Songwriting Tips For Writing Melodies… If You Can’t Sing

It’s fair to make the assumption that most songwriters are singers, but that’s not exclusively true. So if you’re trying your hand at writing songs and you aren’t a singer, how do you write melodies?

The inability to sing usually means the inability to sing well. In other words, you may be able to manage to grunt out a melody, even if no one wants to hear you do it! Most songwriters can manage to sing more-or-less in tune, even if their voice is shaky, or the tuning isn’t spot-on.

If you don’t consider yourself a singer, here are the ways in which your voice tends to let you down when you try to use it. Some or all of these might apply to you:

  1. You find it hard to locate and sing the first note of a melody.
  2. Even if you can locate and sing the first note, you find it hard to keep a melody in tune.
  3. You have a constricted usable range. (i.e., the spread between your highest note and your lowest note is small, perhaps only a 5th (e.g., from C to G) or so.)
  4. The quality of your singing voice is feeble, breathy, or quiet.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle: DreamingFor years I taught sight-singing at Dalhousie University. Some of those classes were for non-music majors who were picking up an extra credit trying to improve their ear and their ability to sing in tune. It was clear to me that most of the students who couldn’t sing in tune were dealing with a technical issue, not a musical one. In other words, the reasons they couldn’t sing in tune had nothing to do with their level of musicianship, but more because they lacked technique. That probably describes you as well.

So let’s deal with this issue in two stages. I want to start by giving you some ideas for how to write song melodies even if your voice feels weak or otherwise unusable. Then I want to give you some advice for how to deal with your lousy voice in the long term.

WRITING MELODIES – Tips for Bad Singers

If you find it hard to rely on your voice to the extent that you can’t trust it enough to write a song melody, try the following:

  1. Learn to rely on an instrument as a first step. Try to get some ability to play either a piano or guitar melodically. To improve your abilities, try the following:
    1. Using your guitar, or the right hand on a piano, play melodies from well-known songs. If you’re playing a piano or other keyboard instrument, learn to use several fingers on your right hand — don’t just “hunt & peck”.
    2. Hum the melodies as you play them. Don’t worry so much at first if your tuning isn’t strong. Eventually, your voice will lock in to what your fingers are doing. Humming you play is a powerful teacher in the long-term. Be patient. Abilities will come.
  2. Compose simple melodies, and play them as you sing:
    1. Compose a short progression, such as C  Am  Dm  G. Record and loop that progression so that it plays over and over again. Choose a slow tempo. When you do the next steps, a slower tempo will allow your voice time to settle in and find the notes you’re looking for.
    2. Improvise a melody by starting on a note in your mid-range, one that’s usually reliable.
    3. Sing that one note over and over again, using a rhythm that results in you singing long and short notes. Change the pitch as the chord dictates. Keep things simple.
    4. Now change progressions to something new (perhaps C  Bb  F  G), and improvise a new melody. If you find it hard to play and sing at the same time, try just playing for a minute or two, and then echo what you just did by singing. Over the days that follow, you’ll find your abilities to do both at the same time will improve.
    5. As you gain confidence, start working on progressions you really like, ones that will lead to a song you’re going to want to keep. Work slowly. Create melodies with a wider range. If the melody you like moves too high for your voice, try switching into your falsetto voice. That’s when you can make your voice “break” to find much higher notes. Many pop singers make use of their falsetto voice to reach higher notes than their range normally allows for.

As long as you’re singing more or less in tune, your voice will be good enough to compose melodies. You might actually find that you’ve been singing in tune all along, and that you simply don’t like the sound of your voice. Fair enough; but practically any voice can be used to compose melodies.

IMPROVING YOUR VOICE

In the long term, it will be useful to improve the quality of your singing voice, particularly if you want to be singing backing vocals with your band, or composing more interesting melodies. In that regard, here’s some advice:

  1. Contact your local university or college, and seek out voice students who offer lessons. A student will often be able to teach for a lower fee than a professional, and it’s great experience for them.
  2. Join a local choir. True, many vocal groups will require you to sing an audition. But most of the time, they’re simply checking that you can sing in tune; the beauty of your voice is not usually a big concern. If you tell a choir director that your main motivation is to learn to sing reliably in tune, and if the choir is a large one (100 voices or so), they can sit you next to a good singer, someone who can help you stay locked in and in tune.
  3. Record, then sing along to, simple melodies. Record yourself singing a simple tune, either one you’ve written or a favourite one you’ve known for a long time. Then play the recording back, and sing along to it. You’ll get better at locking into pitches with your voice as time progresses. Use an instrument to play along with your voice at first if you find this hard.

