Strategies for Memorizing Worship Song Lyrics

It was Christmas Eve. Probably somewhere around 2010. Jason and I were scheduled to lead the songs in our church’s Christmas Eve service, which included several very-wordy traditional Christmas hymns. 

Phew. Good thing our church had a confidence monitor! No need to spend copious amounts of time memorizing all the verses of the songs—since they would be there for us on the screen!

In theory, this was all true. But the way it played out was this… 

Just before the service, the computers at the back went down. No lyrics. Not for us, not for the congregation. 

Still, the songs needed to be led…

Somehow, pages and pages of sheet music were scrounged up in a jiffy… with the tiniest little lyrics on them… and spread across a huge pulpit on the front of the stage—which we both proceeded to look at constantly, with much squinting and much flubbing of the words. 

Needless to say, it was embarrassing. We looked incredibly unprepared, and the truth was, we were! We didn’t know those lyrics! 

And it wasn’t technology’s fault—we can’t depend on technology to always work perfectly for us. Yes, of course it’s nice to have the lyrics on the screen at the back or on the monitor in front of you, but for so many of us, that monitor becomes a crutch. I know it certainly has been that for me. 

For those of us who serve on our worship team, it’s so important that we do so with the perspective that serving is synonymous with sacrifice. 

There is a laying down of ourselves involved. There’s a laying down of our time. There is (or at least there should be!) major preparation involved! There is skill-building involved! 

Memorization is a skill… skills take practice… and practice takes time.

So even if you do have a confidence monitor at your church, or if your team allows the lyrics to be in front of you on the stage (I’ve been in both settings), I encourage you to memorize the lyrics to each and every song you will be singing in a service. Not only will you be able to deliver the songs with more authority, but you’ll also be prepared for any time that the next lyric is not right there ready for you on the screen, or you forget your lyric sheet… or your iPad goes on the fritz! 

Yes, it will take extra time to memorize every lyric, but the more you work on your memorization skills, the quicker you will get at memorizing future songs. 

And here’s the truth that can’t be overstated: no practice time is wasted when you’re doing it in service to your King. 

Jesus is so worthy of our worship, and when we lay down our time for Him—yes, that includes our practice time—He is glorified by our obedience, servanthood and faithfulness! 

Thankfully, the fact that we’re talking about memorizing MUSIC means that there’s already something so powerful working for us—God has created melody in such a beautiful way that it helps us remember things (think about how you can so easily remember a commercial jingle you haven’t heard in years, or a song that you grew up singing!)

So the fact that the lyrics we need to know for our worship services have melodies that go along with them—that’s awesome! This makes it much easier to learn lyrics than to learn a speech or something else that doesn’t have melody attached!

Also, song lyrics often have rhymes at the ends of the phrases, which is another powerful “already-there-for-you” memorization technique!

So if you’ve had trouble with remembering lyrics in the past, be encouraged that:

  • God has created music in such a way that it works for you to help you remember it
  • Well-written songs have built-in memorization tools (like rhyme) that we can utilize, especially if we’re looking for them!

AND… you have the power of the Holy Spirit! You are empowered with the spirit of wisdom and understanding… empowered by the Great Helper, the Spirit of God—what an amazing thing!

And that Spirit gives us practical wisdom that we can use to do real tasks. In real life. He gives us real knowledge of our real human bodies that we can use to better equip and steward what we are called to do. 

Understand this about your brain…

Moving something from short-term memory storage to long-term memory storage (which is what we need to do for lyrics) works most efficiently and consistently when we use memorization techniques, because how well you can retrieve the information later depends on how well you store the information.

I’ll say that again:

How well you can retrieve information at a later time depends on how well you’ve stored the information.

Which means that to truly memorize a song and be able to recall it accurately, you’ll most likely need to do more than just listen to it and sing it over and over. In the same way, if you’ve taken in any of my vocal training, you know I’m a big proponent of doing specific, strategic vocal exercises to improve your vocal tone and expand your range—these exercises are what train the voice to actually form new, better habits, whereas if we just sing songs in our practice time, we can get stuck in the same old habits we’ve always had, and not actually experience improvement in our vocal skill. 

So what I have for you are 12 simple strategies to help you memorize your worship song lyrics. Experiment and see what works well for you, and if you have other strategies, I would love to hear about them in the comments! 

Strategy #1: Listen, listen, listen!

Ideally, starting days or weeks before you actually need to sing the song in front of people, begin listening to the song over and over. Sing along when you can. Play it in the background as much as you can. There’s a lot of subconscious learning that happens even when you’re not focusing on memorization! Through repetitively hearing the song, your brain starts getting familiar with the rhymes and phrases, without the pressure of trying to cram the song into your brain in a short amount of time! 

