Got a lyric that needs to be set to music? Here’s a simple way to get started.
Fortunately for we songwriters, all language contains hints of melody that a sensitive ear can uncover. Every time you say even so much as “hello” to another person, you’re actually singing to them. And every time you listen, you’re being sung to.
Don’t quite believe me yet? Go ahead and read this question aloud, just to hear its syllables:
“Conversation is song?”
Did you hear yourself reach for that higher tone when you pronounced song? That rise tells us that you’re asking a question. When a question is spoken or sung aloud, there is no question mark, of course. Aloud, the job of the question mark is done by that rising pitch.
Now that you’ve heard the rising tone of a question, try a statement aloud:
“Conversation is song.”
Do you hear how song descends in pitch this time?
When spoken, questions and statements sound different only because of their pitch. in English, questions ascend. Statements descend. And that’s just one example of pitch in our spoken language.
We Are All Singers
Every one of us sings. And yes, that includes even those shy people who’ll tell you–mistakenly–that they’re tone deaf.
We use these pitch variations so naturally and fluently that we don’t give them a moment’s thought. But they’re present in every conversation, in every uttered word.
Noticing these natural patterns gives you a great headstart on finding the perfect vocal melody for any given song. In fact, even composers of instrumental music could benefit from tuning their ears to the grooves of speech and conversation.
Take that lyric you don’t have any music for yet and speak a few lines aloud. Record yourself reciting it dramatically, like an actor. Try to get into the spirit of the song, maybe even into character. Feel the lyric as you read. Let the feeling creep into your voice. By the way, lyrics rich in sensory details tend to be easier to feel…
Anyway, as you recite the lyric aloud, notice how certain syllables and words tend to be higher-pitched. Others are especially low-pitched. Some syllables are held just a bit longer than others. Again, if you’re having trouble detecting these differences just by speaking, try recording yourself and listening.
These natural variations are the very beginnings of melody. When pitch goes up in a spoken sentence, the melody you’re writing can rise as well. When conversational pitch lowers, melody lowers. Syllables held longer in a spoken phrase can be held longer while singing. You get the picture.
So! If you’d like to compose an angry melody, go ahead–stomp and flare your nostrils while you recite the lyric. To compose a heartbreakingly sad melody, sob and hitch while you recite it. Go ahead and act badly. Overact. Take it way over the top. Singing itself is basically normal speech taken way over the top anyway.
This method may not always yield you stunning results right away–and it may make you feel a bit silly–but it does break the ice, and it gives you a great foundation that you can build on.
Before I turn you loose to do that, here are a few more quick tips on setting words to a melody:
Troubleshooting a Vocal Melody
If singing a certain line of lyric feels especially awkward or lame, it’s often because the melody is rubbing against the natural grain of the lyric.
If the high points of the vocal melody land on words that don’t need emphasizing, the song will sound off-kilter. And if your best lyric lines slip by listeners unnoticed because the melody doesn’t highlight them, that’s no good either.
Pencil and Paper
I’m sure other songsters have their own methods, but I find it’s much easier to get my head around the melody if I write my lyric below the music staff–one note to each syllable. That way I can clearly see the relationships between lyric and melody.
If you don’t know how to read and write sheet music, you might also try writing your lyric under a guitar tab. Find the note for each syllable on your guitar and write it in above that syllable.
One final tip: a backing track or rhythm of some kind (even if it’s a metronome) can help give you a context to work in–different rhythms will present different possibilities for your lyric. Record yourself reading the same lyric over different rhythm tracks and see what happens!
When you’re not sure where to start, listen to the natural pitches of the spoken lyric and use those as a guide as you feel out the melody syllable by syllable. Singing, after all, is just exaggerated speech.
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