Song Doctor Blog
Read about how to write better songs
Content alone in a lyric may not be enough to sustain a listener’s attention throughout an entire song, without a strong enough melody for the words to ride on – no matter how important the topic.
It’s worth investing time developing a melody that allows your lyrical idea to fully register with the audience. So how do you write a tune that folks can remember irrespective of the lyrics? One that you can play as well as sing, one that is immediately recognisable covered by a glockenspiel band or a choir, a bagpipe as well as a thumb piano?
The answers lie in the way that melody takes words and frames them in a different time and space. Melody can change the amount of time we spend on certain words (rhythm) lengthening or shortening the length of notes or ‘space’ – by changing the pitch between words (intervals), up or down. This makes song so different from speech. And yet, there are parallels you can take advantage of.
Melody isn’t made up of random notes anymore than speech uses random words. There’s as much grammar in a tune as there is in a paragraph. The notes in a well written melody are organised into small groups called motifs. A motif is a group of 2, 3, 4 and not many more notes that played in that way, that order together make the tune easily identifiable. Like a mugshot. You hear the motif, you know what song it is. Like the three notes that make up Paul McCartney’s Yesterday motif. ( First bar, right hand, G-F-F).
Once you get a motif, you can REPEAT it. A very good idea – repetition is the songwriter’s friend. The more times you repeat the motif within a song the more easily it will be remembered. You can repeat it at the same pitch or another.
You can vary the motif by LENGTHENING or SHORTENING the notes within it. You can make it change direction by INVERTING it, making a mirror image of the motif. You can ADD notes, extending it.
And later in the song, you can CREATE A NEW ONE, usually for the chorus. Contrast is another very good songwriter’s friend.
If you already have some lyrics written, really think about how a motif would work with your most important words or phrase. Start by saying them out loud in a few different ways. This will give you a really basic idea of the rhythm you might use and an inclination of where the pitch naturally rises and falls. Use your phone to record yourself.
Once you’ve got something you like, try shifting it out of your normal speech pitch pattern by using steps (one note up or down), skips (a third up or down) or a leap (a fourth or more) between words.
Remember, you can break words up with a motif, like in ‘SOME-WHERE over-the-rainbow’. Somewhere gets split in half by an octave because the songwriter wanted to really draw our attention to the idea of longing for this magical place.
Tying your motifs together in musical phrases also allows you to link with lyrical phrases. If a four line verse has a rhyming pattern AABB, ie the first two lines end rhyme with each other and the second two lines rhyme differently but again with each other, making your melody do something similar can really lock in the idea for an audience.
One of my favourite examples of this is Cruise Control by Headless Chickens. The first two lines are matched with the same repeated musical phrase repeated and end rhyme and the second two lines have a new rhymes and a new melodic phrase.
Sometimes days seem to move just like a big fat man A
Sometimes days seem to end up where they first began A
I’ve got my TV tuned to channel you B
Because there’s nothing else that I can do B
The song then repeats the first melodic phrase with the chorus as a refrain, which ends on the title. Nice work.
Maybe I should have set my heart to cruise control
This idea of changing melody with changes in lyric idea is called topic movement and it’s a winning technique for stopping endless lists of lyrics with no direction that can really clog up your listeners’ ears. Professor Andrea Stolpe of Berklee School of Music expands on this here.
One final note is looking at contrasting the delivery of words per second for an audience. High speed, high energy lyrics need careful delivery to hit the spot for a first time listener and one of the ways songwriters can meet the hunger for surprise, sass and audibility is highlighted in this song by Lizzo, Jerome.
It starts Motown style with the chorus which uses a dotted sustained two note motif on the lyric, title and hapless subject Jerome, with variations, before the verses crank up the pace. Enjoy and take note of the contrast.
Talk more soon
ps bookings are now open for the Tahora Songwriters Retreat held over 17-20 January (Wellington Anniversary Weekend) 2020.