Sometimes just listening to a song and singing along is enough to memorize it—especially if you feel a special emotional connection to the song (we’ll talk about that later!), but the key is that it needs to happen over time. 

If you only have a week—or, really not ideal—a day or two to learn a new song, then still plan on listening to it over and over, but you will also need to employ some strategic memorization techniques, which we’ll explore here! 

Strategy #2: Read the lyrics aloud.

Print out the lyrics and read them out loud without singing along or listening to the recording. Do this several times. And go slowly—again, this helps your brain to familiarize itself with the rhymes and phrases! By looking at the lyrics and reading them out loud, you are stimulating both your brain’s auditory and visual memory! 

Important note: if you have access to a printer, it works best to actually have a physical copy of the lyrics rather than just reading them off of a website lyric page. This is because of the power of visual memory—we want to utilize your brain’s ability to remember visually where something was on the page, what it looked like, etc. 

When I was in university, I remember taking tests and being able to recall facts from a textbook—and I could picture exactly where those words were on the page… what the paragraph looked like, what colors were on the page, the images around it, etc. To this day, I am very aware that my memory recall is much better if I’ve looked at a physical copy of text, rather than an online version! 

Strategy #3: Mark up your lyric sheet.

This goes along with using our brain’s visual memory! Mark up your lyric sheet however you want—underline words, highlight things, doodle around the sections, etc.! 

Pay special attention to the first lines of each section of the song (make sure to underline or highlight them!). Our brain remembers things by association—and so the first line of a song section is incredibly important because it will trigger your memory to remember the next line!

Also, pay attention to the rhymes in the song (for example, “free” and “see”). Underline or highlight the rhyming words at the ends of the phrases. Rhyme is a powerful literary tool that has been around for centuries—and so we can strategically put that together with the powerful tool of visual memory! 

Strategy #4: Sing along with the recording while looking at the lyrics. 

With your lyric sheet in front of you, sing along and don’t look away from the lyrics, even if you are confident in certain parts! This will help put your auditory and visual learning skills together! 

And remember, this is made all the more effective by using your marked-up lyric sheet, because the markings you’ve made will help trigger your brain to remember the lyrics once you stop looking at them!

Strategy #5: Write the lyrics out on paper. 

This step is not necessary for everyone, but if you find that you especially struggle to remember lyrics, write the entire song out on paper! I suggest using different colors for the verses, choruses and bridge sections (for example, pink for the verses, green for the choruses, blue for the bridge). 

Again, an important thing to note is that typing the lyrics is much less effective than writing them with your own hand—there’s something that happens when we actually use a writing instrument (which can be on physical paper or on a tablet with a tablet pen—that’s fine too)!

Strategy #6: Memorize by “chunking”.

After beginning with the previous strategies, it’s time to start actually memorizing! 

Starting with the first section of the song (usually a verse), sing along with the original recording without looking at the lyrics, and then repeat ONLY that section until you can remember it exactly. You may need to start with even just one or two lines of that section, which is totally fine!

Then, once you feel confident in that section (ie. you know every word!), add the next section of the song (most likely a second verse or chorus). As you sing along with this next section, always start by singing at least the final 2 lines or the entire previous section. This is important, because remember that your brain works through association, so singing song sections strung together will help your brain recall the correct lyrics back-to-back, and in the proper order. 

Once you move onto the third section of the song, do this same thing as you start memorizing it—start by coming in from the previous section (but in this case you can skip section one in order to save time). However, I do recommend that as you’re working on memorizing, every so often make sure to sing the song from the beginning so that you engrain the whole thing in your memory! 

Strategy #7: Use the “flashcard” method. 

Another method of memorization to try is to write down just the first word or two of each line of the song, then try singing the song with only that in front of you—much like using flashcards for a speech!

For example, instead of looking at this whole set of verse lyrics:

You bore a sinner’s cross
You shed Your blood for us
Forever I am Yours
Because of Your great love

I would just write out these words to trigger my memory:

You bore…
You shed…

Strategy #8: Sing with an instrumental version. 

If you have access to it, make sure to sing along with an instrumental version of the song! Sometimes we don’t realize how much hearing the singer on the original recording is prompting our memory… so it’s important to take that away! Plus, it’s important that you hear what the instruments are doing and feel the rhythm of the song, rather than just singing a cappella (with no music). 

Strategy #9: Use imagery to help you memorize.

There’s so much research in this area of brain science, which I won’t get into here! The bottom line is that whenever possible, it’s helpful to create actual pictures in your mind for the lyrics of the song. Visual imagery is powerful!

