How To Put Poetry To Music

Sep 04, 2021

Songwriting often involves putting poetry to music so, in this post, we are talking about how to put poetry to music.

 

Figure Out The Core Emotions Of The Lyric

The first step is figuring out the core emotions of your poem.

You want to find rich words for this exercise, not simply “happy” and “sad”.

The best words are dripping with meaning like wistful, melancholy, mournful, blissful, and ecstatic.

I find that one of the best ways to clearly see the emotions of the words is to find images that evoke the lyric’s emotions.

For me, I will often use Google image search and search for art that evokes a visceral emotional response that seems to fit the lyric nicely.

The main benefit of this is that pictures are generally better at evoking an emotional response than words. So, to have both words and pictures to try to figure out the core emotions of our lyric? That’s the best of all worlds.

Anything you can do to flesh out the raw emotions in your poem or lyric, the better. I’ve even gone so far as to try to find short films that have a similar story or theme.

I highly recommend you give it a try!

Why do all this work to figure out the core emotions of your lyrics?

Because starting with the core emotions helps you write music that fits perfectly with the emotion of the song. 

If you simply dive into writing the music, you might end up with music that doesn’t match the true emotions of the lyrics. 

And if you stop at “happy” or “sad”, you might be tempted to just pick a minor key for “sad” and a major key for “happy”.

This is no way to write great songs. So take a little extra time to figure out the core emotion of your lyrics.

 

Speak Or Sing The Words

Now that you’ve taken the time to know the core emotions of your poem better, it should be easier to emote the words out loud.

First, try to recite the poem. 

This will help you figure out the natural emphasis of the words. 

The meaning of the following are all completely different, despite having the same exact words:

You’re still sad and lonely: You of all people are still sad and lonely. Why? Your life is great…

You’re still sad and lonely: You’re still sad? She broke up with you like 3 years ago…

You’re still sad and lonely: Your emotions are primarily sad and lonely.

You’re still sad and lonely: Not only are you sad, but you’re also lonely.

This is why reading the poem out loud is so important. 

Reciting the words can help you sort out where the emphasees are

This is important, because you want the natural emphasis of the words to be reflected in the music.

If the emphasis is on “still”, that’s probably a note that should be highlighted in your melody via high note or long note. 

There are other ways to emphasise words in a melody, but high notes and long notes are probably the two most common. 

After reciting the words to find your emphasis, it’s a good idea to transition into singing different melodies with your lyrics.

A trick I like to use is to imagine singing a capella with the lights off and people’s cell phones waving back and forth while they sing along.

Why? 

Because the best melodies carry the emotion of the lyric even without the rest of the music.

If you can write a melody for your poem that is so emotive of every emotion your poem possesses, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine people singing along with their cell phone “candles” out.

You may be wondering “What if I want to write the chord progression before I write a melody?”

You can do that, but a melody is more important to the emotional impact of the song than your chords are. The sooner you can make sure to pair your poetry with a melody that fits it perfectly, the better.

Not only that, but starting with chord progressions can lead to uninspired chord progressions. Especially if you decide to use a “tried and true” progression like I-V-vi-IV, it’s going to set up the rest of your song to be more cookie cutter than it needs to be.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with any chord progression. In fact, if I-V-vi-IV is the best progression for your melody, you should use it. 

But it’s better to let the melody dictate what chords you can use than the other way around.

Why? Because your listeners will remember your melody. They probably won’t even notice your chord progression.

Also, if you start with a melody, your interesting melody might actually dictate a more interesting chord progression.

 

Figure Out The Underlying Chords Or Arrangement

After you’ve started to settle on a melody from the previous step, you’re ready to start building that into a full song.

The first thing we need to figure out is what key the song is in.

The best way to do that is to write down all the notes you use in your melody. 

Let’s say you have a simple melody so far and you’ve only used E, D#, and A.

From just those 3 notes, we can figure out that your song is in the key of E major or C# minor (E major’s relative minor).

How do we know that? First, we know that D# is only in the major keys of E, B, F#, and C#.

Second, we also know that A would be an A# in the keys of B, F#, and C#. This leaves us with the key of E major. If the song ends up going for a more minor feel, then the key could be E major’s relative minor: C# minor.

If any of that confuses you, check out my free guide on music theory for songwriters. The guide will teach you everything you need to know to figure out keys (and everything we’re talking about here) on your own.

Now that you know the key of the song, you know what chords you have to work with as well as their jobs in context of the key. 

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