How to Memorize Phrases and Vocabulary Instantly Using Music

Music by Brandon Giesbrecht

Music can be an extremely effective memorization tool.

There are a lot of things that can seem daunting for the new language learner, but few things have a reputation for being so tedious and time consuming as learning vocab.

While I’ve talked in the past about some of the things you can do to learn words from your environment, easily memorize new words, or even quickly memorize a whole list in order, I want to share one more method I like for memorizing whole sentences in just a few seconds – singing.

Tunes as Memory Hooks

I have to credit Benny from Fluent In 3 Months for the original idea for this technique. (If you’re learning a new language and haven’t been there, I highly encourage you to go check it out now.)

If you’ve ever noticed how quickly you can memorize lyrics to songs you like, or how sometimes an unwanted tune complete with lyrics can get lodged firmly in your brain without your consent – this technique works on the very same principle.

There’s something about our brains that makes us hardwired to latch onto tunes and hold onto them forever. While occasionally this can lead to frustration and self-induced head injuries (such as after accidentally hearing “Mmm Bop”) it can also be used to our advantage by hooking information we want to memorize onto those catchy tunes.

How to Memorize with Music

  1. Choose something to memorize – This technique works best for sentences, rather than individual words. This makes it really useful for people on the plane over who need to flash memorize important phrases. For our purposes we’ll choose “Where’s the bathroom?” in Japanese which is トイレはどこですか or “Toire wa doko desu ka”.
  2. Choose a tune that fits the sentence – Depending on the length of the sentence and the number of syllables, you’ll want to find a tune that has the right beat to it that is nice and catchy. Most kids tunes or nursery rhyme songs work wonderfully. The “desu” in “Toire wa doko desu ka” is pronounced more like “dess”, so a good fit given the number of syllables in this case would be the tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb“.
  3. Swap the lyrics for your sentence – Put your target language sentence that you want to memorize in wherever it fits in place of the original lyrics. In our case, we’re replacing the “Mary had a little lamb” part with our “Toire wa doko desu ka”. For the “Little lamb, little lamb” refrain part we’re putting in “Doko desu ka, doko desu ka”. We’ll get to why in a second.
  4. Sing it – Now that you’ve got your new lyrics, sing your tune! You don’t have to do it out loud if you you’re in public, but I think it helps a little. Just keep singing it over and over again in your head and pretty soon it’ll be so etched into your memory so well you’ll never have to worry about forgetting it again. While you’re singing it helps to associate some image with the tune to help you remember what the meaning of the sentence is. After all it doesn’t help if you’ve memorized “Toire wa doko desu ka” but don’t remember what it means.
  5. Refine the song – Once you’ve got the basic tune down you can sometimes use parts to reinforce grammar concepts to use in other sentences. That’s why we made the refrain part “doko desu ka, doko desu ka” which on its own means “Where is it?” Knowing that, you can change the object at the beginning with each verse. You can start with “Toire wa doko desu ka, doko desu ka, doko desu ka” then move on to “Toshokan wa doko desu ka, doko desu ka, doko desu ka” (図書館はどこですか? Where is the library?) for the next verse and so on. You can often even fit words with more syllables than really fit, such as “toshokan”, if you’re fiddle with the pacing of the song a bit.
  6. Use your sentences – When you need to ask where the bathroom is in Japanese, you’ll have no problem remembering how because that tune should pop right into your head. You don’t have to ask it melodically, but it’s easy to memorize that way. In the above example, because of how the “Where is it / doko desu ka” part is separated out you can easily apply new vocab you learn into that sentence structure to ask where something is, the song should have taught you to put it right before “doko desu ka”.

It’s as easy as that! While this technique is definitely directly useful to people who are already on their way to a foreign land and need to pick up some survival phrases quickly, it can also be used in general to memorize new sentences. I’ve even found practicing the sentences in song helps people start bridging the gap between broken, contemplative speech patterns and truly fluid, conversational delivery.

Have you used this technique in the past? Do you have any additions or tips to make it work better? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Brandon Giesbrecht

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Michael Delk

    Thank you for the tip about swapping in new phrases. I still remember vocabulary from the old Russian folk songs I learned. Learning new foreign songs teaches me words and constructions I would not have known as well. Music has a way of just *sticking* in my mind.

    • Glad I could help! I used to always cringe when a really catchy (but annoying) jingle from a commercial would get stuck in my head. Now it’s kind of nice because I can refill it with a sentence or vocab I want to learn and sear it into my brain.

      What language are you working on?