This Thing About Words

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I am in the midst of learning something and don’t quite know what to make of it. Maybe you can help me!

I have just begun to realize that some of my students don’t “hear” the words to songs. They don’t listen to the words while playing or vamping, and when I encourage them to do so, they have trouble retaining the words.

Now, I am a 100% words person myself. I even sometimes hear words to instrumentals! In the tune “Ashoken Farewell” I hear the words “You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me” on the last line. And in Monroe’s “Road to Columbus,” at the beginning of the second half I hear “Come and sit by my side little darling...” I could go on. So memorizing words comes automatically to me.

So, my question to myself is: Can you play bluegrass (and I’m talking about jamming) without knowing the words to the songs? And by “knowing,” I don’t mean knowing all the verses to every song, but at least being able to recognize the chorus of the song when it comes up. Or is this just me imposing the way I do something on someone else?

I didn’t realize this was a problem until Susan and I were working on jamming skills and how to anticipate whether you might be asked to play a break or not. I was explaining to her that there are some songs that usually start off with the chorus (Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms). In that case, the singer might give the nod for a break after that initial chorus OR she might choose to sing chorus/verse/chorus without a break. It happens all the time. And that in any singing song, the break always comes after a chorus. And it never comes after a verse. Unless the song is all verses and no chorus.

Well, Susan (who is a wonderful folk singer) couldn’t tell the difference between the chorus and the verses. Bluegrass is a new music to her, these are all new songs to her, and she hadn’t been paying attention to the words. After all, she had her hands full learning to play the breaks and doing the vamping. So the question came up in my mind: Is it necessary to ask you to learn the words to the choruses of all these songs you’ve never heard before?
It seems to me that it is. But, as I say, maybe that’s just me. After all, we all play instrumentals fine without hearing any words. But what happens when someone asks you to kick off a singing song you can’t quite remember? I always use the words to get me on track. Maybe it’s possible to recall a melody without the words. I simply don’t know.

Can I get some feedback from all y’all? What are your thoughts? Anybody else having trouble remembering words to songs? Anybody doing just fine without knowing the words? Talk to me, folks!

15 thoughts on “This Thing About Words

  1. Josh

    Many years ago you told me to start singing when playing even though my singing is not fit for most ears. But, what that did was put the rythm and melodies in my head for all those songs. Now I always sing in my head when playing, don’t know if I could pick leads to singing songs any other way. The last jam I came to, we played a song (one of the gospels I didn’t know) and I messed up my first attempt at a break because I couldn’t get the words in my head. It may be alot to learn but in my case it paid huge dividends in playing. Good topic!!

  2. martha carlton

    I think it would be a big help to have the words on the tip of your tongue when you are playing singing songs, at least the words to the chorus. I have not been doing that, but, I am sure it would be helpful. I’ll have to start making myself learn those words!!!

  3. Martin Bacon

    Words are just about everything for me. If I can hear the words of the song I can often play the tune. I don’t know how else I could personally do it. It was really hard to try to keep the words in my head while playing at first but it is worth working hard on that. That is why I started making that notebook of songs. Writing them down helps me remember them.

  4. admin

    Writing them down helps me remember words as well. That’s why I discourage people from using those bluegrass songbooks that you can buy that have hundreds of songs in them. If you don’t have to do the work to figure out what the words are for yourself, you’re less likely to actually remember them.


  5. george (alaska)

    Good topic Murphy! several years ago I learned Cabin In Caroline from the Earl Scruggs book in tabulature with the musical notation above. (I dont know how to read music either) but I learned that song note for note and could play it really good! But I never heard the song played! the words were also in the musical notation so I just sang them when I chorded the song by myself. Anyway I went to a friends house who was very good banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar player. I said listen to this and see if you can identify the song! So off I went and finished it perfect! So I thought! He could not tell what I was playing! When I told him He just laughed along with me! He gave me a tape with the song on it and said you must relearn it. It took me years to relearn that song! But learning the words to it was the answer and of course listening to the song 100’s of times finally did it! I learned a great lesson at that time to never learn a song until you hear it over and over again and at least know the verse or the chourus!
    thanks for letting me get that off my chest! haha

  6. Paul Sykes

    In any singing song the break follows the chorus except if you’re Earl Scruggs, ie. Down the Road, or Allison Krauss on Wild Bill Jones where the instrumental break takes the place of the traditional chorus. Paul

  7. Martin Bacon

    This would be a good topic for BHO. I don’t remember ever reading this question posed there. Would it be OK with you for me to see if they have any interest in weighing in on the subject?

  8. Steve (in Japan)

    I agree with Murphy 100%, learning & knowing the words to all of your songs is important because the chord changes are there in the words of the song. I believe it’s Casey’s employer of the “Kamp” she frequently instructs at who coined the term or expression, “build memory muscle.” I think that term applies, too, to when you know where the chord changes are in the words of your songs. Writing down or typing & printing out the songs you want to learn in four-line verses and a chorus (there’re exceptions, of course) with regular spacing is the best way to go, in my opionion. That’s just the words and nothing but the words.

  9. Steve (in Japan)

    I better stand corrected here just as I do about “when to learn to play in C.” That famous accoustic “Kamp” originator and founder probably was the first to coin the term “muscle memory.” as opposed to “brain memory,” I guess. And, btw, Murphy taught us how to do this memory stuff from our very beginning DVDs with songs such as Boil Them Cabbage Down and I Saw the Light. There’s my OPINION once more.

  10. Sharyn

    Very interesting topic to me, as we had just had a conversation about this the previous evening. I am not a singer. When I listen to music (cd’s or live) I hear the music (all the instruments and what they’re playing) but very few words. My husband sings and plays guitar chords and hears the words but not much of the music. On bass, I hum the tune if practising alone and with banjo, I think I hear what the break should sound like and that’s what I play. It probably would be easier if I knew the words, but I can only seem to focus on the music. If I try to focus on the words, then I get lost playing the music! Maybe in time it will come together? What is the best way for me to learn the words?

  11. Barb Owens

    Hhhmmmm…..this is a very good topic! I never thought about it before because I just learn the words easily and enjoy it. But, now that I think about it, I have friends who don’t like to sing but love to play their breaks. I am going to ask them if they learn the words or not. It’s hard to imagine not learning the words but like you said, we learn instrumentals without words?????? This is a mystery!

  12. Allen Fowler

    I think it’s better if I know the words to the chorus. I find I can follow the music during the break much easier if I can hear the words in my head.

  13. Martin Bacon

    Even with instrumentals I sort of hum the tune in my head when I play it.

    I think hearing the words in your head is pretty much the same thing.

  14. Tam

    HI Murphy..

    Interesting question I guess I lean toward the tune more but with some songs words do play in my thoughts as I play..

    In my youth I was a big fan of the Beach Boys. I used to bet my friends that I could name any Beach Boy song in one note. Made a few bob with that little trick.


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