If you find lyrics easy to write but melodies hard, here are some ideas for making your words singable.
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If you’re the kind of person who finds lyrics to be the most interesting and fun aspect of songwriting, you may also be the kind who finds melodies and chords hard to come up with. The temptation in those cases is to automatically assume that you can’t write melodies, and then seek out a songwriting partner who can. And while I am in favour of songwriting partnerships as a general rule, you may just need a little help to get your mind thinking melodically.
If you are a lyrics-first kind of writer, the basic shape of your melody is probably going to be more important to you than the chordal accompaniment. That’s because lyrics-first writers are usually careful about imagery, poetic devices, and generally how they say things. The melody you write has great potential for bringing those aspects of your words to life. A chord progression has that potential as well, but often to a lesser degree.
So if you’ve got a new lyric, but your mind is a blank with regard to melody, try the following steps as a way to create one. It’s a good idea to have a few simple progressions ready for this, so take the time right now to either create some, or choose from these simple ones:
C Dm G C
C Dm7 G C
C Fmaj7 G7 C
C Am Dm G C
C Em Am Dm G7 C
Now give these steps a try:
- Read your lyrics aloud several times. Try saying them at different tempos. Find and savour the basic rhythm of your words.
- For every line of lyric, write a number from 1 to 10 that corresponds to the emotional value of the line. For example, if the line is a simple descriptive line, such as, “I felt the sun shining down on me”, you might assign it a value of 1 or 2. A line like, “You gave me comfort as you held my hand…” might get a value of 5 or 6. A line like, “The fire in my heart burns only for you” might get an 8 or 9.
- For every verse or section of lyric, write the 2 or 3 words that hold the most emotional value. These should be the words that seem to jump out as being the kind that would get an audience’s attention.
- For every verse or section of lyric, find the one word that seems to serve as a climactic point: a word for which you might say, “That’s what this verse really is all about”. Circle that word.
- Play the first chord from a short chord progression on your guitar or keyboard. (Experiment with this step. Songs in major keys have a different feel from songs in a minor key). Sing the tonic note (e.g., if you play a C chord, sing a C).
- Start reciting your poem on that note, and think about the inherent rhythm of your words. For accented syllables, you may want to hold those words longer. Make sure that the natural pulse of your words comes through. You’re not really creating a melody here yet, you’re just transitioning your brain from thinking of your words as poetry to thinking of them as lyric.
- Play through your chosen chord progression, and sing your melody on the tonic note. Experiment with how long to play each chord, and how long you hold each word or syllable. As you change chords, if the tonic note you’re singing doesn’t fit, move your voice up or down until it does.
- Start singing your lyric again, this time changing the starting note of each line by considering the emotional value you assigned to each line of text. If you gave your line a value of 1-3, start on a low tonic. If you gave it a 4-6, start on the 3rd above it. If you gave the line a 7-8, start on a dominant note. And if your line is very emotional (9 or 10), start singing on the upper tonic note. As before, move your note up or down to make it fit as you play through your progression.
- Create melodic leaps by considering the emotional words you listed in Step 3. When you sing those words, allow your voice to leap upward.
- Create a climactic high point by considering the emotional word you listed in Step 4. The focal point of your lyric might work well by allowing it to be one of the highest notes in your song.
Of course, it’s silly to think that this is how all good melodies are written. There are many ways to create tunes. But if melodic ideas are just not happening for you, doing the 10 steps above can help. By the time you’ve reached the 7th or 8th step, you’ll start to get a sense of how a melody might work for your lyric.
Don’t consider those steps as rules. In fact, once you feel that you’re getting a sense of a workable melody happening, I’d encourage you to put the list away and simply let your imagination take over.
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