All elements of a song need to support each other in order for it to be successful. There is no one aspect of a song that doesn’t need the others to reinforce what they’re trying to do.
Lyrics and melodies represent an especially vital pairing. The notes a songwriter chooses for the melody can reinforce (or fail to reinforce) the intent of the lyric. It’s not unusual to feel the need to spend many days or weeks after a song is “preliminarily finished” in order to have that partnership work to its fullest extent.
So what are the things you should be checking with regard to that lyric/melody partnership? What follows is a short checklist that you can use to guide your process. Not everything in that list will exist in every song, of course. But its intent is to get you thinking and to guide you as you proofread what you’ve written. Take each statement of the checklist as representing one listen-through of your song. Take your time.
As I always say when it comes to checklists, it should only be used if you really sense that something is amiss. When a song works well, sometimes it may not be clear at the time why it’s working, but I say leave it alone, and get going on your next tune. So just use it if you’re trying to work out the problems.
- The lyric is ultimately about something specific: it’s a topic, not just a category. (In other words, songs that tell the world that you’re in love, but don’t really have anything special to say about that, are potentially tricky, because the listeners don’t have anything specific to relate to.)
- The verse melody lingers mainly in the lower register when compared to the range of the chorus melody.
- The verse 1 lyric avoids excessive emotion when describing or laying down the story.
- The verse 2 lyric can (and often does) show more emotion and use more emotive text than verse 1.
- The chorus tells the audience the specific point of (i.e., the reason you wrote) the song.
- Emotional words, particularly in the chorus, might be set high in pitch compared to other words, to accentuate the emotive value.
- The rhythm of the melody comes from a musically logical treatment of the rhythms of the words in the lyric. (In other words, the rhythms you choose for the individual words should mean that the way the word is sung — from a rhythmic point of view — is similar to the way it’s usually spoken.)
- The rhythms of the words in the verse are, generally speaking, more rhythmically busy than the words of the chorus.
- The melody of the bridge might move higher and be more energetic, but may move lower and be less energetic if contrast is needed (e.g., for a song that’s generally very energetic from start to finish.)
No doubt there is more that can be said about that important relationship between lyrics and melodies within a song, but those 9 bullets should let you narrow things down and come up with the problem if it exists in those two elements.
I think it’s important to reiterate that once you’re happy with the state of things in a song, continuing to apply a checklist is only going to make you second-guess what you’ve written for no good reason. There are times that songs sound great even if they seem to be violating some basic norms of good songwriting. That’s how style and technique evolve.
So if you’re applying this checklist to a song you’ve written recently, take your time and listen carefully. Be objective in your assessment. Often discovering a problem gives you the solution right away, but sometimes putting a song away for a time is the best way to go if you feel stuck. There’s no benefit that comes from rushing the songwriting process.
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