I play covers of mainstream or rock music, which allows for alot of improv so there generally doesn't require much effort in terms of learning the music. Just kind of learn the song structure and remember a couple of riffs and I'm good to go.

What I do struggle with when performing cover songs is remembering lyrics. Especially some songs, for example - Jack Johnson's Bubble Toes.

I just keep getting the lyrics without the two main choruses mixed up because personally, it's not particularly poetic and is non-nonsensical. Plus the lyrics can be mixed together and still fit the same melody.

I've found I will spend hours practicing and still get the lyrics mixed up when singing live.

So, aside from just practicing more, is there any memory tips anyone can provide that will aid me in order to remember the lyrics?

  • 2
    "Like a Rolling Stone" as covered by Hendrix had a strange line in it that went something like "I know I missed a verse, don't worry about." Perhaps Bob Dylan never wrote that line...
    – horatio
    Jun 14, 2011 at 20:33

7 Answers 7


I would first suggest, if you have a say in the matter, try to cover songs that you can connect with on a personal level (that you don't find to be nonsensical). I'm sure you chose this one for some reason, maybe it's just about the instrumental aspect, but you will find memorization easier if you can find personal meaning in it.

The lyrics aren't particularly obvious, but I wouldn't say they're not poetic. There are some line breaks I might add to the source you provided that might make it clearer, but I would say it has a very metered feel that flows well and is also highly rich in metaphor. Check out some analyses of poems by e.e. cummings to perhaps broaden your palate for poetic metaphors. :-) In other words, I think there is definitely meaning in this poem; (there almost certainly is to Mr. Johnson) and if you can find it, it'll only make your whole experience with the piece more enjoyable.

I read the poem before hearing the music, and I'll bet part of what's tripping you up is that the lyrics as sung have a very constant rhythm and not much melodic contour. I would suggest extracting the lyrics from the song and treating it like poetry. Live with it like that for a while; see if you can read it differently from the rhythm you know in the song.

In this format, you can also chunk the poem down into component parts; similar to how one would analyze a song in, say, AABA format. See if you can uncover the logic of why and when he repeats lyric material, why the choruses happen when they do, how lyric material relates to music material.

One additional straight memorization tactic you can try is simply writing the poem down, word for word, exactly down to the letter from memory. Find a bunch of looseleaf, error check yourself each time until you've got it perfect, and then rewrite it a few more times for solidarity.

  • thanks, yeah no choice with the song in this case I'm afraid. You're right though, I'm sure it's poetic to the author and probably lots of people. I guess just personally, it doesn't speak to me. That "write it down" tip sounds like a good idea, definitely will follow that up. Cheers.
    – stickman
    Jun 12, 2011 at 13:14

Even if you're improvising, maybe develop a standard riff that you use as you move to the next verse section. Tie memorization of the verses to memorization of that riff. An example of what I'm talking about- Don McLean's "American Pie" is a long song with tons of verses. If you ask me off hand how it goes I wouldn't be able to get the verses in the right order and I'd probably leave some out, even if I know all the lyrics. But if I hear the song and sing along, I know the exact order of things because I recognize the unique riff that leads into each verse.

Of course, this method could just shift your problem to not being able to remember the order of the riffs you memorize...i.e. you screw up and play the verse 2->verse 3 transition between verses 1 and 2 and then sing verse 3 instead of verse 2. If the song is short, though, you wouldn't run into this. If it's AABA then you have an A->A riff, an A->B riff, and a B->A riff. If you've got each A section's lyrics mnemonically tied to each riff, you should sing all the sections in the correct order.


I find writing them out on paper helps. Taking this to the next level, the old school method of figuring out lyrics by listening to the song and writing them down yourself rather than googling and going with the least wrong version works wonders. By the time you've spent a few hours fighting your way through the song line by line, most of the words are already well bedded in.

