John Denver

Making a More Effective Song Lyric: Stresses, Pauses and Natural Flow

Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessIf you’re hoping to make lyrics a more important feature of your songs, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s free with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.”

For most languages there is a written form and an oral form. You’ll notice this easily when you compare the words and sentence structure you’d use to write a formal letter to the way you’d speak to a friend at a party:

FORMAL WRITTEN: Could I please ask for a clarification of your return policy with regard to an order I recently placed at your store.

INFORMAL ORAL: Hey, are you guys meeting up at Joe’s Café later? ‘Cause I’m planning to be there too!

Song lyrics usually make greatest use of the oral style of language, particularly in the pop music genres. Informal, oral style has a natural flow that makes a more poignant, and very important, emotional connection to listeners. The stresses we place in the words we say is an important part of the natural rhythm of our language.

That’s why a poem doesn’t always make a great song lyric. That’s certainly not to say that poetry doesn’t make emotional connections. But the difference is that an important characteristic of pop songs is the immediacy of its effect. We need to pick up the mood and the effect right away.

But poetry will often take time to digest, to understand, and to feel its full effect. That time required to more fully digest a written poem is part of its charm. The best lyrics, by the way, are ones that can do both: offer an emotional connection that can be processed right away, while also offering a complexity that takes time to understand. Our understanding of a good lyric might actually change over time.

Preserving the Natural Flow of Language Within a Lyric

One of the most important jobs of setting a lyric is preserving the natural flow of the words. That means being mindful of the stresses, pauses and other features of the way we’d say those words.

Let’s take a well-known classic country-pop tune, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert, John Denver) as an example. The chorus lines:

Country roads, take me home
to the place I belong,
West Virginia…

When you say the words several times, you pick up the natural flow, which means that you start to become aware of which words get a bit of weight, and which words are the ones we’d usually speak quicker and lighter:

to the PLACE I be-LONG,
WEST Vir-GIN-ia…

The task for the songwriter is to set the words to music so that those natural stresses are still present when we hear them sung.

Why is that so important? Words are hard to understand if the natural stresses in the text are reversed or missing. And not only are they hard to understand, but the natural emotional effect of those words becomes greatly diminished if the syllabic accents aren’t where we expect them to be.

Songwriters have at least three ways of ensuring that music honours the natural flow of a language:

  1. Place stressed syllables on strong beats, and/or
  2. Make a stressed syllable longer, and/or
  3. Place stressed syllables higher in pitch.

When you look at the chorus words of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, you’ll see all ways utilized. On the words “take me home”, the words “take” and “home” are longer in value than “me,” exactly the same way we’d likely say them. They’re also placed on strong beats within the music. On “I be-LONG”, the “long” syllable is placed higher in pitch, giving it special emphasis.

Mismatched stresses will interfere with a song’s natural flow, and it can be a primary reason for song lyrics being less effective than they might be. In order to be sure you don’t fall into this kind of trap, do the following for each song you write:

  1. Spend a good deal of time saying your lyric out loud, paying careful attention to stresses and pulses, and noting the syllables that you tend to spend a longer time on.
  2. Make note of where natural pauses happen in your lyric. In “Country Roads”, you feel a natural pause happening frequently: “Country roads [pause] take me home [pause] etc…” Do what you can to preserve those pauses when you set the lyric to music.
  3. Favour an oral form of speech over a written form. Choose your words to make their greatest emotional impact, particularly in the chorus.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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Song melodies

3 Tips For Generating Melodic Ideas

Some songwriters have a flair for coming up with just the right tune. Most of the time, the best melodies are good because they partner so well with the lyric, and of course with the chord progression.

But even with those elements in place, it can still be hard to write a great tune. So if you’re coming up dry, I’ve made a short list of three ideas that might help jump-start your melody-writing ideas, and I hope you find them useful.

Hooks and RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

Keep in mind that these are ideas simply for getting the process started. They’ll help you generate a short melodic idea, and then hopefully you can take it from there.

1. Try a chords-first songwriting method

Historically, the great composers came up with melodies as a starting point. But no melody is great if it isn’t supported by a strong, supportive chord progression underneath it.

The problem with the chords-first method is that melodies can get ignored as the focus is placed on harmony. But there is a way to get chords to work for you: Play your chord progression over and over, changing the voicing each time.

By changing the voicing, you place different notes as the highest-sounding notes. As you move from chord to chord, those highest notes form a kind of melody. Not a great one at this stage, mind you, but enough to stimulate your imagination and give you some initial ideas of where a melody might start. From there, you can take those fledgling ideas and create something more complete and attractive.

