Friday, September 24, 2004

Matching Words to Rhythm

Hi Monty,

Over a year ago I read your document on how to write a song and I always loved music and I wanted to write my own lyrics and I didn't know how to and where to start until I read your notes. I wrote many songs but the only problem I have now is when I am in the studio it is not lining up with the music. Am I doing something wrong? They are good lyrics but putting it on wax is not a match. Do you have any recommendations? I appreciate any help you can offer.

Thanks, Chino Bazbeg

Hi Chino,

I'm glad my column helped you get started!

Without hearing your music, it is hard to guess what the problem is. You say the words are not lining up with the music. This doesn't happen by accident. In songwriting, often the words come first. In that case the music must be written specifically to match with the words. Often the music comes first, in which case the words are written specifically to match with the music. (Sometimes they come together, words and music at once, but for me that only happens in short bursts, then I have to fill out the rest either music first or words first.)

When you match music and words together you have to be aware of the musical qualities of the words. How many syllables are there? Where are the stresses? These things will match the number, lengths, and accents of the notes.

A good place to start is with the downbeat. If you count along with the music the downbeats are where the numbers fall. For instance in rock, most songs are in 4/4 time, or four beats to the measure, so you would count along 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. Those are the downbeats.

Now match some words like this: "1, 2, 3, 4 - I don't know how." That's one word to each downbeat (quarter notes).

If the words each had two syllables instead, you would also be singing on the upbeat, or the "and" which comes between the beats. "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 - I'm a lazy hairy cow." (Eighth notes.)

If you have your words written out, you can circle each syllable that lands on a downbeat. So in the silly example above, you would circle "I'm" "laz" and "hair."

You might try using triplets - three syllables to each beat, like this: "1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 - Are you the kind of a cow who can sing?" Circling the downbeats gives you "are" "kind" "cow" and "sing."

Notice that the downbeats happen on the same syllables that you naturally stress when you talk. If I changed that last example to "Are you a singing sort of hairy cow?" and then tried to match the words to the "1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4" triplet pattern, it just wouldn't sound right. Try it.

But, if we took that last line and matched it to a different rhythm, it might work. This time we need to mix rhythms, starting with a triplet, then proceed using the upbeats like this - "1 and a 2 and 3 and 4 and 1." Circle "are" "sing" "sort" and "cow."

Write out the words to some of your favorite songs and circle the downbeats and you will start to get a feel for how words and music fit together. Then try it with your own words. When you have the downbeats circled, then as you sing they provide a visual cue as to where the beats belong in the words. Take it slowly at first. The more you work with it the more natural it will seem.

Don't be afraid to change the words as you are setting them to music. I often find that I've used too many words. To make them fit more naturally with the music I often drop words that aren't really needed. For instance: "I know a place where cows can sing" might become "There's a place where cows can sing" or even "In the place cows sing" or "In the land of singing cows."

In other words, keep playing with it until you get each phrase to fit well.

Best of luck!

Saturday, February 28, 2004



thank you your website has helped me a little with my songwritting along with other half decent websites. Well i've wrote some of a song but its not quite finished and theres still some changes i need to make. I doubt its like any of your songs! Please stop with all the fido the dog stuff on your getting stuck page! you dont really write about fido the dog do you i mean come on. How can anyone brainstorm about that!
- Ianonebird

Hi lanonebird,

Thanks for your comments! Concerning Fido, I can brainstorm on anything - that's the point to brainstorming. You can take any word or idea as a start and let your brain expand on it until you have enough material to use. It doesn't really matter whether you stick closely to the original idea or not, especially near the beginning of the writing process. I admit Fido the Dog is a silly example, but maybe I will write a song about him some day, just to prove it can be done!

Friday, February 27, 2004

Best of Luck


I didnt use any of your ideas but ure information as helped me a lot im now on the process of writin a song called "shes so fine" i just thought of it in my head cuz my cuz was on about songwritin so i decided to give it ago thanx uve helped me alot from liverpool09

Hi liverpool09,

It's sure great to hear from someone I've helped! Best of luck with your song!

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Tone Deafness


First of all happy New Year!

Monty my dilemma is that I do not sing, but I write poetry which is turned into songs. When I try to turn the poetry into songs I do not know what I am doing. How can I get the melody for this when I do not sing?

Please help!

- Anthony

Hi Anthony,

I wrote about adding melody to existing words in my last column. If you play an instrument, that column may help you. However, some of my advice there does also require doing a bit of singing.

When you say you do not sing, I'm not sure what you really mean. You might mean that even though you can hear a tune in your head, you don't control your voice very well or are embarrassed by the sound of yourself singing. If this is the case, don't sweat it - songwriters don't have to be great singers. The advice in my last column should help. And if you'd like to improve your skills (it never hurts to do that!) maybe you can join a choir or take private lessons. I took private lessons myself for a while to improve my singing voice and it helped a lot!