I'm sure there are those that will disagree, but I think it's perfectly fine to switch a word or two here and there to make the song more your own and to fit in with your own natural flow. I find this makes it easier to remember since there is less of a right / wrong divide and it feels a little more like your lyrics rather than a memory test.

When I am singing, my mind is usually a line or two ahead of my mouth! A bit like when playing from sheet music you are looking at what is coming up rather than what you are actually playing. Don't try to get the whole paragraph or verse ready in your head tho, just a line or two.

I often find that it is the same one or two particular spots where I go wrong so prepare 'recovery strategies' for those bits. At least if there's a whoopsy the show goes on. Remember that the audience in 90-something% of cases are not paying enough attention to hear every single detail of every single word.

Incidentally you say that you get them mixed when playing live. This can be something as simple as mindset. If you are fixed on getting the words 100% right as per the original, as soon as you make a mistake, it can throw you off for the rest of the line / verse / song. Not only that, but the additional stress that you are putting on yourself makes you more likely to make a mistake. If you can, get yourself into the mindset that you are going to enjoy the song no matter what and if the odd word goes awry here or there, well so be it. Not only does that improve the overall feel of the song, you will be more relaxed and so less prone to making mistakes in the first place.

Stay relaxed!!!

And of course, practice practice practice practice!! Nothing does the job like repetition.

Hope this helps and good luck


I have a cd in my car that is my cover set list. I listen to the cd very often and sing along to all of the songs that I perform in my live shows. It's a great way to get better at singing the songs while memorizing the lyrics.


Try to recollect the lyric in other situations than when you are playing the song. I find this a good way to learn lyrics, and it's also a good way to make use of short idle moments during the day. As someone already pointed out, there usually is a meaning; and you can always try to construct one. This should help to get the phrases in the right order. For me, there are key phrases that lead you to the rest of the words. The first line in each verse is one fairly obvious one, but for longer verses there will be several.


Some more suggestions ..

1) Do you actually like the song ? I find it hard to remeber lyrics to a song that I'm less keen on. I think what's happening is that when I like a song a lot, there are 'hooks' - just moments in the song which I look forward to. If I think the song is kind of ok but nothing special vocally (I have to like it a bit else why would I bother!), then these hooks may not be there and it's much more difficult to remeber the detail.

1) So another trick might be to invent some parts that you like ! I don't necessarily mean change the song, just try and find a part in each verse that you'll enjoy or which sticks out for you.

2) Make a point of learning, as a lyric in itself, the end of one part and the start of another so you can more easily remeber how the song fits together.

3) Remember the "audio" of how the song sounds- ie listen to it a lot. Get it embedded into your brain.. then if you forget the lyrics you've got something to call on. Watch out- this might drive you nuts haha

4) UNderstand gist of the story behind the song. This may not help with the song you quote if it's a bit meaningless to you, but sometimes a song tells a story and remebering the story helps trigger which bit goes where.

5) Play it ! writing the song down definitely helps, as others suggest, but when it comes to finding the words right there and then, a bit of entrenched memory will help, especially re timing and reference to how far it feels like you are through the song.

6) Last resort : Queue cards. Maybe just the first word/phrase of each part. I know a few vocalists who do this. It can look naff, but it works and eventually you won't need the paperwork.

I hope this helps. Note that you're not alone! remebering lyrics can be pretty tricky


If you're really struggling to memorize the lyrics, I might suggest using the memory palace technique to help. This attaches items to be remembered to visualized locations (a walk down a familiar street, the inside of your house - anyplace that you are intimately familiar with). Choose whatever unit of the lyrics works for you - per line, per verse/chorus, whatever - and link each one to a particular path (walking from your front door to the mailbox, whatever - as long as it has enough unique locations for you to assign each chunk of what you're memorizing).

You can even do this with one room if it has enough stuff in it by mentally sweeping your eyes from one end to the other. For instance, my living room is piano, studio, bookcase, table, armchair, side table, other armchair, bookcase, fireproof box, fireplace, sliding door, printer, worktable, couch. That's enough for something I can break into 14 sections.

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