Basics of Singing 3: How to Learn a Song

There is a multitude of ways to learn a song. Depending upon a person’s culture and background, one or more ways were already enculturated before that person came in contact with any formal education system that taught music. Young children are exposed to music through their parents, either singing to them or playing it for them in a variety of mediums. In today’s society, toddlers can manipulate a smart phone to play a youtube video of toddler tunes. A person is exposed to music in some form anytime there is interaction with the outside world. You can hear music in commercials, in stores, video games, even rings of a cell phone. With that said, what are the typical ways most people learn a song?

First, the general population of people learns by ear. For many generations, music was not written down, but passed on by rote (someone who knew the song would sing or play it for others, and they would copy it). Today, one hears the piece of music on some media device, and over time can sing along with the song. There are advantages and disadvantages to this method. First, an advantage is the ability to practice wherever the person is, with access to the song a smart phone away. Second, the body of music out there to hear is nearly infinite; access has never been easier than today with many ways to freely listen. Also, one can listen to different singers performing the same piece to get different takes on how to perform the piece. One disadvantage of this method is the singer’s desire to try and copy the original artist’s voice. No matter who it is, that performer’s voice is unique, as is the singer trying to copy. In order for the singer to copy the original artist, a contrived sound is created with tension in the throat. Try singing like Louie Armstrong for more than 10 seconds and you will instantly feel the extreme of this issue. Another disadvantage of this method is lack of creativity on the part of the learner. If one only learns from someone else’s style of singing, one’s own interpretation of the text and music is lost. If you have ever listened to the same song with different singers, you will notice variations in the performance. Finally, a disadvantage of learning by ear is time. If a piece of music must be sung in a great hurry for an event, then the ability to read the music fast becomes invaluable. To put this in perspective, imagine you become a famous singer. A large media corporation such as Disney calls you up and wants you to perform on the soundtrack of their next movie. The company flies you to their studio, send you to the booth with the sheet music, sets up the microphone, and is ready to record. You ask to hear a recording of the song first, and are met with blank stares. There is no recording, because you are the first. Now a great gig was lost, and your reputation is tarnished.

There is nothing wrong with learning music by ear. However, being able to learn a song several different ways gives the singer an edge over other singers, and increases the learning curve. Here are other methods to learn a song other than by a recording with the vocals: 1. Learn by rote; 2. Speak the text out loud; 3. Use sheet music; 4. Sing along with a karaoke track; 5. Sing a cappella; 6. Record yourself; and 7. Solfedge.

Learning by rote simply means someone sings a line of the song and you sing it back. Cultures have taught music in this way for millennia, and some religious groups still use this method today in services where a leader sings a line, and the congregation responds. If learning a song by rote, typically a person sings a line (or phrase), then sings a second phrase, puts them together, sings a third, adds that, and so on. Many people who teach groups to sing use this method.

Speaking the text of the song out loud is a technique for understanding the meaning of the lyrics, as well as a way to decide what is the most important word of each phrase (more on that later). The act of speaking it audibly is important for this technique to have its full effect. Try looking up the lyrics to a song you know already somewhat well. Speak the text, and then listen to the song. You may notice the meanings of parts of the song seem different. You are now linking meaning to words that were not important before you underwent this exercise. This can also help with memorization of songs.

Using sheet music to learn a song is standard practice in most formal voice lessons. Music reading literacy is like reading literacy; it opens up new ways to learn material, sometimes more quickly. If you have never read music before, it can be daunting to look at a piece of music. There are many instructional methods out there to learn how to read music. Just learning the note names and how long you hold a note (rhythm) is just the beginning (like learning the alphabet).  A simple open resource can be found here:

Singing along with a karaoke track is a method to utilize after you feel comfortable singing the song with the vocals behind you. Some singers feel very confident singing with the vocal track behind them, and then when it is removed, suddenly their voice goes away. This is due to a subconscious method for singing where the singer is hearing the voice and then following it a split second later. I call it “cheat-singing.” You are only cheating yourself when using this, because as soon as the other vocal is not there, you are stuck. Singing with a karaoke track, or a live accompaniment if available, eliminates cheat singing as an option (unless the accompanist is playing your notes and you are cheat-singing to that). The track also assists the singer in reminding them of the right pitch centers, something not available if the singer sings without any accompaniment, or a cappella.

There is an advantage to singing a cappella. Without anything to use as a crutch, the singer is forced to sing solo. This exposes any vocal issues that were hiding behind either the accompaniment or the other vocalist. It can be hard to diagnose all issues listening and singing at the same time. That’s where recording yourself is useful. Very few people actually enjoy listening to themselves sing. One of the reasons is because when you sing, you hear yourself both through your ears and in your head. In a recording, the singer hears how he or she sounds to everyone else. This can be discouraging, but useful as a tool to improve. Video recording is a better method than just audio, because any physical issues that occur can be diagnosed as well (ex. You see your head leaning forward when trying to sing a high note).

Solfedge is a system to learn music developed by a Hungarian named Zoltan Kodály. He created a system of syllables for notes in the scale (Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do), which in turn help the singer know what direction the note tends to move. It helped save Hungarian folk music, which was in danger of disappearing altogether. Once a singer learns the system, singing a phrase for the first time becomes easier (cue Sound of Music). This is an excellent method for sight reading music. Excellent sight readers can look at a piece of music, and sing it correctly the first time without hearing it. Professional sight readers are employed all around the world, in church choirs, radio choirs in Europe, and media companies.

One method of learning a song by itself is not better or worse than another. However, if the singer uses the best of all methods, he or she can learn music well and quickly.

Supplemental Videos

Assignment on Videos

After watching the demonstration video, enter the secret number at the top of your assignment.

Write in complete sentences answers to the following questions.

1. In your own words, what was the content of the video?

2. What are two things you found most interesting about the content of the video?

3. Think of a singer you have seen and heard. Who are they, and what do they demonstrate in terms of this concept?

4. Name 3 positive things you do while singing that relate to this concept.

5. What 2 things can you improve on relating to this concept?