On Unlearning and Relearning Songs

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This post is for anyone who has ever learned one part in a song, and then switched to another part at a later date. Learning the new part is one challenge, not getting distracted back onto singing your original part is another one.

I was asked if had any advice on this recently, and I realised that it’s something I have done a good deal, and rarely get the different parts tangled up in my head. So I’m writing this post to work out what strategies I have used to do this, or indeed what strategies I might have wanted to use had I found it harder than I did. I have three main suggestions so far.

  1. Use the sheet music. Even if you’re not a confident music-reader, the sheet music can be a great help in learning any part, but especially in these kinds of situations. Having a visual anchor to connect your learning to helps put the new part in its own space, distinct from the part you originally learned. If you’re using tracks to learn, follow along your new part on the music too, so you get a sense of what it looks like as well as what it sounds like. Then, when you get confused singing back in chorus, you can conjure up the visual memory to help get yourself back on track.
  2. Learn the music to an oo. One of the big pulls of habit your original part will exert on you is the muscle memory of singing the lyrics. If you have practised this particular set of word sounds with this particular sequence of notes, singing those words to your new part is quite likely to pull you back onto the familiar from the new. It is useful therefore to learn the notes of the new part without the words in the first instance so your ear and your voice can get used to the patterns without that distraction. Then, once you’re more confident with the new notes, reintroduce the words.

    Learning a new part is in this sense like one big game of ‘Words of one song to the tune of another’. Which reminds me, having had my mind blown recently by a suggestion on Facebook that one should sing the words of Jerusalem to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at, I can report that you run out of music before the end of the verse.

  3. Find different characters for the different voice parts. When I speak French, I am a perceptibly different person from when I speak English. It’s partly to do with confidence and fluency (my French is good enough that I can make that generalisation, but not really all that good), but it’s also to do with the shape and feel of the language. When I sing alto, I am a perceptibly different singer from when I’m singing soprano. Again, it’s partly to do with range, how the parts sit in different areas of my voice, but it’s also to do with the expressive shape of the lines.

    Different parts have different takes on how a song communicates. Even when you have identical lyrics, the melodic shape takes a different route through the narrative. Bass lines stride more than tunes typically do, and harmonising parts have colours and quirks that bring out different emotional nuances in the story. Think of learning a different part as taking a different role in a play – the trajectory of the whole may be the same, but the part you play in it has taken on a different identity.

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