How Melodic Shape Can Support Your Song’s Lyrics

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SingerI mentioned a couple of posts ago that good songs are usually better than the sum of their parts. Here’s what I mean. A good lyric can come across as stronger than it might really be if the melody and backing harmonic progression are just right for it. The question is: how do you make sure that your song’s melody is getting everything it possibly can out of a lyric? We have the advantage of decades of pop music to analyze regarding this point. And we know that certain kinds of melodic contour will add meaning to certain kinds of lyrics. Here’s how that works.

In talking about a song’s melody, and what it does to the underlying meaning of your lyric, I’m skipping over other obvious musical effects we experience when listening to music. For example, there is no doubt that instrumentation and musical arrangement play a huge role in the overall mood of music. Think about the effect of background music in a movie, and you’ll know what I mean.

But the effect of musical arrangement is obvious, while the impact of melodic shape isn’t. Getting the right melodic shape is a subtle but powerful tool songwriters have at their disposal.

When we talk about the shape of a melody, we’re talking about comparing its lowest notes with its highest ones. Usually, you’ll want your melody to exhibit a discernible shape, hopefully displaying a climactic high point.

But that’s a very vague generalization. In fact, not all melodies have dramatic highs and lows. Some great melodies seem to be rather static (Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, for example), while others have large melodic leaps (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). Is there a way of determining what kind of melodic shape supports the different kinds of lyrics?

There are no concrete rules in music, only guidelines and suggestions. And depending on the kind of lyric you’re trying to set, take a look at the following suggestions:

  • For lyrics that exhibit characteristics of forthrightness, determination or dedication:
    • Consider starting your melody on a strong beat (i.e., beat 1 or 3 of the bar);
    • Construct the melody to make good use of many repeating pitches;
    • To especially enhance the sense of determination, place the melody at the outer reaches of the singer’s range, high or low.
  • For lyrics that exhibit characteristics of love or tenderness:
    • Allow the melody to feature a motivic leap, especially upward. (Think of the opening of Queen’s “Love of My Life” as a great example);
    • Keep the melody revolving around the singer’s midrange, saving higher notes for emotional impact.
  • For lyrics that tell a story:
    • Allow the melody to make great use of stepwise motion (i.e., note-to-note upward and/or downward);
    • Use melodic leaps (especially upward) for emotional moments;
    • Keep the melody revolving around the singer’s midrange, unless the emotion of the story demands higher placement.

All songs require experimentation, and you may find that you get good results even if you don’t follow those guidelines. But if you find that your song’s missing something, it might be good to take a close look at the lyric, and see if your melody is contributing to the cause. A few melodic adjustments may be all that’s necessary to add punch to your song’s lyrical meaning.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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