The other thing you might mean is that you can't really even hear a melody in your head. Some people believe they are "tone deaf" and are unable to hear and reproduce different pitches. Such people claim that they "can't carry a tune in a bucket." True tone deafness is very rare. If you are really tone deaf it means you can't tell the difference between one pitch and another. Music would sound like meaningless noise to you. So if you can enjoy music, then you probably aren't tone deaf. There's hope for you yet. You can improve your singing with practice! See the paragraph above!

Of course you can always follow the last bit of advice in my answer to Ryan above, and find a writing partner who sings like a bird to add melodies to your poems!

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Adding Words to Melody


great page, im 17, i have played guitar for 2 years but ive played a lot. Im getting pretty good, but i cant seem to put any words with a good melody, just wanted to let you know somones lookin at your page, and ill get back to you on how everything goes. Ive already got an idea or two. Thanks---Ryan

Hi Ryan,

If I read your comments right, you have a melody and you need words. To me this is always difficult. I usually have no trouble writing a melody if I have the words first. I can even come up with words and melody together at the same time pretty easily. But if I come up with a melody that has no words, finding the right words takes some effort. I have a lot of melodies lying around myself that I haven't put words to yet.

I think this is because, at least for me, when the melody is set already, it can be very confining. The words then have to have a certain number of syllables in order to fit, and yet they still need to make some kind of sense. So it's like working a puzzle. The melody gives you the form and the mood, and you have to find words that fit both.

But take heart - it isn't impossible.
Here's a general method you can try...

Record the music you've written - nothing fancy. Just use a tape recorder and play or sing your melody the best you can. Now you can listen to it without having to focus on performing it at the same time. Get comfortable, close your eyes, listen over and over, and let your mind wander. Daydream. What do you see in your head? What images does the music inspire? What situation are you thinking about? Once thoughts begin to come to you, write them down. Don't try to make the words fit the rhythm of the music yet - just write, as if you were writing in a diary. Get the ideas and images down on paper.

Gather words. Now that you have some idea what your song is going to be about, go back and circle the key words - the words that are most important to the song's mood, story, or theme. Do any of them fit at key places in the melody? These important words need to go where the melody will bring them out - the end of a phrase, or the high point in a line. They need to fit naturally with the melody so that when you sing the words, the emphasis comes on the right syllables.

Pick a word you want to use and sing the whole melody using just that word. Where does it sound the best?

If your words don't fit, or if you think they would be hard to rhyme (assuming you want them to rhyme, which isn't necessarily so) then try to come up with other words that are related to the same idea. Brainstorm a whole list of words. Use a thesaurus to help with this. (In a thesaurus, you look up the word you've got and you'll find a list of other words that mean the same thing.)

Work the puzzle. Once you figure out where your most important words will go, then start filling in the rest of each line. Approach it like a puzzle. Keep trying different ideas until all the pieces fit. You may want to record the song again, with the words you already have filled in. Just sing "dum de dum de dum" during the parts you don't have yet. That way you can easily listen back while your brain works on filling in the rest of those words.

Keep at it. This method may sound tedious and mechanical - sort of uninspired. But if you wait for inspiration to strike, you can easily wait forever. Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. Following this method may seem like a lot of work at first but at some point you are likely to suddenly see the light and find that the words are filling themselves in more and more easily.

It also gets easier and feels more natural the more you do it. Practice makes perfect.

Or - find a partner. One final thought - you could always find a writing partner. If you look at all the top radio songs in a given week, you may notice that most of them are written by a team of two people or more. Sometimes two heads really are better than one. Some partners both write words and melody. Often one partner is a lyricist, who writes only words, and the other is a composer, who writes the melodies. If you find the task of putting words to your music to be too much of a hassle, there's no shame in finding a wordy partner who enjoys that sort of a challenge.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

What to Write About

In this month's column I have several letters from readers to respond to. I'll start with two readers having similar troubles...


Im just a teen and i have a band i love to write songs..... just none of them are that good.....i dont know what to write about band is pop and punk so i dont know what to write about!



- Sara

i am only 11
i want to write a song because if I want to start a band, I want a good song. Every time I sing a song it is all nonsense. I could say i like green eggs then say have you ever read a book in my lyrics. Could you please give me good tips on writing a good song.

- Miriam

Hi Sara and Miriam,

First of all, as a beginning songwriter, you are allowed to write songs that are "not that good" as you say. Songwriting is something you get better at as you go along, but you have to write the bad ones before you get to the good ones. That's the way the world works. So don't let it discourage you. If you feel you haven't written a great song yet - just keep working at it and sooner or later you will!

