Lyrics or No Lyrics On Stage?

Is having the words with you on stage a helpful security blanket or a sign of laziness? Jaime Babbitt wades into the debate.

Dear Jaime,

What are your views on using lyrics in a performance? I just can seem to fit all my songs into my brain…


Velma (I love your name!),

Last week, I was singing BGVs for a Nashville artist at a prestigious club during a huge music festival.

I knew the material but wanted to have the lyrics onstage- a security blanket, if you will.

I asked the sound person for a music stand; he said, “We don’t have any.” “You don’t HAVE any?”  I stammered, incredulously.

He shrugged and said, “We don’t have a need for ‘em.”

Wow. All righty then.

I asked for a music stand... He shrugged and said, “We don’t have a need for ‘em.”I learned two things that afternoon: Not all venues have music stands, and: TAKE THE TIME TO MEMORIZE YOUR PARTS!

We singers store our lyric libraries on:

  1. Notebooks
  2. Index cards
  3. iPads
  4. iPhones (for singers with ridiculously keen vision—yay, you!)

I’ve seen music stands, clip-on-the-mic-stand iPad holders, pages with handwritten lyrics on the floor…I’ve seen (and used) them all.

And I’ve also had every excuse in the book: I was too busy/sick/headache-y/, the songs were hard… but I forgot this excuse:


*For those of you who have to read complicated notated music while singing: you people are off the hook.

Everyone else, please listen up: whether you’re a lead or background vocalist, your job is not just to sing well. Your job is also to put songs across well.

And how well are you putting across a song if you’re looking at the words? How emotionally available are you to communicate to the people who paid money to see you?

Be an audience member for a minute: how do YOU feel when you see singers reading lyrics?

So, unless you got the gig a few days ago and had to learn 40 songs, guess what? You’re on the hook to start memorizing lyrics (and parts, if you notate your lyrics with pitches, rhythms and specific melodies like I do!).

There will always be extenuating circumstances: spontaneity, requests, a bandleader who’s okay with lyrics onstage.

So try this: BRING your lyrics on whatever medium you use…and only use them if ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Then your security blanket is in the house.

And I’m only telling you what I tell myself…except I’m really old and I forget everything all the time.

Joking! My promise to not be L-A-Z-Y anymore starts N-O-W. Are you with me?


Jaime Babbitt is an-in demand voice teacher/vocal coach, session singer and performer who started as a Musical Director for Disney Records. www.workingwithyourvoice.comEmailFacebook

  • Anonymous

    I sing what people want.. and my Fakebooks and lyric sheets let me keep an active repertoire that is fifty times as large as anything my aging brain could memorize.

    Even if I never glance twice at the music in front of my just having it is good for my confidence, insures that the inevitable interruptions and glitches won’t ruin my show, and as I pointed out… lets me respond to requests and favorites for different audiences…

    Having trained as a classical musician (brass major) picking up improvisational skills has been a self taught process…

    When I’m doing guitar and vocals having that chord and lyric sheet just feels right

  • Anonymous

    I love having my iPad on stage, especially for nights when I am playing 3+ hour gigs (35-40 songs). It is not as obtrusive as a full music stand and not nearly as cumbersome as a binder full of songs.

    It definitely can change from a security blanket to a crutch though. Sometimes I find myself looking down at my iPad for words/chords to songs I have known for 20 years instead of connecting with he audience.

  • mando

    I think it is great that some folks can remember all the lyrics, but I don’t believe that this is a universally achievable thing. People have varying abilities to remember lyrics. For me, I need the occasional reminder of how the next phrase or verse starts. For this, I find my iPad running an app such as unrealbook indispensable.

  • Chris

    I feel like I am cheating the audience if I don’t know the lyircs by heart. I don’t like to just “sing” the song…I want to be able to make it mine!

  • webheadwilks

    If you know the song, you know the words. If you don’t know the words, you don’t know the song. If you don’t know the song, don’t do it. It’s LAZY to not put in the time to learn them. Practice them alone, then, rehearse with the band. Don’t try learning them when with the band and waste every serious member’s time. Very un-pro.

  • Derek Cook


    It can be a huge ask memorizing all of this stuff. I remember a bass player in my first band, who could never be without crib notes due to confidence. He of course needed to look at them, which took his attention away from the band and the audience. I occasionally have them when learning a piece, but ditch them as quickly as possible, usually before I even get to band practice, but always before playing on stage.

