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English isn’t a tonal language, per se, but you likely know that you can change the meaning of a word by changing where you place the accent. For example, CON-tent refers to the things that are included in something, such as a “table of contents.” Con-TENT means happiness.
We can also change the meaning of sentences by changing where we place the stress – the “high note”, as it were, and this is where it gets meaningful when writing song lyrics. For example, “That’s my BIKE” is meant to convey that it’s not something else, while “That’s MY bike” means that it’s not YOUR bike.
Moving the stress around will result in changes in meaning that are usually more subtle, however. But subtle changes are going to be far more useful to you as a lyricist and songwriter. Take the following line, something that could appear in a song lyric, and see how the meaning changes ever so slightly as you move the stress from one word to the next:
- I’M looking for a friend like you…
- I’m LOOKING for a friend like you…
- I’m looking for a FRIEND like you…
- I’m looking for a friend like YOU…
Moving the stress around allows you to create nuances in your lyric. Additionally, playing around with the inherent stresses of a line allows you to find the melody inside a line of lyric.
As you work on your lyric, try the following with each line:
- Speak the line with great expression, almost melodramatically. Move your voice up and down and hear what happens to the meaning of the line as you shift the emphasis from one syllable to the next, and from one word to the next.
- Try rewording the line. Find as many ways as possible for saying the same thing, even if it means completely changing the line.
- Create a spontaneously improvised melody for the line of lyric. Shape the melody so that the emphasized words are higher in pitch. For example, if your line is “I’m looking for a friend like you…”, try placing the first word highest in your melody.
- In addition to the previous tip, try inverting the melody so that the emphasized words are lower. For example, try placing the first word lowest in your melody.
- Experiment with rhythm by elongating the syllables (and individual words) of a line of lyric.
There are other things you can do, but you get the idea. Speaking the lyric is an essential first step to creating a melody that partners well with it.
Keep in mind that good melodies use repetition as an important design element. In songs with catchy melodies, you’ll hear lines of melody being repeated even as words change. Think of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” as a great example of how repetition, both exact and approximate, help to make songs memorable and enticing.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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