How To Write Lyrics To A MelodySep 04, 2021
Sometimes songwriting is putting poetry to music. Other times it involves writing lyrics for your music.
In this post, we’re going to talk about how to write lyrics for a melody.
Figure Out The Core Emotions To Your Melody
First, you have to listen to what your melody speaks to you.
Just as instrumental music can convey deep emotions and tell a story, your lyric-less melody already has a story.
Sure, it might not have a precise story yet, but it already means something to you.
You just have to figure out what that is.
And you can’t just stop at “it’s happy” or “it’s kind of sad”. Those emotions are incredibly vague.
It’s like “heartbreak”. There are a lot of different emotions that can go with heartbreak. Regret, bitterness, hatred, sorrow, dejection, wistfulness, and more. So don’t stop at boring and imprecise “heartbreak”, “happy” or “sad”.
If you go to thesaurus.com and look for synonyms for happy and sad, you’ll find a bunch more meaningful words.
Instead of sad, how about bitter, dismal, melancholy, mournful, somber, sorry, wistful, dejected, distressed, forlorn, morose, or pensive?
Bitter implies an injection of anger into your sadness. Dismal implies sadness without hope, while wistful implies that you’re sad, but thinking of the happy past and perhaps even getting hope from it.
Each of these words carry wildly different connotations.
How about better words for happiness?
Try contented, cheerful, ecstatic, joyful, merry, peaceful, chipper, jolly, tickled, blissful, or gratified instead.
If you can take the next step and figure out what the story behind the melody is, that would be even better.
Let’s say the emotion you decide on is “wistful with a touch of bitterness and mourning”.
What stories and parts of life could fit that description?
Wistful implies a sense of longing, but bitterness and mourning imply 2 different sides of loss.
Bitterness implies ill-feelings towards someone or something, while mourning conveys sorrow over a loss.
What different stories fit this mix of emotions well?
One story would be the loss of a loved one from an addiction or suicide. Why?
Because they are a loved one, so you’d likely be wistful for the good times with them. At the same time, if you feel a complex mess of sadness over their death and slight anger at their addiction or disease for taking them away, that would be natural.
It’s also not uncommon to feel some guilt over being mad at the person for “allowing” their addiction or depression to win. Is that a hard thing to process? Yes. But those are all natural emotions for someone to experience in that position.
Maybe it’s a husband drinking himself to death and the wife is dealing with his loss from a combo of wanting her husband back, but also being angry that he would allow his alcoholism to get in the way of being there for their children.
Do you see what we’re doing here?
Try doing this for a few lyric-less melodies you have.
Figure Out The Natural Phrases Of Your Melody
Now it’s time to figure out the phrases you have within your melody.
Just by listening to the melody, you should be able to tell where one line starts and the other begins. Usually your lines will be in a series of call-and-answers.
One phrase makes the “call” and then a slightly different phrase provides the “answer”.
This is the clearest way to figure out the natural phrases of your music.
Let’s look at the melody for a song I’m working on, currently called “The Wanderer”:
Do you notice how the first 2 measures of both the call and answer are exactly the same (lines starting at 9 and 13)? But, you’ll notice the phrases each resolve in completely different ways (lines starting at 11 and 15).
This is a clear “call and answer” and is clearly 2 phrases or lines.
Figure Out The Syllables Demanded By Your Melody
Now that we know what our phrases are, it’s time to figure out how many syllables each phrase has.
The number of notes per phrase restricts you to a certain number of syllables in your lyric. Let’s look at the call again for “The Wanderer”:
If you count the number of different notes (tied notes counting as a single note in this case), we have 10 different notes. So, our syllable count for that line should be 10 syllables.
You can adjust this slightly by adjusting how you sing the melody to add or take away a syllable or two. You can also split some words into more musical syllables than the word actually has.
For example, it’s not uncommon to split words like “no” into “no-o” to get 2 notes out of a 1 syllable word.
But, besides small adjustments like this, the melody from this song demands that the lyrics have 10 syllables.
As a general rule-of-thumb, you should stick to the exact number of syllables the melody demands. If you really need to adjust the melody or the sung syllables of a word later, that’s fine.
But try to get a clean fit first.
The more naturally the lyric and melody fit together, the better.
Figure Out What Notes Are Highlighted
The last step before you start drafting your lyrics is to figure out what notes are highlighted.
Generally, the highlighted notes are going to be the highest and lowest notes as well as the notes held the longest.
Let’s take a look at the “natural highlights” of the first phrase of “The Wanderer”’s melody:
Notice how all of the notes I have circled are either held for longer than a quarter-note, are the highest or lowest note of the phrase, or both.
The only note that’s a quarter note or less that’s circled is the E natural, which is the highest note of the phrase. The final note is the lowest of the phrase, and is the longest note.
Keep in mind that the pitch peaks and valleys and longest notes are just general rules to start with. There will always be some exceptions based on the context of the song, such as whether the notes land on down beats or how they contrast with the other notes.
This is just a good place to start if you can’t hear the natural highlights just by listening.
Why are these natural highlights important? Because this is where you really want the best words and main points of your line to be highlighted.
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