What’s that? Somebody told you that songwriting is all about the lyrics? Who would say such a foolish thing? Oh…
So, let’s step back for a moment. Perhaps I was a bit hasty when I told you it was all about the lyrics.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
I stand firmly on the argument that the lyric is where the message of your song lies. Without the lyric, and without a well-built lyric, your song will struggle to deliver a message to the head or the heart.
But without a great melody, your song won’t have much of a chance to deliver that message.
The melody carries the words, and the melody must do a few things in order to be a great messenger:
- Respect the rhythm of the language.
- Be singable.
- Be new.
- Be memorable.
“I Don’t Get No Respect”
Rodney Dangerfield must have felt like a lyric in the hands of a mismatched melody.
Melody is a powerful tool, and must be used effectively when combined with lyrics, because the spoken word already has some “music” built into it. Every word in our language (and today we’re in the English language, but this applies across the whole library) has a defined pronunciation – the way it is spoken, with stress given to some but not all syllables in the word. The dictionary tells you how the word is meant to be spoken.
Listen to an English speaker, and you’ll hear the “music” in spoken language. The pitch of our voice will rise slightly on some syllables, and we’ll speak them with a bit more volume. Other syllables will be quieter, quicker and less emphasized. That is the natural rhythm of our language.
(On a side note, remember the last time you heard someone tell a story without inflection, without changing the pitch or the volume of their voice while telling the story? That’s like reading out a grocery list that might contain every item in the grocery store, in a never-ending barrage of words without shape. Please don’t speak like that, or even consider writing a song like that. Please, I beg you…)
Musical melody is set to a meter, a “beat”, which contains moments that are given extra emphasis. If you’re counting the beats in a bar of 4/4 time, the emphasis naturally lies on the stronger “beats”. 1 and 3 are stronger positions than 2 and 4. Similarly, beats 2 and 4 are stronger positions than the moments in between the beats. Melody notes that occur in stronger positions of the musical bar will best carry stressed (emphasized) syllables in the words of the lyric. Otherwise, you’ll be singing the musical equivalent of that old saying “the emPHASSis is on the wrong sylLABBle”.
Can You Sing It?
All music is Folk Music. (Boy, do I love to spout arguable stuff.) By that, I mean that music is intended to be shared, for all to sing, not strictly for us to enjoy listening to others sing.
A great melody is one that folks can sing. Sure, Mariah Carey can sing a whole range of notes that only dogs can hear, and very few people can match her, but that’s performance, not songwriting. Write a melody that most people can sing, without extreme acrobatic leaps up and down, and you’ll have a melody which can carry your message – because folks will sing it and repeat that message!
Have You Heard It Before?
If your lyric is different than those in other songs (and I hope it is), your melody should deliver it in a new way as well. Putting aside the fact that copying another melody is considered illegal, it’s more than that – your song suffers without having a great melody all of its own.
Catch my ear in a new way. Try melodies that I haven’t heard before. (And if you’re respecting the rhythm of the language, along with a lyric that hasn’t been sung before, the “music” in your lyric will suggest an original melody to get you started.)
Give me something new that interests me, rather than something that takes my mind to a familiar song that isn’t your song.
Can You Remember It?
And if you want folks singing your song after they’ve heard it, make that melody something that I can remember!
Giving me a memorable melody to deliver your unique message (your lyric), will keep me focused on YOUR song long enough to learn the song, sing it, get other people interested in it, and make you a superstar (well, that last part is not guaranteed).
So there you have it – it’s all about the melody. Except for when it’s all about the Harmony… check back with me next time…
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