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  • Becky Ykema

How to Memorize 4 Songs in 5 Days

One of the things I love most in this season is partnering with churches in leading worship for special events and weekend services. An added benefit to this freelance season is that my song repertoire is growing like crazy. So many different churches have different songs in rotation and I'm getting to learn them. Yes! And... how challenging this opportunity can be for a memory deficient person like myself.

(photo credit: Angie Purdy)

A few weeks ago, I received a text saying that the upcoming setlist was posted for services starting on Saturday. When I got home and checked it out, I knew NONE OF THE SONGS. This was going to be a real task to memorize four songs in five days. Yowzers. Now there are tons of tricks to the trade when it comes to memorization. Some people are blessed with a photogenic memory. Some have learned tools that can be found in books like Joshua Foer's, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. I however did not have time to read and learn new skills in this quick of a turnaround.

So here is how I broke down learning four songs in five days. Maybe something here can be gleaned for you!



Make a playlist that's quick and easily accessible. If it's all smooth and easy on Planning Center for you, that's great. For me, I also like to put together a "Memorize" playlist on Apple Music that circulates over and over on repeat.


Runs. Or walks. Or Run-Walks. When we do something physical with our body while listening to songs, it actually embeds the content into our muscle memory. It's science. Feel free to search it on your internet of choice.

My first step on a 20-25 minute run is to take one song and play it three times in a row. Yep, over and over. The first few listens are for getting a feel for the song, noting the highs and lows, the amount of bridge repeats, where the end of a verse holds out an extra bar and how it's different than the first verse.

Then I move to listening and learning the Nashville Numbers of the song. Not even picking up a guitar yet, I take note of the 1-4-5-6 progression of the song.

Next, I begin a practice of visualization with the song lyrics. I turn them into a music video in my head. I let the words through metaphor come alive. I listen for alliteration and take note.


I hate handwriting things. It's one of my least favorite things. (Good on all you friends who are regular journalers and calligraphers)! This step of the process is one of the most helpful and again, my least favorite. I will scritch-scratch the lyrics of a new song two to three times in a row in a journal to be seen by no one else and for no other purpose than muscle memory and solidifying those words into my head and heart. I will listen to the song and write as fast as I can as the song goes. Then I try and write it again from memory. This writing exercise will show me the phrases that still get caught in the cobwebs of my brain. Then I write it again along with listening to the song if there are a handful of brain blocks that I've identified.


When able and appropriate, keep the set list running in your house, car, earbuds on repeat. Hum along, sing the words as they come, try and get it into your subconscious as you do your daily life.


Whether or not you are playing an instrument, this is the time when I will get out the chord charts. I've already spent a good chunk of time with the music. For me, I am normally behind an acoustic guitar when leading worship, so this is the time for me to download the charts and pick up my guitar.

I play the song at least twice along with the mp3 recording with my eyes on the chart as I strum along and hum the song. I then turn off the media player and play the song just me and the guitar once or twice before setting it down and moving to the next. This can be a daily practice until the song is memorized.


The week of learning four songs in five days was a fun challenge and I was up for it. But it took A LOT of work. I don't know about you but when I find myself preparing to lead worship, even in my times of practice I want it all to feel divine, holy, set apart and inspired.

Sometimes though, it takes a lot of plain old work and discipline in learning the music so that we can fully embody the words we sing and play when we're up on the platform.

It means when you wake up in the middle of the night, fall back asleep by running worship lyrics in your head. What a prayer-filled way to fall asleep, right? It means when you're getting ready in the morning, walking to class, or driving somewhere, play the songs and let them get inside your head and heart, your bones and marrow.

When songs are solidified and codified within us, we can then lead them from a place of grounded, truthful, embodied worship. From here, the songs have moved out of our heads, into our hearts, and then back out through our hands and voices in praise.

Worship leaders, vocalists, instrumentalists, I want to encourage us to do the hard work. We give God our very best because God gave God's best for us. Your outpour will be that much more meaningful, I believe it.

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