How to learn a song effectively

After reading this article, you will discover an effective way of learning and practicing a new song. If it will/should become your way of practicing? I don’t know, because everyone is different! But what I know is that I can give you three phases of practicing that will make the process of learning a song effectively.

Singing in the car vs. practicing singing

Singing is something you can do everywhere and all the time. According to a study carried out at the University of Frankfurt, singing improves our mood, strengthens our immune system, and gives us pleasure! Saliva samples after choir lessons have even shown increased oxytocin values: the stress-relieving hormone! 

So instead of having a smoke you could also just sing a little bit, this will not only protect your health but improve it!! And this applies to everyone singing, no matter how good or bad you think you sound! So never stop and do it wherever and whenever you feel like it!

The moment you decide to actually practice singing a song though, you should not treat it as a stress-relieving, freeing thing that you do for fun. You should make time for it and practice in a place where you feel comfortable and where nothing and no one can distract you.

Why? Because in order to practice effectively, you need to be concentrated and focused.

Another important thing is, observing your body while singing. 

📌TIPP.  Ask yourself: What am I doing? How does it feel? How does it look like? How am I moving? Where are my hands? Where is my head? Is my neck tensed? etc.

Observations like that are not easy to make, so use a mirror to see it! The more you observe your body the better you get to know it and the easier it gets!

3 phases of practicing/learning a song L-E-I

The abbreviation L-E-I stands for: Learning, Exploring, Interpretation. This practicing approach was introduced to me, by my Conservatory teachers, at the very beginning of the (Jazz/Pop Vocals) study. And honestly speaking it really revolutionized my personal way of practicing songs, so I hope it can help you too! Depending on the tune you don’t always have to apply everything, this is just a list of general possible steps.

Equipment. 

  • Notestand – so that you don’t have to hold the sheet, but can focus on having the correct posture;
  • Mirror – to observe what you are doing while singing;
  • Sheet chords/lyrics – so that you have something visual to rely on;
  • Recording device – to record your practice, listen back and find out what you still need to improve;
  • Pen – to take notes;
  • Music – instrument, Youtube-Karaoke version, boom box…
  • Water – good for your voice.

So there is that particular song you want to work on, but you don’t know where to start? First, you should find a version you like – check YouTube, maybe there is a cover you like even better than the original! As soon as you’ve found your favorite version, you can proceed to:

Phase 1. Learning the song

This phase consists of learning the melody, the rhythm, the lyrics, and finding a suitable key. Also, do you need any specific vocal technique? What voice register do you want to sing in? Head voice? Mixed voice? Chest voice? How should you breathe? How should you articulate?

📌TIPP. Always start slow! And repetition works wonders.

Melody

Turn on the music and hum along with the melody. Don´t think about the lyrics yet, only the melody should be in focus! Now you can repeat but instead of humming, you sing the melody on “waah”, “weeh”, “looh”, “zooh” and different consonant-vowel combinations. Do these exercises in a medium volume.

Rhythm

Turn on the music and clap along. What time signature is it? 

📚TERM. Time signature is a symbol, usually in the form of two numbers, one above the other, written at the beginning of a piece of music to show how many beats there are in each bar. Depending on the time signature you can clap along on different counts!

  • If you have a time signature of 3/4, put the clap on 2, so: 1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3
  • If you have a time signature of 4/4, you can clap on 1+3 or 2+4, so: 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 or 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4

When clapping doesn’t work, try walking around the room, taking a step on every beat, and clapping whenever you step! Including your body gives you more senses that are actively included in the learning process, which might make it easier for you! 

Lyrics

Do you understand the meaning of the lyrics? Is there maybe a part you want to look up? The moment you are fond of the meaning of the lyrics, talk along with the recording. Don’t sing the melody yet, it’s really only about talking and finding out where the words should be located! You can see this as rapping the lyrics! 

Now you can clap along while rapping. Listen to the recording carefully, and try to find out which words are accentuated. Split the words into its syllables and analyze which syllables are on the beats. Mark the accentuated syllables on your lyric sheet, so that you don’t forget them.

