How Lyrics and Melodic Shape Work Together

Gary EwerBy Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Carrie Underwood - "Undo It"Songwriting is the ultimate multi-tasking exercise. To do it well, you need to be carving out a great melody, lyric and chord progression, and doing them more-or-less at the same time. So if you find that you’re working out your melody, and then trying to come up with a lyric that fits it, you’re probably going to end up with something that’s weak and sounding disorganized. To create good songs, the various elements need to be created and developed together.

Because lyrics are one of the most obvious ways that we convey meaning to listeners, all other elements should be written in such a way as to support the lyric. For example, it  will confuse listeners if you’ve got a driving, upbeat rhythm with a leaping melody as your setting for a sad, melancholic lyric.

In particular, how you construct your melody is going to go a long way to making sure that you’re conveying the lyric’s inner meaning. Here are some lyric types, and melodic shapes that help:

  1. For lyrics with a “determined” or “forthright” message: use many repeated notes or repeated 2-note figures. Repeated notes have a way of digging into the listener’s brain, and making it sound important. (Examples: “I Am the Walrus” – The Beatles; “Undo It”- Carrie Underwood)
  2. For emotional, heart-wrenching or passionate lyrics relating to love or other tender topics: try incorporating upward leaps of a 4th, 5th or larger. (Examples: “You Make Me Feel Brand New” – The Stylistics; “Someday” – Rob Thomas)
  3. For lyrics that tell a story, or describe situations: try mid-range, and mostly stepwise melodic motion. Songs that relate stories need to have melodies that move up and down, reflecting the many moods that stories depict. (Examples: “You’re So Vain” – Carly Simon; “American Pie” – Don McLean)

If you’re lucky, lyrics and melody, along with a great backing chord progression, will all come together simultaneously. But that hardly ever happens. What’s more likely is that you’ll find yourself editing ad nauseum. It’s quite normal to find yourself changing one element, and then having to change everything else to support that first change.

In that regard, you may find it possible to be working on two or more songs at the same time. And you’ll likely find that each time you return to a song, new ideas come flooding in. So think of multi-tasking as a good thing!


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