How long does it take to learn a song? It sounds pretty straightforward- learn the melody, learn the lyrics. Shouldn’t take too long, right? Only if you want to be mediocre. And I’m guessing that’s not your goal.
There is so much more to learning a song than melody and lyrics. Don’t forget about dynamics, phrasing, articulation and diction! These elements really take you from being a “good” singer to being a “great” singer.
So how much time should you really spend on learning a song? My rule of thumb is to take the number of minutes the song plays and multiply it by 20-25. No, really. A 3-minute song will probably take you about 60-75 minutes of rehearsal time to learn.
You can decide how to divvy that up if you don’t have a single chuck of time to work on it. And I suggest that you do anyway. You’ll learn it much better if you spread your rehearsals out.
And pleeeeeease don’t just listen to a song over and over and over again. Do you want to be a second-rate whomever you were listening to? No, you want to be a first-rate YOU.
Before I get into The Process of How to Learn a Song, I have an important tip for you about repertoire learning: Have a Deadline!
What’s your deadline? Take into consideration that If you have a deadline, you are much more likely to actually learn a song. That will help you figure out how many rehearsals you have and how long they need to be. Keep in mind that if you’re not learning the song for a concert or a recital, or an audition (which obviously have their own deadlines), you’ll need to make your own.
If you’re having trouble finding time to practice, download my “Finding Time to Practice” worksheet to help you. While you are learning your song you may hit a road block- if that happens, take one minute to read through my post on Practice Tips to help you through.
Stay tuned to the end where I have a special download to help you get organized so you can stay on track with your song learning goals!
My Step by Step Rehearsal Process to Learn a Song
My approach to learning a piece of music is “whole-part-whole”. That means that the first rehearsal you read through the whole piece of music and the last couple rehearsals (or 3) are for polishing and running the whole piece again. In all the rehearsals between them you will work on small parts of the song.
This makes music learning much more manageable. Not to mention, you’ll probably end up memorizing the song “by accident.” So, no more having to run a song over and over and over to memorize it.
I’ve broken down repertoire learning into short 5 to 10-minute rehearsals. I’ve done it this way for two reasons.
- It’s always easier to find time to practice multiple short sessions than to find time for a few really longs ones.
- You’re probably not working on just one song, so you don’t want to only work on a single song per session.
To get an idea of how long it will take you to completely learn your song, consider these guidelines. If you only plan to rehearse 3-4 times a week, then it will take you 5-6 weeks. It will take 2 and half weeks if you plan to practice every day. If you decide to double your time per rehearsal and practice every day, it’ll take you half that. You get the picture.
First, We Plan
Before you begin to learn a song, you’ll have what I like to call a “rehearsal 0.” This is your planning session. Here, you will outline your rehearsal schedule based on the 3 steps “whole-part-whole.”
Whole (and create the “parts”)
Rehearsal 1: you will read sight read the whole piece.
Rehearsals 2-13 (ish) depending on the length and difficulty of your piece, as well as how many sections you work on at a time.
Rehearsal 14-15 (ish)
In order to figure out how many rehearsals you need in step 2 and exactly what you’ll rehearse, you need to break the song up, creating a “road map.” Here, you’ll boil it down to its bare bones, then build it back up again, layer by layer. So, I guess realistically, it’s really “whole-parts-whole.” Once you’ve done that, your rehearsals will break down even further by musical element such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, etc.
Create the “Road Map”
Mark your music where these parts begin and end so that you can get a general view of the geography of the song. This can be especially important if your piece has many repetitive sections such as D.S. or D.C. al Coda. It’s important to recognize the song’s “road map.”
Once you’ve broken the song up into its geographic parts, you can decide how many to rehearse in a single rehearsal session (I call them “section groupings”). I usually try not to work on an entire song during a rehearsal.
I advise that you work on similar sections together. This aids in memory retention. For example, I’d work on the verses during one rehearsal and the refrains during another. Sometimes, I group bridges and codas together, sometimes I schedule a separate rehearsal for each of them, depending on the difficulty.