What is an accentuated syllable?  Even though we don’t really use accents in the English language, they are a common thing in for example Spanish and French and mark the letters that are highlighted in the spoken word. 

EXAMPLES: accent = áccent, movie = móvie, india =índia, computer = compúter 

Key

When you want to find a key that suits you, you have to know your range (all the notes between the highest and lowest note you can sing) and the sweet spot of your voice!

To find your range you can use the interactive tool on our website. Knowing your range, you can check the pieces range and try to fit yours in there. If your range is smaller than the one in the piece, don’t worry – we’ve all been there! You just have to make a decision. What part is more important for the song? The high part or the low part? 

Now, after you’ve taken all the steps above, you can sing the song a couple of times, to get into the groove aaaand start

Phase 2. Exploring the song

Let’s investigate, what you can do with it? What possibilities do you have looking at: tessitura, tempo, groove, style, timing, phrasing, dynamics, form, improvisation, atmosphere. Listening to different versions of the song is an important part of this phase. 

📚TERM. Tessitura is another word for „the sweet spot of your voice“ or „Prima voce“. It is the part of your voice that sounds the best and feels the most comfortable. 

Tempo

You know the song now, so you can decide whether you want it to have an upbeat or a ballade kind of vibe. Depending on the tools you have at hand it might be difficult to change the tempo of the recording.. Youtube has the option to make recordings quicker or slower though, so that would be an option! Otherwise, you might be able to find someone, who can accompany you? Changing the tempo can give songs a completely new vibe, and a new color that possibly fits your singing style better. Try different things!

If options above don’t work for you, you could consider buying Transcribe, a Software that can translate songs and change their tempo.

Groove/style

This is an interesting part! And songs can get very different through changing the groove or style! In order to change it though, you need to have an accompanist at hand, or find different karaoke versions of the song on YouTube.. 

Check out this video, to hear the impact a different style can have on a song. 

Timing

Staying in time is keeping the right tempo throughout a piece and not getting faster or slower. This is very important, and can be practiced by using a metronome. 

A quite common situation is that people get excited about a piece or are having fun singing it, and get faster… but that doesn’t sound good! Try to stick to one tempo! And start slow! 

Phrasing

Through phrasing, a singer can give already existing songs their own touch. It refers to how you locate the words, in the time, or rhythm of a song. With phrasing, you can push the melody and lyrics forward at certain spots and pull back at others, in order to create musical tension and emotional impact. This shouldn’t be affecting the tempo! You need to be able to keep the pulse and form (you have to know when the verse/pre-chorus/chorus starts/stops) in mind while phrasing over it.

EXERCISE. Take a song you’ve learned and:

Dynamics

When musicians talk about dynamics, they talk about the build-up of the tune and how volume can contribute to it. Where do we have the loudest part (climax of the piece) and where do we play soft?

  • How are the dynamics in the original piece? 
  • Do you want to keep them?
  • What do you want to express with the piece? 
  • Shall the piece build-up to the chorus? Do you want contrast in terms of volume between the different parts?
  • Is it a rather energetic and upbeat song, or melancholic and slow?
  • Depending on the vibe you want to submit you can customize the dynamics.

Form

The Form is the structure of a piece. A common Pop structure can look something like this, for example: 

intro / verse / verse / pre-chorus / chorus / verse / pre-chorus / chorus / bridge / chorus / chorus

You can change the existing form around and make something new out of it, maybe, you want a solo part? Or you don’t want to sing every verse? You have all the freedom you want!

Phase 3. Interpretation

Your interpretation comes out of the research you did in the second phase. You have examined the song from so many angles during the exploring phase that eventually you can be free to vary your interpretation at will, to fit the moment.

When practicing, it is good to be aware of these things! Give yourself enough time, and really dive into it! Half-hearted interpretations, with wrong lyrics, bad timing, technical problems, where the emotion the singer is giving it doesn’t fit and you don’t understand what is said…are unpleasant and no one wants to hear that! 

The link between thinking, intuition, skills and emotion is another subject that can help you explore and deal with a piece of music. This will be the topic of next week’s blog.

Hope you enjoyed the read and never stop singing!

For those who read until here I have an extra bonus. Check out this vocal exercise:

Literature references:

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