2. Manipulate Pre-existing Melodies

This can be a fun way to come up with something new. Take a melody that you’ve known and loved for a long time. It can be your own, or it can also be someone else’s — perhaps the melody from your favourite song.

Take that melody and play it backwards. An entire melody may not work this way, but bits of it might. Remember, it’s not important to be able to find an entire melody this way. What you’re trying to do is to find initial ideas that can stimulate your imagination to write the rest of it.

You could also take the intervals of a melody and reverse those. For example, if you take the first few notes of the chorus to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, ignoring repeated notes, you get a descending figure that ends with an upward leap: F C A E. Reversing that gives you F Bb D G — an ascending figure that ends with a downward leap. Now you’ve got a short melodic cell that you can experiment with.

3. Use the Bass Line

Let’s say you’ve been playing around with this simple chord progression: C  C/E  F  G7 (Click the play button below to listen)

Create a melody that moves in parallel 3rds above the bass line. That bass line is: C-E-F-G. Starting a 3rd above the C would give you a melody that starts on E: E-G-A-B. Listen:

You can use that bass line in other ways. You could create melodies that move in the opposite direction to the bass line, and you don’t need to keep the very same intervals. Simply choosing a method where you reverse the direction of the bass line can be enough to allow some melodic ideas to flow.

The Best Melodies

I’ve always believed that the best melodies come from a strong partnership with the lyric. So one of the best things you can do is to read your lyric out loud, and make note of where your voice tends to move up and move down.

That natural inflection that we place in words is an important part of how we communicate, but it’s also an important indicator of which direction a melody that you write might move.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Fitting Parts Together to Create a Song

Most of the time, you write songs where all the sections (verse, chorus, etc.) are written as part of the same process. You might write a chorus hook, and then you work on a verse that will partner well with it, and so on.

But you likely have bits of songs that you’ve written over the years that never found a home in a complete song. Those individual parts might sound great, but you just never found a way of working them into  a song.

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If you’ve got several or more of these abandoned ideas sitting in a proverbial drawer somewhere, it might be time to pull some of them together and see if you can make completed songs out of them.

You might wonder — How can parts of songs, written at different times, wind up working together within the same song? It really comes down to knowing the basic principles of good songwriting. As long as the various sections, which might have been written months — maybe even years — apart, exhibit the qualities of what that section typically shows, your audience will usually be none the wiser.

So what are the things you should keep in mind and remember as you start pulling these various parts together? Here are some tips:

  1. Choose sections and then move them into the same, or closely related, keys. Most songs will keep a constant key throughout, but remember that a verse will often be in minor, moving to major for a chorus. So if you pull out a verse you wrote last month that’s in A minor, your chorus will likely work if it’s in either A minor or C major – the relative major.
  2. Make note of the basic range of each section. One of the most important considerations for what makes a verse sound like a verse, for example, is that it usually sits lower in pitch than the chorus. So if you find a section you wrote a while back, but it’s pitched rather high, you may get the verse-like quality you’re looking for by lowering it, especially relative to the chorus you’re going to pair it with.
  3. Try each section with a similar backing rhythm approach. Most choruses will build on the rhythmic approach that gets set up in the verse. The parts you’re trying to pull together might have rather different rhythmic feels, and so creating a backing rhythm feel that is related will help give you a clearer picture of what they’d sound like in the same song.
  4. Don’t consider lyrics yet. Getting a lyric that works can wait until you get the music working. This is not to say that lyrics are unimportant. But if these musical ideas were originally written at different times, you’ll need to eventually rework one or both of the lyrics that you originally wrote. Getting the sections together is mostly a musical task, and that should happen first.

And remember that you can use small bits of the sections you originally wrote. You may find a chorus section that you wrote a while ago, but maybe it’s just the first few notes you really like. But those few notes might be all you need to restart the writing process for the rest of the song.

It can be exciting to hear two sections come together in this way, when you probably thought you had written something that was never going to see the light of day. Audiences can find the truth of the matter quite interesting if you choose to tell them. As long as the different sections partner well, that’s all that really matters.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a MelodyHave a  great melody, but stuck at the “how to add chords to it” stage? “How To Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step-by-step and with sound samples, how it’s done, with suggestions for chord substitutions that might work as well. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

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Songwriter with guitar

Diversifying Your Songwriting Style

Among other admirable qualities, the individual members of The Beatles were known for the astonishing diversity of their writing styles. For every song they wrote, they threw out the template and came up with a new song that bore little similarity to past ones.

