it that, if I feel I have “permission” to give feedback to a friend, I’ll say, “I’ll give you a dollar if you’ll sing that without looking at the lyrics sometime.” Sometimes they do! And I welcome them to The Dollar Club.

What’s interesting to me is that there seems to be no middle ground with this skill. People fall into one of two categories:

  • You can hear the song once, and you almost already have it memorized
  • You can hear and sing the song a million times and still feel uncertain about some of the lyrics

I fall into the second category and so do at least half of my students. And let’s just get this right out there in beginning: I have no judgement about this topic because I often find myself in scenarios when I need a lyric sheet.

The Dreaded “Jury”

When I was studying music in college, they conducted these awful things called “juries.” A jury would take place at the end of a certain period of study, and you would have to perform a certain number of pieces FROM MEMORY in front of the entire music faculty. (I’m certain they’re still doing this.) And just to make things even more difficult, I had to sing pieces in German, French, and Italian. Omg. I did okay, for the most part, but one time I forgot the German lyrics for a few bars, so I just did some German scat. (I.e., I don’t speak German, so I just made up words with some German sounds.) Thank goodness my professors had a sense of humor and gave me a pass.

Since that time, I have developed a system for memorizing lyrics that seems to work for me and for most of my students.

A Song To Work With

For the purposes of this blog post, I have obtained permission to use the lyrics of a song I regularly cover called “Postcards From Hell,” written by Oliver and Christopher Wood (a.k.a. The Wood Brothers – one of my favorite bands and two of my favorite songwriters).

Here are the lyrics in their entirety:

Postcards From Hell

by Oliver  Christopher Wood

Verse 1

I know a man who sings the blues
Yeah he plays just what he feels
Keeps a letter in the pocket of his coat
But he never breaks the seal

Verse 2

Set up in a barroom corner
Playing for tips and beer
People carrying on and drinking
You gotta strain to hear

Verse 3

I’ve seen him playing some old cheap guitar
But he could play on pots and pans
You never heard a soul so pure and true
It’s flowing right out of his hands

Verse 4

He can sing sweet as a choir girl
Or he can sing a house on fire
I’ve seen him calling up the angels
And use a breeze for a telephone wire


And if you ask him
How he sings his blues so well
He says
I got a soul that I won’t sell
I got a soul that I won’t sell
I got a soul that I won’t sell
And I don’t read postcards from hell

Verse 5

Says he came from down in Texas
Playin’ out since he’s fifteen
You can hear a little Chicago
And a lot of New Orleans

Verse 6

He can take you on a freight train
He can take you down the alley
He can take you to the church
He can walk you through the valley


And if you ask him
How he sings his blues so well
He says
I got a soul that I won’t sell
I got a soul that I won’t sell
I got a soul that I won’t sell
And I don’t read postcards from hell

Verse 7

I’ve seen him sleeping in a doorway
Maybe living outside
On his back just like a cockroach
But he ain’t waiting to die


And if you ask him
How he sings his blues so well
He says
I got a soul that I won’t sell
I got a soul that I won’t sell
I got a soul that I won’t sell
And I don’t read postcards from hell

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

You’ll need the following:

  • A piece of lined paper
  • A sharp #2 pencil with a good eraser
  • Access to the lyrics of the song

Step 2: Write Song Info at the Top

Refer to my post “The Seven Things You Should Know About the Song You’re Singing,” and write all that information at the top of your paper leaving at least a 1/2″ border. Invariably, once you create this important document, you will be sharing it with people, and if you write outside of the margin, the copier won’t pick it up. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found my handcrafted song maps in the binders of complete strangers.)

Here’s how mine looks so far:

Song Info for Postcards From Hell

Step 2: Give Each Section a Name

There are industry standard section headings like verse, chorus, and bridge, but it doesn’t really matter what you call the sections as long as you know what you mean. This is a pretty simple song, as far as sections headings go. Stay tuned for a future post called “How To Create a Song Summary Chart” when I will go into more detail about how to make song maps that are more useful for more complicated songs and helpful in scenarios like band practices. Right now, we’re in survival mode just trying to memorize lyrics.

