Core Study Sequences: Learning & Memorising Songs

This is Part 8 in a series of articles in which I show you exactly how I’m learning foreign languages every day, and today is about transcribing audio.

In these articles I talk about how I’m using my Core Study Time – a 30-45 minute period at the start of every day which I set aside for intensive study.

Before you read this, you should go back and check out the previous posts in the series:

  1. My CRAZY 5am Language Routine
  2. Core Study Time In Your Language Routine
  3. Core Study Sequences Part 1: Listening Comprehension
  4. Core Study Sequences Part 2: Learning Vocabulary
  5. Core Study Sequences Part 3: Lesson Preparation
  6. Core Study Sequences Part 4: Glossika Language Training
  7. Core Study Sequences Part 5: Studying Dialogues
  8. Core Study Sequences Part 6: Transcribing Audio
  9. Core Study Sequences Part 7: Reverse Translation
  10. Core Study Sequences Part 8: Learning & Memorising Songs

Learn Songs to Improve Your Language Skills

For some people, learning songs in a foreign language is one of the most natural things to do!

For others, the thought never occurs!

Perhaps because of my music background, I’ve always enjoyed learning songs in all of my eight languages.

I’m actually quite fussy in terms of what music I like, which means that when I do come across a song that speaks to me, I get this overwhelming urge to learn it right away!

When I was a full-time musician, I spent many years playing salsa, samba, bossa nova, and other Latin American styles, which gave me a lot of practice learning lyrics in foreign languages!

At that time, I found that learning music in Spanish and Portuguese really helped me develop my abilities in the languages:

But above all, I alway find that learning songs helps me grow an affinity, love and appreciation for the language I’m learning, far beyond the nuts and bolts (the grammar!) you learn during regular study.

Engaging yourself on an emotional level is a sure-fire way to increase motivation and learn a language faster!

The Process

Through all this practice, I’ve developed a really solid system for learning song lyrics.

One important point I want to make is this: It takes a lot of work!

Even with a good system for memorising lyrics, there’s simply no getting away from the discipline required to commit it all to memory.

With that said, let’s look at how I go about it:

  1. Put the song on your phone in offline format: You need to be able to listen to it any time, any place.
  2. Listen to the song over and over: As you go about your day, use every opportunity to simply listen to the song and familiarise yourself with it.
  3. Find the lyrics online: You can find the lyrics to virtually any song online. Print it off on paper and carry it around with you.
  4. Listen to the song and read along to the lyrics: This is where you start to make sense of words or phrases you might have missed when you listen to the song on its own.
  5. Look up unknown words: Don’t make the mistake of learning lyrics you don’t understand – it’s ultimately a complete waste of time and effort!

Now you’ve done the preparation – familiarising yourself with the song and lyrics – now you’ve got the tough job of committing it all to memory!

  1. Start by learning one line of the song on it’s own – yes, just the first line!
  2. When you’ve got it, add the second line.
  3. Stop there. Sing those first two lines to yourself, and don’t try to learn any more. Get on with your day, and keep singing those two lines over and over. (When learning songs, it’s better to learn things well the first time.)
  4. The next day, come back and add two more lines.
  5. Stop there. You’ve now got four lines – maybe an entire chorus! This is already a great milestone in learning the song. But again, don’t make the mistake of trying to learn much more. Get on with your day, and sing all four lines to yourself over and over.
  6. Continue like this, adding two lines at a time, until you’ve learnt the song.

What happens during this process, and the reason we just add two lines at a time, is that you will forget stuff.

You’ll forget words…

You’ll even forget entire lines…

But that’s ok – it’s all part of the process. 

When I’ve got most of the lyrics down, what I start to do is to sing the song in reverse.

No, I’m not crazy! Here’s why…

One of the things you need to do when performing a song is to remember which lines are coming up next. Otherwise, in the heat of performance, you can suddenly forget what’s next, and that can be a disaster!

The best way to mitigate against this is to deliberately mix up the order of the lines you sing to yourself, so get the know the order of the lines in the song literally back-to-front!

Learning The Performance

Finally! You’ve learnt the lyrics!

But wait… unfortunately, you’re not done yet!

You see, when you’re singing a song to yourself, you stop and start. If you make a mistake, you go back and fix it. (Trust me, you do this much more than you think!)

But if you ever come to perform in front of someone else, you can’t do that!

Now, you may not ever plan to perform in public… and I get that. (Most people don’t!)

But the point here is that you don’t truly know a song until you can sit down and sing it from beginning to end without stopping, correcting yourself, or even hesitating! 

So, even if you never plan to perform in front of people, it really pays dividends to practise the performance of the song.

  1. Turn on your camera, or your voice recorder app, and start it running
  2. Sing the song as best you can… and see what happens!
  3. You’ll make mistakes (it’s ok… it’s totally normal at this stage)
  4. Now, your task is a simple one… keep practising until you can recite the whole song without making mistakes! I find that this part is actually the hardest part of all… far harder than actually learning the lyrics in the first place! 🙂

Where Can I Find Song Lyrics?

Often a simple Google search will get you the lyrics quickly. What can help is to find the word for “lyrics” in your target language, and include that with the search.

For example, don’t just search for: “We are the champions”, search: “We are the champions lyrics”

Here are some of the most popular lyrics websites for you to start your search:

What happens if you have a song stuck in your head, but don’t the title?

Easy…


Have you learnt songs in the past? What tips would you give?

Please share this post on Facebook or Twitter if you found it useful, then leave me your comments or questions below!

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • Anna Liashenko

    Thank you very much for the series of Core Study Sequences! They are extremely useful and I really admire your way of learning a foreign languages.
    In one of the videos you’ve shown that you have a notebook with vocabulary. It would be very interesting to read how you classify words and how you fill in your notebook.
    Thank you very much for the inspiration you give 🙂

    • Hey Anna. My notebook is just for writing stuff down quickly during lessons. I don’t spend much time classifying it because I know I won’t go back to it very often. I prefer to transfer things into flashcards after that.

  • ElfinW

    Such a great post Olly ! I found out only just recently how useful learning languages with songs is, so this advice and tips are extremely useful ! Took some time for me to understand the sing it in reverse part, but now it makes perfect sense !

    Just one thing, at what point in your language learning process do you use songs ? As soon as possible ?

    • Sure, right at the beginning! I first learnt Brazilian Portuguese by learning Bossa Nova songs. There’s nothing cooler to look up in the dictionary than words to songs.

  • Loved that song you played in portugese with the guitar, what’s its called?