    As a keyboard player who had to take on backing vocals and some lead vocals for the first time recently in my Pure Floyd band, that was a huge challenge. I started off with the words in front of me in practice, and then left them behind one day on the logic that I can play two hours worth of complex music with no crib notes, so why should singing be different? It’s all “muscle memory” in a performance (music and/or vocal); if you need to think about it, you don’t really know it! So, practice, practice, practice until you know it without having to think about it.

    In fact what I found the hardest was harmony singing when you need to be above or below the main melody and you always want to go for the main melody – I thought I’d never achieve that and nearly gave up at one point, but you know, again it was practice, practice, practice! Your vocal chords are a muscle, so muscle memory rules again.



  • A big ‘heck yeah’ on the ‘crutch’ concept! And a really good point about looking at words you’re sure about just ’cause they’re there…

  • Ha, tchall, I have one of those brains, too! Do what feels right for sure…sounds like you’ve found a good balance for yourself and for your audiences!

  • Unrealbook; yeah, mando, I don’t have it yet but

    that’s a nice app. And a friend told me there’s even a way to use a foot pedal w/it to turn pages? Even less obtrusive that way….

  • That’s how I feel, too, Chris…all the best on making songs yours!

  • Great point, webheadwilks…rehearsal is so NOT the time for lyric learning!!

  • Well said on every count, Derek! Congrats on handling all your challenges well! Ha, not to get too technical but FYI: vocal cords are made of mucous membrane but the larynx is muscle, cartilage, ligaments, etc. And practice does make perfect…thanks to muscle memory, which totally rules!

  • Diane

    As musicians we are there to put on a show. You wouldn’t go see a play if the actors were holding their scripts. If you haven’t learned everything you need, then you aren’t done rehearsing and aren’t ready to put that song in your set list. Reiterating what Jamie said – you have to connect. You can’t convey the emotion of a lyric you haven’t internalized. If you have a brain fart and forget just fake your way through – if the emotion and “show” are uninterrupted then only a small percentage of the audience (if anyone) will notice you flubbed the lyrics – and that’s only if they are covers. If they are originals then for all anyone knows you changed it up for the show. We cover Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, I completely blanked on the second verse, so I just repeated part of the first, then my brain kicked in and I finished the verse with the correct lyrics. No one even noticed. Granted I do carry my lyrics book everywhere, and if I’m worried about a song I’ll look the lyrics over between sets to refresh my memory.
    On a side note if I could recommend anything to anyone to help with their stage show and confidence it would be Tom Jackson’s All Roads Lead to the Stage. I always felt awkward and “stupid” on stage, it didn’t matter how well I sang if I was just a lump on a log doing it, and those moments between songs were torture “what do I say? How do I act?” I don’t ask those questions anymore. I have a clear concise vision of the show and my role in it, where to put songs in a set list, how to introduce them, how to read my audience, where to stand, where to look, how to move – I’m completely confident and it feels great to not have to stress and worry about these things anymore and just enjoy the crowd and being on stage.

  • Wendy

    I used to be a “no lyrics/music onstage!” purist, until I watched a Billy Joel concert, and he had all his songs (that he wrote himself and has been playing for DECADES) on *laminated* pages inside a big notebook on his piano.

    (And let’s not forget about the teleprompters buried in the stage among the monitors for a lot of big name acts)

  • Anonymous

    That’s why requests can be such a challenge (especially if the tip is already in the jar). Sometimes, I know a song good enough to get through it sight reading, but I know it’s not the best.

  • Anonymous

    If your role in a band is the singer then yes, learn the words, learn the music. However, many of us are solo artists and wear more than one hat when we perform.

    In my case, I play guitar and sing. For some venues, I am my own sound tech. Then, half way through a song a friend walks in or someone comes up with a request/tip and my ADD mind just may wander off…

    I’ll just say it’s nice to have the words/chords close by.

  • Derek Cook

    I stand humbly corrected on the biology lesson! :-) But the drift is what matters, muscle memory really does rule. It is something that is so implicit in our life that we don’t think about it (think hanging gears in your car, or the mechanics of getting food from your plate to your mouth – the point is that you don’t!), and it’s a revelation when you realise it also applies to our music endeavors.