Step 3: Make a Song Map

Write the section headings in order, giving space between each one.

My song map looks like this:

Section Headings for Postcards from Hell

I added in where the Intro Riff comes back because it helps me think of the verses in groups.

Step 4: Determine What the Song Is About & Create A Story

It is still shocking to me that people sing and play songs that they have no idea what they’re about, but it happens all the time. Spend some time with the lyrics to learn what the song is about. Be able to articulate the meaning of the song in your own words, even if you are only guessing.

(I have done extensive research on “Burning Down the House,” but there is no meaning or story. I heard from someone hat David Byrne just put together a bunch of phrases that he liked the sound of. The result? I don’t think I will ever be able to memorize those lyrics.)

In the case of “Postcards From Hell,” there’s not much of a story. It’s more about describing what this artist is like and describing his character, which is the crux of the matter.

I would summarize each section for myself in this way:

  • Verse 1: A guy sings the blues and keeps a letter that he never opens.
  • Verse 2: He plays in noisy bars.
  • Verse 3: He plays a cheap guitar, but it doesn’t matter what he plays because his heart and soul comes through the music his hands make.
  • Verse 4: He can sing with all kinds of emotion and meaning.
  • Chorus: He ain’t sellin’out.
  • Verse 5: He came from Texas but sounds like Chicago and New Orleans.
  • Verse 6: He can transport you to all kinds of places with his music.
  • Chorus: He ain’t sellin’out.
  • Verse 7: He lives like a homeless person, but not like a person without hope or purpose.
  • Chorus: He ain’t sellin’ out.

You don’t need to write this down for yourself, but going through this exercise in your mind will help you with the next step.

Step 5: Determine Key Lyrics For Each Section

For each section, figure out which lyric(s) or phrase(s) might help you remember the entire section, and write those next to the section headings. Try to write as few words as possible because you can always add more in a later step. Often, you don’t even need to write anything for the chorus because you can remember that no matter what.

Here’s mine:

Step 6: Try Singing Through the Song Only Using Your Song Map

It is of utmost importance that you do this step WITHOUT singing along to the original recording! You don’t realize how many cues you are getting from the singer until you take him or her away. And if you can sing along to a karaoke track or some sort of accompaniment, even better.

Make note of where you might need more help with lyrics.

Step 7: Adjust Your Song Map Accordingly

Add in as few lyrics as possible until you can make it all the way through the song in confidence. 

And learn from my mistake: never take an untested song map on stage with you.

Step 8: Whack It Back To A Cheat Sheet

After singing through the song successfully a few times, now it’s time to whack it down to a cheat sheet. Write a new song map with fewer lyrics and repeat steps five through eight until you can do it with just a few notes to yourself.

Mine looks like this:

Cheat Sheet for Postcards from Hell

Step 9: Rehearse with Your Cheat Sheet!

Sometimes I need to take these cheat sheets on stage with me, but I prefer being to use them in rehearsals a few times. Then I can jump off the cliff and go chart-free at rehearsal first so I can feel ready for performance.

Step 10: Store Cheat Sheets in an Organized Fashion

I keep my all my cheat sheets in binders in alphabetical order so I can refer back to them when I want to perform the song again after not having sung it for awhile. In fact, I keep my original song map AND my cheat sheet because sometimes I need to go all the way back.

And now! You should go watch The Wood Brothers perform this song. Enjoy!

5 thoughts on “10 Steps for Memorizing Lyrics”

  1. well done
    Love it
    I always treated memorizing lyrics with a “remember the story” approach.
    And it did me well over many decades.
    In these later years though, there are more and more “senior moments”.

  2. At my piano lesson Friday we were discussing those parts of different verses of a song where the music changes just slightly and I get messed up. I just realized that at least one reason for those detours in the melody are because the lyrics change from one verse to the next which causes some notes to be dropped or added in order to accommodate the lyrics… e.g. changes in the number of syllables can require a change in the number of notes. I’ve never paid much attention to lyrics. I’m in that category where I can hear a song a million times and not know the lyrics. But when I practice Piano Man today, I will read the lyrics carefully for those sections I’m having trouble with and see if that helps.


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