That meant that every new hit had a freshness. Every new song was a new musical journey, and it paid off.

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If you’re interested in diversifying your writing style, it’s not easy to do if you aren’t spending a lot of time listening to music from other genres. In most interviews with The Beatles, musical influences were bound to come up. They all spoke of recordings their parents had played as they each were growing up. Jazz, Dixieland, blues, swing, avant garde, musical theatre — the pool of musical experience The Beatles individually were able to tap into was deep.

Add to that their more contemporary musical experiences and interests of other bands they were interested in (Little Richard, Bob Dylan, Gene Vincent, The Byrds, and many, many more), and they had a seemingly endless supply of styles and genres they could infuse into their own songs.

Adopting a new style is a bit like learning a new language:

  1. You need to immerse yourself in it; and then…
  2. You need to communicate to others by using it.

If you want to diversify your writing style, try the following:

  1. Choose a genre – one you don’t normally listen to.
  2. Take a week and listen to as many different artists from that genre as you can. Google and Wikipedia will help you search new songs and artists.
  3. Keep a notebook, and be sure to write down your thoughts and impressions as you listen. You’ll find that putting your thoughts into words helps you grasp the nuances of the genre.

It stands to reason that you should be choosing genres for which have at least some initial interest. As you listen, you want to gain an appreciation for the history and the compositional characteristics of that genre.

As the weeks pass, you’ll find that, without even knowing it, your own songwriting style will begin to change. As your knowledge and experience deepens, your songwriting will deepen. Your sound will become a fascinating melange of styles and characteristics.

And the great thing is that you won’t even have to think about it. It’s something that will automatically happen.

If you love the blues, and you write lots of blues, and you listen exclusively to blues, you’re going to find it harder over time to keep coming up with new ideas for your songs.

But if you can deepen the well from which you can pull ideas, the music you write will be a distinctive blend of styles, and just think of the unique journey you’ll be able to offer your fan base!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Thousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” to polish their writing technique. Right now, “Use Your Words!” is being offered free with your purchase of the bundle!


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Songwriting - List

A Songwriter’s List

Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessIf you want to be a better lyricist, putting lyrics at the top of your songwriting agenda is a crucial first step. Read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s free with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”

Let’s say you’re in the market to buy a house. The real estate agent asks you what features you’re looking for. You’re likely to mention location first — that’s such an important consideration. And then, of course, the size of house you need.

“We need a 4-bedroom house, preferably somewhere near the city, but close enough to the country to make outings easy.”

Sure, that’s no problem. Everyone looking for a house is going to mention size and location.

Then we get to the bits that reflect personal taste.

“I’ve always wanted a fireplace. A nice big stone fireplace for those chilly evenings.”

Eventually you’ll find the house that suits your needs. It may need some work, and it may not have everything you’ve hoped for, but if you’ve placed importance on the fact that it should have 4 bedrooms, be just outside the city, and have a fireplace, I know this much: it will probably have 4 bedrooms, will probably be just outside the city, and will probably have an amazing fireplace.

Because those are the things you put at the top of your list. Those were the things that were important.

In songwriting, you may not know it, but you’ve also got a list. Your own musical style and approach to writing will dictate what your songs’ most important features are, and they’ll be the features that are at the top of your list.

If you find that lyrics, let’s say, are the part of your songs that, upon reflection, never seem to sound very good, think about it: have you ever put lyrics front and centre in your songwriting process? Have lyrics been at the top of your list?

Leonard Cohen is known for his lyrics. But that makes sense: he was a poet. His lyrics probably meant more to him than any other aspect of his writing. For Leonard, words were his “nice big stone fireplace.”

For whatever else his songs might have, the words were going to be their most important feature, because they were at the top of his list.

If you’ve ever wanted lyrics to be more meaningful and powerful, you’ve got to place that feature at the top of your list. Lyrics can’t be an afterthought. There needs to be a spotlight that you shine on the lyric-writing process.

Once you’ve placed lyrics at the top of your list, it feels natural to begin with lyrics. Develop a lyrics-first songwriting process, and you’ll find that, song by song, what you say through your words gets better, more effective, and more powerful.

And that goes for any song feature that you wish you did just a little better. Place it at the top of your list, give it your attention, and you’ll be amazed what that one small act does for your songwriting.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook BundleIf you’re looking for one set of eBooks that will cover everything you need to know about writing songs –creating melodies, lyrics, chord progressions, and more — “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle is what you’re looking for. It always comes with a SPECIAL DEAL.

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I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.

Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.

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