The Musical Breakdown
Once you have the road map, break the song down by musical elements. Every song has 3 main elements you need to learn to really master the piece: melody (pitch and rhythm), text (diction: vowels and consonants), and expression (dynamics, phrasing, articulation). I’ve grouped some of those sub-elements into the same rehearsal.
As you can see in the graphic, each section will be scheduled 4 times; once for each element (or set of elements). As a result, you’ll schedule somewhere around 12 “parts” rehearsals. I know that sounds like a lot of rehearsals. At the same time, it’s important to remember that each rehearsal is only meant to take about 10-15 minutes of your time.
As I said earlier, it’s easier to schedule multiple short sessions than it is to schedule a few really long ones.
If your deadline is too close for 15 total rehearsals, it’s ok to double up rehearsals. Just don’t group different “geographic” sections together. Instead, spend more time working on the expressive elements of each musical section while you are learning the melody.
That way, you can skip the 3-6 rehearsals that focus solely on those. However, that could mean your memorization rehearsals will be longer, or you’ll need more of them.
Second, We Rehearse
Rehearsal 1: Sight Reading
The first thing you ever do with a new piece is sight read it. The whole thing, in its entirety. Once you’ve read through it once, you get an idea of where things are tricky and you’ll need to spend a little more time on in future rehearsals. You’ll also know where there is repetition and therefore can spend less time with later on.
When you sight-read a piece, you’re focusing on pitches and rhythms. Don’t worry about the words, yet. Use a neutral syllable. Because it has a crisp beginning and end to make sure that your rhythm (entrances and cut offs, too) is precise, I like to use “tot.”
Read through it once more, taking the time to mark your music for logical places to breathe (i.e. not in the middle of a word). Also, you’ll want to mark your dynamics and any articulations present in the music for future rehearsals. Don’t worry if you miss some now, you can always add more markings if you need them, and it’s ok.
Rehearsals 2-4: Learn the melody using only the vowels.
Melody refers to the pitches of a song, but also its rhythm. Think about the song “Happy Birthday.” If you were to sing the melody so that all the notes were 1 beat long, it wouldn’t be the right melody.
You’re already familiar with your song’s melody from your sight-reading rehearsal when you used the syllable “tot.” Now its time to use the actual words of the song- but just the vowels. Leave out the consonants.
This will ensure that your lines are smooth, and your tone is even. Make sure that you modify your vowels where necessary. Don’t forget to mark those modifications so you’ll be consistent in subsequent rehearsals.
Although my sequence does reserve a specific rehearsal for each expressive element, that doesn’t mean that you don’t think about it until then. It’s better to work the breathing, dynamics and articulation into the song from the start than having to learn it later.
You’ll probably find that you’ll start to have some ideas about how you want to sing each phrase as you go, anyway. That expressive set of rehearsals is for polishing those elements.
In my post Practicing Tips for Busy Singers, I mentioned that it’s important that you break the music down even farther than the large sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc). That means that during your rehearsal, you should NOT just sing the section start to finish, over and over again.
During the rehearsal, you should spend time working phrase by phrase. Or even note by note if something is especially challenging. In a future post, I will break a song alllll the waaay down to the nitty gritty to give you a better idea of how this might play out. For now, go with your instinct.
Remember, don’t just practice until you get it right. Once you can do it 3 times in a row without making a mistake, you’ve learned it. This could mean you need to repeat today’s rehearsal on another day.
Rehearsals 5-7: Add the consonants back in.
Focus on crisp diction. Really pay attention to your “t’s,” “d’s,” and “k’s.” There are a few consonants that you’ll want to modify (or completely leave out: “r’s,” and “w’s”). These consonants tend to color the vowels poorly. It may be helpful to you to underline the consonants you want to emphasize and cross out those you want to leave out or modify.
Obviously, these are the guidelines for classical singing, other styles have differing views on consonants. You can use these guidelines and soften them a little for musical theater and pop and perhaps go so far as to completely ignore them for country and folk singing.