Most musicians have a voice that’s good enough to compose melodies. Don’t be too hard on yourself. By practicing every day, you can get your voice working to a level that makes it easier to compose melodies that singers will enjoy and that audiences will love to listen to.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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10 Comments

  1. ….also, I haven’t asked anyone else to look at it if you are wondering, or care, or if it even matters. It could be garbage, or it could be akin to Oh! Darling. Just asking for a chance to write, and it’s already written, I just need to reconcile it with the melody. First time trying, give me a shot please. What if its magic?

    • Hi David:

      You’d likely find songwriters looking for partnerships on the Songwriter’s Reddit. For me, the kind of music I write is mostly for choirs and vocal ensembles, and I don’t usually do collaborations. But at the Reddit, you’d likely find someone who’s looking to write in a partnership.

      Cheers,
      -Gary

  2. Hi Gary, I feel like I have a powerful song that I want to share with the world. But, I need an original piano melody behind it, a cross between Tiny Dancer and Sign of the Times. I know it seems stupid to even ask for something like that, but I truly believe all I need is an original melody. Just asking for a chance to write something amazing if you do have something you are willing to share with me and try.

  3. Hi. I am new to songwriting, but my brain is hardwired towards music… I guess you could say melodies and songs run quick in my head like I would be consistently worrying about something (I´ve got some anxiety issues) and then what I was thinking of would go to a run-on sentence to something with a melody, which I am now working on writing down. whenever I try to sing what I write, however, my voice can keep up with my head, and I sing it off-key. what I go for is a mix of metal, rock(or whatever MCR and such is classified as), and rap, because that is what I listen to, so it´s the go-to for my brain. my voice just kinda does what it wants with the song, and it sounds messed up. what do I do?

    • So it sounds like what you’re saying is that you get good song ideas, but when you try to sing those ideas, your voice needs more time to make the melodies work. This actually isn’t that rare a problem. Often when you hear demos of songs, even by well-known artists, the singing is a bit out of tune, primarily for that reason.

      I think the best solution is this: once you get a melody working in your head, start by singing small bits of it to yourself. Try one or two bars at a time, and try singing slower than the song really is meant to go. In a way, it’s the way everyone practices music: start slow, get it working, then start speeding up until you reach the tempo you want. That way, you give your voice a chance to learn it, and you may even find ways to improve the melody if you take the go-slow approach.

      The other thing I’d say about this is that in the pop genres, including metal, a good melody is one that’s relatively easy to sing. If your voice is having troubles, it may be an indication that you need to take another look at the melody and perhaps simplify spots that are hard to sing.

      Hope this helps!
      -Gary

  4. Hi, great post! I have what I’d say is a huge problem. I’m a musician, I play piano and I can’t sing. At all.

    I composed a song and want a singer friend of mine to sing it. It’s dedicated to him and really need to appreciate it. The top line melody is kinda hard to be sung. It’s way to hard for me to sing it and i’ll be compromising the final result if I’ll sing it.

    So how should I let my friend here my song if I can’t sing it? I tried with recording the melody with an instrument as a flute, but still… the result is dreadful. I should hire a singer, so he’s professionally obliged to sing and I’m emotionally detached to his opinion, but it’s costly and I’d like him to be the first to sing it.

    The main thing is that I don’t know how and if a singer can appreciate a song with no melody, or a melody played by an instrument or (unlikely) sung by someone else. No idea how to approach it.

    Thank you so much for clarifying.

    • Hi Paul:

      An option might be to go to a local university or music school, and see if there’s someone who could sing it from a recorded instrument line. Students of music are often pretty good at picking up the intent of a line by ear.

      When you say you can’t sing it, is it possible to move the key temporarily to one where it is more likely you’d be able to replicate the pitches more or less correctly?

      _Gary

  5. Pingback: Songwriting Tips For Writing Melodies… If You Can’t Sing - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

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