Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Have you ever noticed that all the advice out there for memorizing lines is freaking godawful? You'll often hear something like, "just repeat your lines over and over and over" or "write out all your lines by hand." Snooze...and also, carpal tunnel anyone?
Guess what, psychologists and cognitive scientists have been studying the mind for over a century at this point, and they've actually figured out several significant things about memory and how we learn. Here are a few tips based on these findings that you can incorporate into your practice to make your line memorization faster and more efficient.
Want to give your memorization a turboboost? Check out my FREE MASTERCLASS, Memorizing Lines the Smart Way!
1. Use Spaced Repetition
Researchers have observed a phenomenon known as "the spacing effect" which shows that we learn better and retain information most effectively when we space out our learning over time. So instead of doing one long gigantic study session, it's better to have some intervals of time between sessions.
Why does the spacing effect work? It's similar to weight-lifting. Researchers theorize that the spaced intervals allow our brains some time to forget the material it learned. When we revisit the material, it requires an effort for our brains to retrieve that information again. That difficult mental work increases the strength of the memory, so it becomes easier to retain that information for longer. So when you revisit your lines and find you are struggling, don't panic! It's a good thing; the struggle means you're increasing the strength of your line memorization.
To take advantage of the spacing effect, practice your lines using spaced repetition. For example, let's say you have a day or two to memorize a monologue. Once you think you have the monologue pretty much down, to really solidify it in your memory, try practicing it using these intervals:
1st repetition: After 15-20 minutes
2nd repetition: After 1-2 hours
3rd repetition: After 6-8 hours
4th repetition: After 24 hours
Now these suggested intervals are rough estimates. Through your own experimentation, you may find that somewhat different time intervals may work better for you. But you can see the basic principle - each repetition is done after a longer interval than the previous one. The intervals you choose will also be dependent on how fast you want to learn the information. The sooner you need to learn, the shorter your time intervals.
Another method you can use that is based on spaced repetition is called the Leitner System. This system is typically used with flashcards. You pick a number of boxes or compartments for your cards. (The typical number is five, though you can use less or more.) Each compartment is assigned a different repetition interval. You sort your flashcards into the appropriate compartment based on how well you know the information on that card. Cards that contain new information will go in the first compartment where you will review them with greater repetition. Cards that have information you already know really well will go in the last compartment. Cards that are rated somewhere in between will go into one of the intermediate compartments. (This isn't an exact science; just use your best judgement.) So once your cards have been assigned to their appropriate compartment, you can start testing yourself. As you learn the information on the flashcards, you will graduate them to the next compartment, meaning you will review them less often. If you find you've forgotten the information on a card and are unable to answer it correctly, it falls back to the first compartment where it will be repeated more often again.
This system has two advantages: it uses the spacing effect to space out your learning over time, but it also makes you spend more time and effort on the information you know the least.
So here's an example of how you might use the Leitner System to practice your lines:
Let's say you're memorizing a role for a play, and you want to have the role memorized in a week. Take your scenes and monologues from the play and sort them into four categories or "compartments" based on how well you know that scene or monologue. The first will be for the ones you don't know well at all. The second will be for ones you know a little better. The third will be for ones you know mostly well. And the fourth will be for ones you have down solid.
Review the scenes/monologues in the first category every day.
Review the scenes/monologues in the second category every other day.
Review the scenes/monologues in the third category once every 3 days.
Review the scenes/monologues in the fourth category once right before the end of the week.
Again these are rough estimates. You may need to adjust the intervals based on your own needs. Also, these are only taking into consideration time needed for memorization. Presumably, you will also be spending time practicing the role just for the sake of the acting, which will also help reinforce the memorization of lines.
Check out the video below for more information on spaced repetition:
2. Use the Serial Position Effect
The serial position effect says that we tend to remember things at the beginning (primacy effect) and end (recency effect) of a series. If you think about it, you intuitively already know this. Notice how when it comes to a scene or monologue we tend to remember the beginning and ending lines pretty well, but the lines in the middle can be pretty blurry.
So there are few ways you can use the serial position effect to your advantage. Instead of always running your scenes and monologues top to bottom, start a practice session somewhere in the messy middle in a place where you are less confident of the lines. Also, take frequent short breaks so you have more "beginnings" and "endings" to your practice.