  • Derek Cook

    Good point. Rehearsals are for putting a song together and fine tuning, honing things; everybody should have done their homework prior to that. I’ve suffered from other band members not taking that approach! :-)

  • bullit98

    The use of an iPAD on stage for prompting lyrics is something that I have seen beaten to death in several forums….and in my life with local cover bands. I am a local DFW area musician (lead singer) and currently have a couple tribute bands I am fronting. I have used an iPAD (discreetly) for the past 2.5 years with one of the tributes…but the new tribute band has a “problem” with that…I guess it interferes with their rock star image….even though they still don’t know the songs instrumentally all the way through…including the background vocals.

    I have never heard any complaint from a member of the audience…or from a club/venue owner who have all rehired us…..repeatedly.

    I have always focused on hitting the notes…..all of them. I am doing Plant
    for a Zeppelin tribute…and Lou Gramm for another…..but I am well rehearsed (on my own)….and can do justice to both. Remembering lyrics isn’t the problem…it’s just the occasional brain fart I have on stage. Rather than make some crap up to cover for it….I have the opportunity to glance at a performance “aid” if you will. Anyway….I went one better this week. As a compromise…I actually spent a week of my time (and $650) gutting a perfectly good JBL stage monitor….and built my own custom teleprompter….so…it’s totally discreet….and gives me a 20″ screen to view from as far back as 10-15 feet. It’s a safety net for me…as I am now 56……and have over 2,000 songs in my head…..that I have sung…since I was 13. I told one of the guys in the band what I had built….and he said he had a problem with the wireless mouse that I may be using on stage to open the Word documents with the lyrics (in 4 seconds). Geeeez. I guess Ozzy, Sting, Bono, The Eagles, Bon Jovi, McCartney,R.E.M, Springstein,Prince, Alice Cooper and a ton of others would get a thumbs down from these local rock stars as well…:-)

  • MIchael Kennedy

    When I know a song – when I really know a song – I’m far more confident and I can focus on getting that song across to the audience than when I’m insecure about the lyrics. I always found bringing lyrics on stage exacerbated the entire situation when trying to get through a song, or group of songs, I don’t know or songs I half-way know. I’d say having the lyrics created all sorts of problems. I had them on a music stand when someone opened a door and the wind blew them to the floor. I skipped lines while looking at them and sang the wrong part. I felt worried, and kept looking down at the lyric sheet. The list goes on and on. So I realized I had to know these songs so well, it would be like breathing. Unexpected things can happen on stage and if I’m following a “script” of lyrics, I have little room to improvise or correct a situation. So, I decided to leave the lyrics at home. I have a list of songs I flat out know, a list of songs I almost know, a list of songs I’m learning, and a list of songs I plan on learning. I work on one song a week until I can do it in my sleep. When i go to a venue, I bring along the list of songs I flat out know and leave the others behind. I go up there with no lyrics. Is it perfect? Nope. I’ll miss something now and then, but I’ve learned not to worry about it. But the thing is this – I’m having a lot of fun, I feel good, and it’s exciting.

  • mfguitar11

    That works IF you have a pre-scripted show and that works well for a lot of venues. And, that works if your only role is to sing. Frankly, if your only role is to sing, then you better have the words down.
    However, those of us that are solo artists/cover artists often play in locations where our original set list has to get modified on the fly to meet the “feel” of the audience that night. For me, that means I need lyrics.
    When it comes down to it, I think the key thing is to not overly rely on having lyrics on the stage and to keep it as subtle as possible (hence why I love the iPad). If I just play a whole set and don’t look up at the crowd, then I know my performance has been a little “sucky” to say the least.

  • Leo O’Neil

    I have been a pro musician for over 50 years. I feel that the availability of lyrics on the internet
    has hurt singers. Listening to a song many times and writing out your own lyrics helped with learning the fine points of a song. Today, the singer listens a few times to a song, prints out the lyrics and thinks he’s ready to perform the song. Wrong! I hear many more vocal mistakes since lyrics have been easy to come by.

  • Freya Astrella

    Agree! I see many young singers clutching their smart phones on stage – detracts from stage presence.

  • Freya Astrella

    Laminated? How does that work under stage lights?