It’s an important principle in songwriting that all elements of a song — lyrics, chords, melodies, even instrumentation — act as partners within a song. In other words, lyrics, for example, will be at their best when the chords seem to communicate the mood and meaning of the words. Similarly, the melodies will bring the lyrics alive, and will cooperate musically with the chords, and so on.
Done well, that means that songs are really a kind of “musical concoction”. Of course, you’re never guaranteed that you’ve got a hit on your hands, because that depends on how the listener reacts to that musical concoction. But suffice it to say, successful songs are a partnership of musical components.
If you find the notion of pulling song elements together to be a difficult part of songwriting, here are some tips that might help guide you:
- Not every component of a song needs to be strong. In other words, any one particular song will show the melody to be one of the major features, or perhaps it will be the lyric. Sometimes, especially with instrumentals, it can be the instrumentation itself that might be its most noticeable feature.
- Melodies should allow the words of the lyric to maintain their natural accents/pulse. As you sing through your lyric, the words should sound natural. Most of the time, a word like “impossible” should be placed so that the “poss” syllable is on a strong beat. Phrases (i.e., collections of words) might change their meanings as the pulse changes. So a phrase like “YOU touched my heart” has a slightly different connotation than “You touched MY heart.”
- Notes of a melody should fit the chords that happen on strong beats. Most music is presented in a pattern of alternating strong and weak beats. The melody note that happens on a strong beat should be a note that belongs to the chord at that moment. Between strong beats, or on weak beats, melodies can be on the move such that the note on a weak beat might not necessarily belong to the chord.
- Experiment and practice pulling two elements together. I’ve always thought that songwriters don’t practice their composition skills enough. So try this: create a chord progression, and see how many melodies you can write that will fit with that progression. For each melody, try to wipe from your memory whatever you did as a previous melody, and start purely from scratch.
- Identify what each element of your song contributes to musical meaning. Start with the lyric, and write down what mood or emotion you want the words to convey. Then move on to chords, and identify which kinds of chords (major, minor, etc.) might help to similarly convey that mood. Then look at melody, and think about what melodic gestures might help to enhance those emotions. Every time you change one element in your song, listeners hear other elements change. It’s all a relatively complex puzzle, and it’s what makes songwriting so interesting.
To emphasize the 4th point above,practice your craft. Some specific ideas:
- Play this progression: Am Em F C, and repeat it several times.
- Create melodies above the progression this way: 1) Create a melody that uses mainly long notes; 2) Create a melody that uses quick, short notes; 3) Create a melody that features at least one large melodic leap up (“e.g., Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), then one large leap down (e.g., the chorus of “Man in the Mirror”)
- Choose a melody you’ve written in step 2, then create words/lyrics that fit the melody. Keep the melody, and change the lyrics. How many lyrics can you come up with?
- Keep the melody and try substituting chords. If you need help with how to do chord substitution, read this.
There are lots of ways to practice the art of pulling song elements together. The more you practice, the more second-nature it becomes, and your songwriting technique strengthens because of it.
Written by Gary Ewer
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