Lyrics and melodies go hand in hand when you’re writing songs. In truth everything needs to partner up well in order for a song to sound great, but that particular partnership between lyrics and melody is perhaps one of the most crucial ones.
But how do you ensure that your melody is properly supporting both the feel and the intent of your lyric?
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As in most things to do with songwriting, it’s often best when it happens naturally and instinctively — where the words and melody happen at the same time, or at least almost the same time. But what if you’re struggling with a line or even a full verse of lyric, trying to find a good melody, and it’s not happening instinctively? What do you do then?
One of the best ways forward is to spend some time simply reading your line of lyric aloud. As you read, do the following:
- Read it naturally, as if you’re reading a sentence from a book. Do this several times, and focus on the way your say the words. Which words do you place a bit of “weight” on when you read them, and which ones do you say quickly and lightly?
- Read it again, and try moving the points of accent to a different word. Make note of what change that might make to the meaning or intent of the lyric. For example, if the line you’re reading is “Why I never felt that way…”, you’ll discover that by placing the stress on different words will change the sense you get of that line.
- Read it once more, and exaggerate the natural stresses and accents by elongating them and placing them higher in your voice. “Whyyyyyy… I never felt that way”, or “Why IIIIII never felt that way…”, etc.
As you do these little experiments, what you’re doing is applying some of what a melody does, without actually committing yourself to a melody. Melodies tend to put words that are emotionally charged somewhere higher in the singer’s range. It also tends to make them rhythmically longer.
You may find that specific melodic ideas will start to occur to you, and that’s finally the start of creating a melody that partners well with the lyric. Now it’s time to grab your guitar and see if you can create some chords to accompany those melody ideas. The three steps listed above will stimulate your musical imagination, and give you some direction if that step of melody creation isn’t happening naturally or easily.
This approach to writing lyrics is meant to remind you of something important in the creative arts like songwriting: Just because something doesn’t instinctively occur to you does not mean that you’re on the wrong path. Sometimes all it takes is to immerse yourself in a task like setting lyrics, by isolating the lyric and reading it many times, and then the ideas start to flow.