This article was posted in April 2012 by Tom Cunliffe who runs this website for Seaford Folk Club.

In spring 2012, I wrote to the resident singers of Seaford Folk Club and asked their advice on song memorisation.  The replies were so useful I thought I'd bring them together so that other people who struggle with memorising songs could learn from them.

First, the email I sent out read as follows:

  I greatly prefer singing without a sheet of words before me BUT I've never performed one of them without forgetting a line somewhere or other.

Some of you know hundreds of songs.  What's the secret?  Have you any tips on memorisation?

I'll group the replies under a few headings to make it easier to follow.


Roger Resch - I agree entirely about not having words in front of you, since it forms a barrier between you and the audience. Whilst folk audiences are very tolerent, particularly when it comes to encouraging beginners to sing in folk clubs, most of us consider it totally unacceptable for anyone doing a paid gig to do so with the words in front of them. There is nothing worse than someone looking down at their words, instead of singing out into the audience.

Liz Randall agreed, saying that "although its important not to use words when you're singing, you shouldn't beat yourself up about it".


Liz - It takes a surprisingly long time for a song to 'bed in' and it's certain if you think about forgetting the words, you will. Even when you have learned the words thoroughly at home, the distractions of singing to an audience will mean that you will occasionally lose the plot. You can never replicate that in the safety of your own kitchen. In time, when you have sung it lots of times it is more automatic, then someone moving about, coughing etc won't bother you so much.  


Roger - When I want to learn something, I read it over and over, or listen to it over and over, and if able to, I try to sing it as well, because it is easy to learn something in your head, and then find that your lips fall into a trap when you try to sing it.

There are in my view two stages to learning.

The first stage is when you have all the words, but are still not fluent, and if you try to sing it at this stage there are likely to be pauses as you fumble for the odd phrase. At this stage however you can sing it in the shower, or at any other "idle" time, because the words will come with thought, rather than from the paper.

If you persist with this, you get to a point eventually (the second stage) where the words automatically come, and one verse naturally follows another, without any conscious thought. At this point you are ready to sing it in public!

Diane Nevill - As you know, I use a Dictaphone.  Roger said to sing along if you can - well if you record yourself - you can at least know the key is right for you when you sing in the car etc. so it will sound right. I can know a song but when Steve starts to accompany me, it is like learning it again.

Liz - Mick, who I sometimes sing with, maintains that you have to take a song out for the first time at some point and see what happens.  You will find the weak spots, the awkward bits and be able to work on them.  Then, it takes about 18 months of singing it out for the song to be fully fledged. 18 months seems long, but when you are putting an accompaniment to it I think he is right.  I don't mean you don't sing it for 18 months, rather that 18 months of singing means it's really there and can be relied on.  I know I can call up the songs I have been singing for years with more confidence than the newer ones.

John Cave - When you practice, give the last few verses more attention than the first. I often go wrong on the last two verses.


Roger - There are memory tricks you can employ which will get you to the first stage. For example when I learnt "Rules of the House", initially I had a problem with "no skulking loafers", so I visualised a skull and a loaf of bread. Nothing to do with the song, but it sufficed as an aide memoire.

But if you are still employing these tricks when you sing it in public, you are likely to run into trouble, because they require conscious thought, and you need to be concentrating on how you sing it, rather than "bugger, what's the next line?


Liz - I try to think of the next line or the first line of the next verse while I'm singing the current one. 

John - It's always perfect at home, but then you get nerves and trembly fingers in front of the audience.  So
before you start the song a bit of banter with the audience helps and also play the first couple of chords/runs.


Diane - Hesitation always feel a lot worse (and longer) than it ever is for the audience.  We were advised that people soon forget, especially if you can finish off well.  Don’t keep apologising!  Everyone is wishing you well and has had it happen to them (but you care – and know you
can do better …)

John -
Plan to fail by having another song you can go straight into - one you know well. Let the audience know if things go wrong. It relieves tension and gets the audience on your side.

Roger -  We all of us dry up at sometime, but the only way I know to cut this down to the minimum, is to be persistent in repeating it over and over, and obviously this will take longer for some of us than for others. The other thing I believe is that if you try to rush the process too much, you might make a faultless performance once, and then you might stumble the next day, whereas if you take a little longer, it is more likely to be firmly embeded in your brain.


Diane - The other thing I often hear is a CAY is a good time to get a new song out as you are singing in front of people but without the same pressure.  The words can be to hand without being obvious.  Getting a new item out is always fraught and is never a good idea when you feel pressured to get it right - i.e. in front of someone you admire. Leave it a week or two and do it again.

For myself, I will take words to a CAY or themed evening if I want to sing a song for the odd time, for the sake of a change.  If I ‘know’ something well enough to get through with the words but don’t think I will sing it a lot, is it such a bad thing?  I would prefer to hear a song through without a performer feeling so bad that they abandon a song.  Floor spots are not paid gigs.