3. Be Mindful of Interference Theory
Interference is a psychological phenomenon in which some memories interfere with other memories because of their similarity to each other. The similarity in material causes the memories to compete, which makes it difficult to correctly retrieve the information you're trying to remember. Say you're trying to remember your current landlord's name, Mr. Jake Jenkins, but you can't quite remember it because you keep thinking of the name of your previous landlord, Mr. John Johnson. You get the idea.
To avoid interference, make sure you aren't memorizing or running lines for similar scenes or monologues back to back. You don't want to get the lines for one scene mixed up with another! Also, when you take a break, switch to a task that is completely different and unrelated.
4. Use Multiple Senses
When memorizing your lines, try to encode the words using multiple senses; this will store the memories in multiple brain regions, which helps to strengthen them. Think about the words and see what images pop up for you. (It's okay if they're unrelated to the actual meaning in the text.) Flesh out the images in more detail. What do the items feel like or smell like? Speak the words aloud and pay attention to their sound and feel.
5. Use the Von Restorff Effect (aka the Isolation Effect)
The Von Restorff Effect is quite simple: we remember things that stand out in some way. In a crate of green apples, we remember the lone orange. In a train car filled with yuppies, we remember the punk in the corner with the purple mohawk. This applies to pretty much everything. If you're looking at a list of random words, you're most likely to remember the one that is printed in a larger font or a different color.
If you're having trouble remembering some of your lines or even a particular word, give it some distinguishing feature. Highlight it with a bright color or write it out in big block letters. Play around and draw a silly picture next to it that is associative. Or if you're desperate, for real just like, draw something a bit naughty next to it. This is especially good for memorizing something that is in the middle of a text, since as we've already talked about, we tend to have trouble remembering things that fall in the middle of a series.
6. Test Yourself.
When you revisit your lines, spend less time reviewing them on the page, and spend more time testing yourself. Speak the lines aloud or act out the scene without looking at the script. When you come to a spot where you're having difficulty remembering what is next, take the time to really try to come up with the line, then check the script to see if you got it right. If you're able to struggle and find the correct line internally, rather than getting the answer immediately from the script, you will increase the strength of the memory! Meaning it will be easier to remember that part the next time you rehearse it. This is called the testing effect.
7. Vary Your Rehearsal Environment.
If you rehearse your lines in the exact same environment, under the same circumstances or state of mind, you are more likely to make your memorization dependent on that environment, meaning you will have difficulty recalling the lines when you are some place else. This is called context-dependent memory or also state-dependent learning.
To avoid getting your memorization locked in in this way, be sure to vary your rehearsal environment. And I mean "environment" very broadly. Rehearse at different times of the day, with different noise levels, temperatures, etc. Run your lines on the train, while you're getting ready for bed, when taking a walk. You want to make your memorization independent of your surroundings.
8. Study Lines Before Bedtime.
Sleep is absolutely critical to learning and memory. A lot of information processing and memory consolidation occurs during sleep. In addition to making sure you're getting your requisite 7-9 hours a night, boost your memorization by practicing your lines soon before you go to sleep or take a nap. Studies have shown this especially helps when learning new material.
To learn more about sleep and memory check out this post:
Regular exercise generally boosts memory and cognition. But there is some evidence that exercise before or after a memorization session enhances learning. So consider going on a little run or lift some weights on your breaks from memorizing your lines.
To learn more about exercise and memory, check out this post:
10. Act While You Are Running Lines.
Speaking aloud and incorporating movement and action while practicing both help with memorization. Get up and really act. Incorporate the blocking that has been established in rehearsal, or come up with your own blocking. Corresponding movement with the text will help solidify it in your memory. Establishing emotional connections with the text will also make it stick.
11. Use Chunking and The Rule of 7.
Research has shown that our working memories are limited in their capacity. At any given time, the working memory can hold about 7 bits of information, give or take. Research has also shown that we're able to remember information when it is broken into smaller chunks. (That's why phone numbers and social security numbers are broken into distinct chunks.)
To use these two principles, break your text into phrases of between 5-9 words at most, and memorize one phrase at a time. With practice and repetition, the individual words in the phrase will cohere, so the phrase will function in your mind as a single unified whole, allowing for more space for more phrases in your working memory. As an example of this, take the title "Old Macdonald had a farm." Those are five individual words or "bits" of information, but because we are familiar with it as the title of a children's song, it functions for us as a single bit. We don't have to think hard about the five individual words; we're able to rattle off the title quite easily.
Ready to do a deeper dive? Check out my FREE MASTERCLASS, Memorizing Lines the Smart Way
Explore some of my other posts on line memorization: