9 Keys To Memorizing Music for Worship

Lately, I have been reminded about the importance of memorizing the music when I lead worship. I have found that memorization brings my leading of the congregation and worship of God to a whole new level.

I lead on either the guitar or the keyboard depending on the situation. Playing and singing at the same time involves another whole level of memorization. When you spend enough time with the music so that you have it memorized, it becomes a natural part of you. You don’t have to spend a lot of energy in the public worship time thinking about the music. Instead, the music flows out of you. With the music memorized, you can concentrate on leading the congregation and singing and worshipping the Lord with your whole heart.

Memorizing Music

Here’s what I do to memorize music:

1. I write out my own chart for the music. First, I put the song in a key that works for the congregation and myself. Secondly, I type out the words and I make sure the musical form and chords are the best that they can be. Then I make a full SAT chart for the band and singers. This first step helps get the whole song and arrangement in my brain.

2. I practice it every day. It is very important to spend time with the music on a daily basis. I learn a new song twice a month. That gives me two whole weeks to learn it well. As I learn the song, I transition from just merely playing and singing the song to worshiping God from my heart.

3. I slowly wean myself off the music in my personal rehearsal time and in the band rehearsal time. I start by learning one section of the music at a time. I’ll learn the chorus first because that is usually the part of the song that gets repeated the most. Then I begin learning the verses and the bridge of the song. A great technique in rehearsal is to repeat each section until every worship team member has it committed to memory.

4. I memorize the chord progression first. I often think of music as numbers, so I will normally memorize a chord progression as a number pattern. Let me give you an example. The notes of the scale in the key of G are G,A,B,C,D,E,F#,G. So the first degree of the scale is G or “1”. A is 2, B is 3 and so forth. If the chord progression is G, C, Em7, D. Then I would remember 1, 4, 6, 5. This is basis of the system that is used in the Nashville Numbering System.

As you develop as a musician you will also learn to ‘hear’ the chord progression.  Your ear will begin to hear where the progression goes next. You will start to hear the progression go from 1 to 5 to 6 to 4. (In the key of D.. that is D-A-Bm-G). Learning to ‘play by ear’ or hear the progression is an important next step in developing as a musician.

5. I put the song in a playlist on my phone so that I can listen to it regularly at home, in my office and in my car. (or I use the Media Player in the Planning Center App). Then I sing along with the original recording of the song so that the words naturally become a part of my memory. Any words put to music become naturally easier to remember. It’s part of how God designed our brains.

6. I use the new song as much as I can. In one church that I ministered in, I would lead worship as many as five times per week. I lead in a small pastoral prayer time twice per week. Then I lead in the Christian school that the church ran. And then I lead twice on Sundays (9:30 AM & 11:30 AM). I would try to use the new song as much as possible in those various worship times.

7. I repeat the song regularly in our Sunday worship rotation. My habit has been to do the new song three times in the first month. I normally repeat it the first Sunday after introducing it. Then I give it a Sunday off and repeat it on the next Sunday. That way the congregation has three times to learn it and the worship team and I have three times to solidify the memory process.

8. I have the lyrics projected on the back wall of the church and monitors on the floor so that the team and I have the lyrics readily available. The words to the second verse are usually the toughest ones for me to remember in a live situation. We rehearse with our media people so that the words come up in a timely manner.

9. I have the music on an iPad app in front of me. This is my emergency back-up. I use a GigEasy stand with an Airturn bluetooth foot switch to turn pages on the forScore music app. I rarely look at the music. It is there only as a quick reference… just in case.

It is so important for worship teams to memorize their music. When I see a group of musicians with their eyes glued to the music, it really lowers the presentation of the music. It puts a barrier between the musicians and the audience. I realize that they don’t have the music in their minds and hearts.

Their lack of preparation is keeping them from being the best that they can be. Their lack of preparation is keeping them from worshipping God with their whole heart, soul, mind and strength. And really, isn’t that the goal!

Question: What methods have helped you to memorize you music? Do you think memorizing music is important?

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15 Responses to 9 Keys To Memorizing Music for Worship

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  9. This is good stuff. In answering your closing question, I use a similar process. I write out the lyrics one or twice. The music comes fairly easy for me…always has-I wish I could identify why and apply that to the rest of my life 🙂 I get a pdf into my phone and study while I’m out and about. I typically memorize the verse first by just repeating it over and over out loud so that I get used to hearing the sequence of words. The chorus I memorize last because it usually comes easiest and more natural for me.

    I like two memorize for a few reasons: mostly for every reason you published. It frees you to worship from your heart when you aren’t concentrating on what you’re reading and then implementing…live. There is something kind of lazy about that-which leads to another reason for me. I feel like it sends a message to the congregation when you care enough to have memorized your songs. It says hey, this is important to us and it makes it more motivating for people to buy in. The other thing for me is I hate a cluttered stage. Music stands tossed around like a high school chorus concert drive me nuts and looks unprofessional. Again, we should look like we care about what we are doing. Be blessed man…keep writing!

  10. sweetjoey says:

    I have two ways to look at it-
    on one hand, the only way to ensure that a group of musicians play together right is to have them reading charts.
    memorizing music is a tough task for some people; it doesn’t always mean that they haven’t prepared enough. people learn differently. as for myself, I have a huge retainability and literally have banked in 1000’s of songs over the years in my memory. I don’t think this is typical though.
    I don’t think the congregation would care/notice music stands onstage if they are truly in worship mode. I think they would agree it is more important to play the tunes correctly with charts than to play poorly and look good.
    the issue with learning so many songs is that most of the songs are so close to being another song that it becomes easy to mix them up. I am a seasoned bassist and even I get confused when you have a list of 200 CCM songs that could be replaced by another. some of them are literally the same song.

    • Bev says:

      Thank you for recognizing not everyone thinks the same way and is capable of memorizing! I can play lots of songs without music in practice/worship at home, but when I’m on stage I still have that bit of nervousness that needs the chord sheet! (we do have lyrics in the back on a screen, but when playing and singing and looking back and forth I sometimes get lost!)

  11. Tony Chung says:

    Mark, I agree completely with memorizing songs for worship. In addition to being more free to worship, you don’t have the additional barrier of the music stands blocking your view of the congregation.

    For me, I don’t even have to memorize chord progressions. I’ve learned how to feel out the chords to match the melody. Comes from a jazz ear training background, I suppose. This allows me to change keys at will. The more challenging part is getting everyone on board with the same arrangement and rhythmic style. Churches are full of players who limit themselves to how they play as if they can’t learn anything new.

    I much rather work with musicians who challenge themselves to align with the style as a group rather than force their own imprint on the group under the guise that they can’t do anything else.

    If God is as big as I think He is, He can blend willing hearts into one sound, from the stage to the sanctuary. And what a joyful noise we make!

  12. sweetjoey says:

    I like what tony said-
    I have a lot of ear training/jazz background as well.
    I listen to music and learn it away from the instrument-my ear is trained to a degree where I can figure out everything in my head; its just a matter of execution when I pick up the bass.
    train your ear-number one thing you can do.

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