By Lars Rosager
Performing with sheet music and singing from memory are two very different activities. The former highlights the interactions among the composer, the performer, and the audience, while the latter more intimately joins the performer with the audience. Through memorization, the performer is invited to take greater ownership over the music, and enjoys more expressive freedom. One primary goal of the skilled musician is, as the saying goes, to “bring the music off the page.” Most music is usually open to some degree of interpretation, so the process of committing music to memory allows the performer to contribute a personal touch. In this guide, I offer you advice on how to memorize a piece of vocal music.
Phase 1: Learn the General Features
First, you must familiarize yourself with the piece of music as a complete entity. Make note of its general features. This includes full read-throughs, listening to recordings, and understanding the overall feel of the musical discourse. Ask yourself, “What is the piece trying to communicate? What is the mood, and how is this mood manifested?” To complete the first phase of memorization, it is also necessary to map the piece. For example, to take a standard formal layout employed in jazz music, you may simply note that the music follows the form AABA. In modern popular music, you may find various configurations of intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and outro.
After establishing the general features of the piece, it is important to read through its text. Observe the trajectory of the text and its methods of expression, then sing it through once. After that, practice singing just the vowels. This is necessary because the vowels are the sustainers of vocal sound. It is through the vowels that the notes find the most exposure. Once you are comfortable with the vowels, add in the consonants. If the piece of music is self-accompanied — meaning the vocalist also plays an instrumental accompaniment — learn the vocal part first. A similar tactic can be applied to non-vocal instrumental music. Here, it is crucial to learn the most prominent melodic material before shifting focus to the accompaniment.
Phase 2: How to Memorize the Text Phrase by Phrase
Now for phrase-by-phrase memorization. Owing to the brevity of phrases relative to a piece in its entirety, you can simply perform a single phrase beginning to end until the phrase has been committed to memory. However, the division of music into phrases — and the divisions of the phrases themselves — will vary depending on individual interpretation. In vocal music, phrases are often defined by a complete line of poetry or a grammatical separation of text. The notion of a phrase as a complete musical idea is a good guide in determining each individual phrase.
“Angel Eyes,” by Matt Dennis and Earl Brent (mm. 1–8)
Please refer to the end of this article to view the sheet music for this piece.
How could you go about memorizing the first eight measures of “Angel Eyes” by Matt Dennis and Earl Brent? This is a useful opportunity to explain phrasal division. Classically speaking, you might analyze this passage of music to be a period divided into two phrases of equal length. The two phrases are each built from an antecedent and consequent, each of these being two-measures long. You will commit no error in memorizing just two measures at time. The textual meaning is clear, and the melody is conveniently divided every two measures by either an eighth-rest (mm. 3 and 5) or an anacrusis (pickup, mm. 6).
Finding a Method of Memorization
No matter the piece of music or the method of phrasal organization, your task is now to memorize the first segment, then the second, and finally combine the two. Continue in this fashion to gradually build up the piece: first segment, second segment, first two segments together, third segment, first three segments together, and so on. If the phrases or larger sectional divisions of the piece are confusing, other devices may be helpful. The Italian Renaissance scholar Matteo Ricci suggested a method of memorization consisting of imaginary architectural projects in which mental images of buildings and their interior designs serve as maps for material one wishes to memorize. Less extensive methods include mnemonic devices such as acronyms, numeric sequences, and riddles.
Lastly, spend some time on articulation, dynamics, and ornamentation — the minute, but indispensable details. These considerations are often subject to change, sometimes change that occurs without forethought. This is just one way in which the spontaneity of memorized performance can come alive.
Not every musician is a memorizer, but certain performing traditions require leaving your sheet music backstage. When appropriate, memorization can facilitate improvisation and elaboration over a basic musical framework. I hope these tips contribute to the growth of your musical expression.
Music by Matt Dennis, Lyrics by Earl Brent. “Angel Eyes.” In The New Real Book, edited by Chuck Sher, 9–10. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music Co., 1998.
Lars Rosager graduated from San Francisco State University in 2010 with bachelors degrees in Music (Jazz Guitar) and Spanish. This year, he put the finishing touches on his master’s thesis on the connections between Renaissance Humanism and the Spanish Guitar, the final project toward his completion of the degree Master of Arts in Music.
Lars also teaches voice and guitar lessons. Feel free to reach out to him on his Savvy profile about music lessons.