If there’s one thing I believe to be true in songwriting, its that:
MELODY IS KING.
What do I mean by that?
The melody is the guiding force of the song. It is the main, lead part of the song that is sung and the part of the song that you remember.
I bet you can still remember the melody to songs you only heard once or twice. The melodies of songs you heard as a child are easily brought to mind and hummed whether or not you know the song lyrics. When you can’t get a song out of your head, more than likely its the melody that is haunting you.
Let the Melody be Your Guide
When setting out to write song lyrics, it is important to let the melodic flow of the song guide your lyrical structure. To me, this ensures that the song is singable, flows well and naturally, and allows the lyrics to breath and be understood.
If you play an instrument, try and find some chords that fit the range of your voice and are easily played. A combination of G / D / Em / C is an example and a good starting point for those just learning an instrument. Start by playing these chords and while thinking about the various sections of the song that you’d like to include (verse, chorus or hook, bridge, pre- or post- chorus, etc), gradually hum a melody that instinctually sounds good to you. If you don’t play an instrument you can just hum melody ideas that come to mind.
Imagine you already know the song and just let it come out of you.
Its a good idea to keep an audio recorder handy during this stage (handheld, smart phone, etc) to capture these raw first ideas before they get lost as you try different melodies. These first gut instincts are usually some of the best stuff.
Also don’t be afraid to use gibberish or freestyle over the melodies to let instinctual, sub-conscious lyrics surface (you can hear an example of me doing this on my podcast.)
Sometimes these are sub-conscious hints at what the song should be about.
Some examples of general tendencies for melody on various song sections:
- Verses – tends to be lower in pitch, gradually building and anticipating the hook (chorus), can be more rhythmic, bouncy, containing more movement than the other sections, room to breathe between sections, openness
- Hook (Chorus) – tends to be a leap in pitch, creates a jumping or soaring effect, has more energy than the verses, long open notes, strong and memorable, easily sung (sing-songy like a lullaby or nursery rhyme)
- Bridge – usually a departure to a new and different section of the song, reinforces the hook, can often have a growing, climactic feeling as it moves towards the final chorus
Once you’ve decided on strong melodic sections for your song, start to formulate lyrics from the concept you’ve chosen (see part one of this series).
You’ve now laid the foundational structure and know exactly where your lyrics should fit and what your story is. Using a notepad or an app on your smart phone, begin to write song lyrics that tell your story and communicate your concept with the melodies you created in mind.
As you come up with song lyric lines that you like, don’t be a afraid to manipulate the melody a bit to make room for new ideas in the lyrics. Sometimes you will need to add pick up notes for the small words that help transition between the sections.
Repetition & Variation
A useful skill when creating melodies for your song lyrics is the implementation of repetition and variation.
Repetition can be useful in giving the listener a melody they become familiar with. When introducing the listener to a new idea (hearing the song for the first time) repetition helps them feel at home in the song.
Variations are small departures from the repetition that help keep the listener interested and not bored. These allow the listener to be introduced to new ideas then return to the repetition without feeling bombarded by new sections of the song.
I will associate the sections of the song with letter names (A, B, C, D, etc) to show the usage of repetition in the song.
A – Nice to meet you, where you been?
B – I could show you incredible things
A – Magic, madness, heaven, sin
B – Saw you there and I thought
C – Oh my God, look at that face
C – You look like my next mistake
C – Love’s a game, want to play?
The second verse uses the same structure so we’ll skip to the chorus
D – So it’s gonna be forever
E – Or it’s gonna go down in flames
D – You can tell me when it’s over
E – If the high was worth the pain
F – Got a long list of ex-lovers
G – They’ll tell you I’m insane
F – ‘Cause you know I love the players
H – And you love the game
Once again, the second part repeats this pattern so I’ll skip it to keep things brief.
So if you look at the different letters I’ve given to each of the song lyric lines in each section and listen to their melody, you can see that her usage of repetition and variation is much easier to hear and identify. If you sing the different lines to yourself you can see that the lines with the letters in common are almost identical in melody. This usage of repetition is what keeps you singing this song after its over. There’s really only a handful of melodies used in this song. They are staggered to keep it sing-songy and interesting, and used repetitiously to drive home a point.
You can do this with many of your favorite songs and more than likely identify similar patterns. This can help you while writing to be able to reference the music you like as a guide for your own songs.
When writing your song and deciding on your song lyrics, use this knowledge of melody, repetition and variation to make your songs interesting and catchy to listen to.
Keep in mind these are not rules. These are only guidelines to help you examine why the music you listen to keeps you listening, and how you can write song lyrics that accomplish this same goal.
Have questions or want to reach out? Email me.
Read part one of this series: How to Write Song Lyrics (Part One) – Choose a Concept
Subscribe to my podcast to go more in depth on this subject: Episode 3 // Songwriting & Poetry
Visit my website.