Don’t forget about those pitches, rhythms, vowels, and phrasing, though. Thus, it’s important to take the time to fix those if they’re still not right.
Rehearsals 8-13 [Phrasing + Dynamics 8-10; Articulation 11-13]: Expression (and not just on your face)
Expression is that element that gives a piece of music its soul. It’s the component that separates good singers from great singers. By now, you’ve already begun working on these elements. The purpose of these 6 rehearsals is to really focus on the expression.
You already know the notes and rhythms and you’ve just learned the words. At this time, you can work on how the expression fits in with that melody and poetry of the song.
Now that you’re more familiar with the song, you might make some changes to what you’ve been doing to emphasize a point or to drive a climax. Take the time to make sure that your tone isn’t being affected by your phrasing. If you need to add more breath marks to allow your voice to sound its most beautiful, then do so.
I highly discourage listening to a recording of the song over and over again until you know it. Whose artistry are you going to emulate by doing that? Not your own. It’s great to listen to other artists’ take on a piece to get alternate ideas about what you might want to do, but not until you’ve made some expressive decisions yourself.
Most classical music from the last 200-ish years give a good amount of direction on the phrasing and dynamics- some modern pieces even tell you both where to breathe and where not to. Even so, if you want to add or subtract to the written expression to make it even more interesting, that’s usually ok. Just make sure that it is stylistically appropriate.
Music from before the Romantic period (pre-1825) tends to have fewer dynamics and articulations written in. Often, the conventions of the time were orally passed down from teacher to student. Also, a director (as in an opera) would give his interpretation and the performers would follow.
Going even farther back in time, these elements didn’t exactly have names or codified notation (and even farther back, even notes and rhythms didn’t and were largely left up to the director and/or performer). In that case, you’ll just have to go with how the music feels to you.
Rehearsal 14: “Run-Polish-Run”
Once you’ve learned all the elements, it’s time to put the song back together. This will take 1-2 rehearsals (although, it can sometimes take more depending on the difficulty of your piece). During this rehearsal you’ll “run-polish-run.” (This is a term that I have borrowed from a good friend of mine, I do not take credit for it.)
See Part 4: “Record and Listen to Yourself” of the post 10 Practice Tips for Busy Singers for more on this.
Rehearsal 15: Memorization
During this last rehearsal, you’ll memorize your song. Depending on the difficulty of the song, you may have “accidentally” memorized the song just by virtue of the number of repetitions you’ve had on each section of the song. On the other hand, it may still take a rehearsal or two if some of the lyrics or the order of verses is tripping you up or something or if the piece is especially challenging.
How to Memorize a Song
Sing through the song once with the music in front of you. Then sing the song section by section without the music.
If you get to a point where you aren’t sure, pause and make a note. Go through these steps to build the unsure section into your memory:
Continue from the end of your newly memorized section without the music until you reach a section that you are not sure of. Repeat the memorization steps from above until that section is memorized. And so on an so forth until you’ve memorized each section.
Once every section is memorized, sing the entire song one more time from memory. If there are still places that are tripping you up, add another rehearsal and repeat today’s process again.
All Done!! Yay!!
Would it be helpful to you to have a functioning worksheet to help you save some time planning out your song learning?
You’re in luck! I’m sharing with you the spreadsheet system I use to plan out my rehearsals. It’s been through many iterations over my years of teaching, but now it’s more streamlined and therefore, time-saving!
I call it my “Song Rehearsal Sequence Planner.” It’s a Google Sheets file that has 3 sheets for you to work with. The first sheet is for filling in information about your song, like the title, composer, etc. The second sheet is where you create the “road map.”
Just fill out the measure numbers for “verses, choruses, and bridges and codas” the first time it appears and the rest of the page will auto-populate with the information! Then fill out the dates you plan to rehearse each (as I outlined earlier). The third sheet is for analyzing your trouble spots- and it will also auto-populate with the song title and measure numbers you just filled out!
To make life a little easier, I created sections for up to 6 pieces of music (because I’ll bet you have more than one song you want to learn). Just fill out the form below!