Memorization Tips for Learning Choral Music

Tori Cook Oct 13, 2017

Learn more: artistic development, inspiration


A few years ago, my chorus performed Cindy arranged by Mack Wilberg. For those of you who don't know the piece, it's rather repetitive but with one catch - every verse is ever so slightly different than the one before! The piece uses mixed meter, has different entrances and cutoffs for each verse, has a lot of words, and is, ultimately, a very hard piece to memorize. Thanks to a clapping hoedown in the middle, where choristers' hands needed to be free, our director informed us that we would need to memorize the piece. Cue the groans.

As soprano section leader, it was my duty to make sure the soprano section memorized the piece. So I sent out a "Cindy Memorization Plan" (which you will find below #yourewelcome).

But before we get to this glorious masterpiece, let's start with the basics: some tips for memorizing choral music.


Know the Musical Form or Break Into Sections

Break down the piece into the musical form (AABA, ABACABA, etc.). Tell the chorus the form and teach what each section is within the form. The verse is A, chorus is B, etc. Knowing the form can help break down a sizable piece of music into easy-to-remember chunks!


Point Out the Differences

Does the second A section differ from the first (different lyrics, rhythms, meter, sections, etc.)? Point out and explain these differences to the chorus. So your form may start to look something like this:

A = SATB in 3|4

A = SAB + with tenors on "oohs"

B = SATB in 6|8

A = SATB + descant

The form can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be!


Add Some Unexpected Humor


Sometimes adding a silly comment about the music will help singers remember it better. When sending a memorization plan, try to include some humor in areas that need particular attention to memorization. (See Cindy example below!)


Focus on Memorizing the Cues and Entrances

It's so much easier to sing a line if you know the word it starts with, yes? The great thing about music is that it is ALREADY a mnemonic device. Once you get going, it's easy to remember. You just have to remember the starting points! As you break down the sections for the chorus, point out their cues - what are they listening or looking for? How do they know to come in?


Provide Context

Try to provide additional musical or historical context for every piece you sing. If the chorus is having a particularly hard time with a line, break it down and explain the context around it. For example, explaining the word painting of a line can help a chorus remember the dynamics, pitches, or musical phrasing.


Write it Down

writing 2.png

Having trouble memorizing the words? Try writing them down a few times! You can even break down the piece by analyzing it in writing. For example, the person who creates the memorization plan themselves, may remember it better because they will have done a full analysis of the piece. 


Put Down the Music

Whether your chorus is in rehearsal or practicing at home... encourage them to put down the music as soon possible and sing through the piece. They'll be surprised to learn how much they actually know!



Nothing helps a chorus memorize a piece more than running it over and over. Give the chorus ample time to run the piece separate from working on individual measures or sections.


So, what does all of this look like in practice? Here's a sampling from our soprano memorization plan for Cindy (grab your music!):


Cindy Memorization Plan

Intro Section/Cue 1 - Part 1

Ignore introduction until cue #1 from the basses/tenors - "I wish I had a pretty girl to love me all the time." Obviously that's your cue, because you're so pretty!

You com in with "I wish I had a needle, as far as I could sew".  Remember to hold "sew" and count eight measures: 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-OFF. Listen for alto's "way down south" for your "get along home" entrance. Hold home and count five measures: 5-4-3-2-1-OFF.


The STANDARD "Get Along" Section - Part 2

Next two pages are exactly what we WANT to sing. On your last word "time" it's only two measures. 2-1-OFF. Then, we don't have to do ANYTHING until after the tenors/basses sing. Don't even worry about counting measures!


Cue 2, Come in on Beat 3 in 3|8, Sugar Plum Fairy - Part 3

When the altos come in, start getting ready! They sing "she swore he was the purtiest thing that ever lived or died." And since you're actually the purtiest... that's your cue! WATCH OUT - this is a tricky entrance, coming in on beat three in a new 3|8 measure! Come in just a tad earlier than you WANT to on this cue.

This is your sugar plum fairy entrance! "1-2-She told him that she loved him, she called him sugar plum" and uh oh, here we have that 3/8 measure again. "1-2-she throwed her arms around him he thought his time had come"


SECOND "Get Along" Section - Part 4

 You have three "get alongs" that are exactly the way you WANT them to be, they are STANDARD (like Part 2). However, watch out for the FOURTH "get along..." - that is the high one where your pitch goes up and not down! And oh yea, "time" is now held for 3 and a 1/2 measures this time. WHY MACK, WHY?!?!?!


HOEDOWN Y'ALL!!!! - Part 5


YES, we made it to the hoedown! Just wait for the basses to come in and count down eight measures.  Then you just do FOUR of these bad boys: Stomp clap clap clap, stomp clap stomp clap. Then just add two measures of just stomp clap stomp clap. Then two more claps with everyone - YAY! Except... key change! dun dun duuuunnnnn. So think and listen while we are hoeing down, ok y'all?


Post-Hoedown - Part 6

Now we're back to those 3/8 measures "round-she" and "down-my." Cindy's basically just knocking preachers down and stuff, no big deal. But it is a big deal, because now we have a whole new section - "My Cindy in the springtime." Luckily it's just weird enough to remember on its own!


HELL Pages - Part 7

I'm sorry. I can't help you. Just kidding! Here are some points to remember:

  • M 188 - Make sure you BREATHE after "Cindy," take an extra beat here and you'll be fiiinnne!
  • M 191 and M 197 - you have those silly rests on the downbeat, meaning you come in on the offbeat. Yea, don't forget those...
  • And then, HUH?! We're in 6/8 m199
  • We finally end with "I'll marry you some time" and the time is the only note that goes up! Hold for four measures

Hallelus - Part 8

Easy enough to memorize! Then followed by TWO "Get along home, get along home," phrases. First is high, second is low. But the the THIRD phrase changes rhythm and words so watch out! "Get a long home little Cindy."


End - Part 9

Halle-frickin-lujah! This is easy to memorize since the section is so unique. Hold the last word "day" for four measures, then start hoedown clapping for another three measures. You are OFF on measure four and we all shout "hooray!"


Phew! See what I mean? It's a tricky piece to memorize. But thanks to a memorization plan, I still - to this day - could sing this song without the music!

Do you have additional memorization tips? Let us know in the comments below!

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Tori Cook

Tori Cook is the former Director of Sales & Marketing at Chorus Connection, an active board member of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium, and a soprano with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. In a past life, she was the Music Director of the Harborlight Show Chorus and President of Chorus pro-Musica. When not making music, she daydreams about adopting a golden retriever puppy and scuba diving to exotic locations around the world.

Tori Cook