For example, for these lyrics, if I have trouble remembering the third line of the song: 

Joyful, joyful, we adore You
God of glory, Lord of love
Hearts unfold like flowers before You
Opening to the sun above

… I might imagine myself standing in a group of children with huge smiles of joy on their faces, all looking up to heaven. Each of us is holding a heart-shaped greeting card in our hands, which we then open up to reveal that they’re actually pop-up cards with beautiful yellow daffodils that pop out. 

For these lyrics:

Crown of thorns upon your head
Oh the blood that was shed 
On Calvary
On Calvary

… in my mind I might zoom in on a close-up of a twisted crown of thorns, then zoom slightly out to see blood dripping down from Jesus’ head, then zoom out more to see the word “Calvary” written by the clouds in the sky above Jesus—twice—since that phrase is repeated.

The more specific you are in the details of your image, the more likely your brain will be able to remember it! 

Strategy #10: Establish an emotional connection to the song. 

This is not way down the list for lack of importance—this strategy is actually SO vital! 

In the days and weeks leading up to when you’ll be singing a song, spend time reflecting on the lyrics. The more you can internalize what you’re singing, the greater chance you’ll remember it because it will make its way from your head to your heart (as Jonathan and Melissa Helser call it—the “18-inch journey”!).

It’s very important that you find the meaning of every song that you sing. What it means for you. I say “find” because it won’t always come naturally for every song—some songs you’ll feel a connection with right away, others you won’t—but this connection can be found for every worship song that we sing, because this is all about Jesus! 

If you lack passion for a song, ask yourself why—is it a heart issue that the Lord wants to deal with? Is there a lack of passion and first love for Jesus? Is there something you don’t understand about the song? 

Is it because you don’t “like” the song? We’ve all been here, but I would challenge us to come up higher—instead of being critical of a song that we don’t prefer, if we’ve been asked to sing it (by our worship director/pastor), then we’re there to serve—to lay ourselves down. 

I find that it’s truly helpful to look for and meditate on the scriptures that the song is based on, and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus in the song to you! Sometimes you can find an article or a video online where the songwriter talks about the inspiration behind the song, or sometimes that’s not available, so you can create your own bible study on it!

Here’s the huge bonus—when you’ve spent time with the Jesus whom you’re singing about, processing and meditating on what you’re singing about, you will carry so much authority and confidence into your leadership and presence as you sing the song with your congregation! The time spent is so not wasted. 

Strategy #11: Space out your practice. 

Repetition is important when it comes to memorization, but “spaced repetition”—or in other words, spacing out your practice sessions, is an essential part of it. 

Memorization involves a lot of brainpower, so this kind of work should “be spaced out to allow new neural connections to solidify” (Pierce Howard, “The Owners Manual for the Brain”). 

So instead of spending an hour or more trying to memorize your lyrics, spend 10-15 minutes on a song, then come back to it later that day or the next day. Then do it again the following day—then leave a couple days in between and come back to it! This gives your brain time to process and truly get it into your long-term memory.

This means planning in advance—starting early—so that you’re not cramming the song into your head the day before you sing it at church! 

Strategy #12: Give your brain what it needs to function best!

You’ve probably noticed that it’s a lot easier to function when you’ve gotten a good sleep than when you’ve had little sleep (moms of newborns—I see you)! Well, this is a major factor for the way the brain can recall things. 

Getting enough sleep, regular exercise, and healthy eating are all so key to a healthy brain—not only will they help your brain function better right away in this weekend’s services, but they will also improve your brain’s overall function and ability to memorize. 

I hope these strategies are helpful for you! Remember to let me know what works well for you and if you have any other things that you do to help you remember the lyrics to worship songs! 


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    1. Hi Charmaine! This is a great list that I will be forwarding to my team :). I already do many of these things, but you had several that I hadn’t considered previously. I am looking forward to trying them out on my next new song!

      You asked what other things help me memorize. You mentioned in the flashcard method to write just the first 2 words of the phrase. I take a step further. I write out the verse on one side, and on the other write only the first letter of each word. I have used this strategy to help me memorize Bible verses as well. To review the verse, I look at the side with only the letter, and recite or sing it with only that as a cue.

    2. I absolutely loved strategy 10. Wow that’s so important and so often forgotten about when we worship. We can think about the practicalities of the song, the harmonies, pitching etc but what does the song actually mean? By doing this strategy, we can actually connect with the song and worship with passion with our eyes closed and hearts fully focused on the Lord. Its not just singing but truly worshipping.
      Thanks so much for all these tips. So so helpful and something I struggle with so thanks again 🙂

    3. This article couldn’t have come at a more perfect time as I prepare for my churches 50th anniversary service. So encouraging and helpful. Thank You!

    4. I love this! thank you so much! This is so very helpful. Quite often our confidence monitor decides it wants a day off or our person changing the slides, can’t make it that day. It throws me off guard and I tend to spend most of the service with extreme anxiety and mumbling some sort of made-up wording!

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