Setting Lyrics to Tunes

by Erol Oz

The melody. The hook. This is what makes or breaks your song. So how do we make sure we knock it out of the park? Some people have a natural affinity for writing tunes and melodies. Some of us don’t. I tend to fall more into the latter category, so I have to work methodically to write melodies for my songs. But where to start? When I write a song, I typically work in this order: Music; Lyrics; Melody.

  1. I need to have at least a sketch of what the accompaniment is going to look like. This way I can start to imagine the how the melody will interact with the underlying music first. This is really important for me because many songs have a brief instrumental introduction before the vocalist enters.
  2. I start by writing a verse of lyrics first. Once I have the lyrics written, it becomes much easier to set a melody to the lyrics. See my blog on writing lyrics for more about my method.

Here’s where the real fun begins. Often times I will simply turn on the recorder and improvise several different melodies to my lyrics and accompaniment. Whichever one I like best is where I start. Sometimes I will often combine the products of two of these sketches.

My other approach is much more methodical, and it involves a bit of music theory. I typically will construct melodies for my songs using a combination of improvisation and structured writing. Since I mentioned previously that I typically start with the music, I will usually have a base chord progression to work from.

Suppose my song is in the key of G. Some basic knowledge of music fundamentals tell us that the key of G contains the pitches: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. Suppose the first chord that I am strumming or picking happens to be a G chord. On a guitar this information is less intuitive, but in order to play a G chord on the piano/keyboard, we need to construct the chord from the pitches G, B, & D. So that’s G (skip A), B (skip C), D.

• So I will start my melody on one of those three pitches and see which I think sounds the best given the lyrics.

Then I will naturally try to find a rhythm to set the text. This will often depend on how many syllables you have written into your lyrics. If you’re not sure what pitches to sing in the middle, just experiment and improvise, or try rapping your lyrics as spoken word. Rhythm is potentially the ‘catchiest’ element of the music, to make sure to take plenty of care in this stage.

Once you find a rhythm that suits your lyrics, then see what accompaniment chord you are playing at the cadence of the phrase. Suppose your phrase ends on a D chord. We construct a D chord with the pitches D (skip E), F# (skip G), A or D, F#, A. Choose the pitch you think sounds the best of those three. This way your melody “follows the chord changes”.

• So I will end the phrase on one of those three pitches and fill in the middle accordingly. I typically like to start phrases on higher pitches and cadence on lower pitches, since this reflects our natural speech patterns.

Lastly, I think about the structure of the song. When writing the verse–the part with new lyrics each time–and the chorus–the repeating lyrical hook, I try to make sure each part of the song starts on a different pitch so as to give the song variety and movement. When writing the chorus, I try to keep it simple since this is your chance to write the catchiest part of the song that hopefully will get stuck in people’s heads and have them coming back for another listen. I typically write choruses with higher pitches than the verse in order to make the chorus more impactful. However songs like “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver have higher pitches in the verse sung in an airy falsetto, while the chorus is belted on lower pitches in a more powerful chest voice. In this particular song, even though the chorus starts on a lower pitch, it is potentially more impactful based on the power with which he is singing.

Again, there is no one specific formula for writing songs, lyrics, or melodies. But this process helps me out considerably. I can naturally improvise chord progressions and riffs for days, but writing a good melody requires a combination of systematically approaching the chord progression with music theory and the flexibility of improvisation. Cheers, and good luck!


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