Now, if there is one piece of writing advice I've heard a million times it is this: write what you know! As a young person you probably don't know much. This is not an insult. What I mean is just that you don't have much life experience. The longer you live the more you learn and the more you will feel that you have something to say with your writing. (I myself have been writing for many years and am just beginning to feel that I have worthwhile things to tell the world.)

But lack of experience should not hold you back, because on the flip side of the coin you probably know more than you think you do. (Even if your parents say it's the other way around!) Read on for a suggestion that will help you discover what stuff you know.

A second consideration, especially if you want your band to accumulate fans, is to write about universal feelings and experiences - things everyone can relate to. A song is by nature a personal statement, but if a song is too personal, people won't relate. The best songs present a universal message in a personal way.

So, for example, suppose I loved anchovies (those nasty little salty fish that some folks put on their pizza). If I wrote about how great anchovies are, very few people would relate to the song. However, if I wrote about how my love for anchovies makes me feel like a weirdo, a lot of people would relate. Almost everyone has some kind of quirk that makes them feel like a weirdo at times.

If all you listen to is top 40 radio, you might get the impression that songs have to be about being in love or getting dumped. But people write songs about all sorts of things. The Beach Boys started off writing about surfing and cars - those were their hobbies. What are yours? The Beatles wrote a song based on a circus poster ("For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" on the Sgt. Pepper CD). Maybe you can turn some piece of artwork that you like into a song. The group They Might Be Giants wrote a hit song about a night light! ("Birdhouse in Your Soul" on the Flood CD). What object in your room might inspire a song? I recently saw the movie School of Rock - great movie! The kids in that movie write a song about what makes them angry. What makes you angry, sad, happy?
Here are some assignments:

1) Listen to your favorite CD and write down the topic of each song. Then go back and make a guess at what real event in the songwriter's life might have inspired each song (it doesn't matter whether your guesses are right or not). Write down your guesses. Finally, for each song ask yourself if there is a similar event, object, or person in your life who could inspire a song.

For Example: This is a song about loosing a close friend; Maybe the writer had a friend that died; My good friend moved away last year - I could write about that.

2) Figure out what you know. Start with a blank page and write "I know what it's like to..." at the top. Now make a list of items that could finish that sentence. Some examples: make a friend, lose a friend, stub my toe, fight with my sister, swim in a lake, fly in an airplane, stand on my head, step on a frog - whatever!! It doesn't matter if your items seem trivial or silly. Write as many as you can. Fill the page. Don't think about it very much - write as fast as you can. See if you can fill the page in two minutes. When you just can't come up with any more, take a break. Then go back and look at each item and ask yourself how you might expand it into a song. You'll probably have enough material to keep you writing for weeks!!

3) This is the same as number 2, but with a different start. Write at the top of your paper: "Things that make me angry!" Or you can try "sad" or "happy" or any other emotion in place of "angry."

Try these exercises - they are guaranteed to find you something to write a song about or your money back!!

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Writing Melody

Dear Monty,

I read your article on song writing, the thing is I can write the lyrics, I put all my heart and soul into them but it is the tunes I get stuck on, I really like music and would love to be in the music business one day, whether it's managing or as the act, but I'd like to. Do you have any tips on writing the music for songs? I usually sing along as I am writing but they tend to be boring and all the variations are the same, I really need some help as I think I have some pretty good lyrics that need music for them.

Yours sincerely, Jayne

Thanks for the question, Jayne - I hope this helps...

I remember when I was very young, trying to come up with an original melody. Every tune that came out of my mouth belonged to a song I already knew. I just couldn't force my brain into a new pattern and hum something that hadn't been sung before.

Once the idea occurred to me that I should be able to write a new melody, I became a little obsessed with trying. I kept at it and it didn't take too long to actually do it. I think I started by switching melodies in the middle of a song, like humming one line from "Yankee Doodle" then suddenly switching to part of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." This helped shake things up a bit and opened up new possibilities to my musical mind. By adding more little changes and variations I eventually landed on a melody that was all my own.

These days my brain is practically a melody-writing machine. I can start singing any time and guarantee an original creation. Usually the melodies I come up with are interesting and catchy - some more so than others of course. I'm almost never at a loss for a melody when I write lyrics. (Sometimes it takes a little more work than others, though.)

Anyhow, I'm not just bragging - my point is that I believe melody writing is a skill that you can learn. It takes experience and practice - like so many things, the more you do it the better you get at it. Sure there are some melodic geniuses out there (Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, ...) who seem to have extra talent just built in. You may never write melodies as great as some of theirs, but you can certainly improve your current abilities, no matter who you are.

In a moment I'll suggest some things you can do right away to make up a melody.

Building Your Chops Over Time

But first, what do you need to do every day to become a great melody writer later on? Listen and learn! Listen to all kinds of music every chance you get. And learn to play an instrument.

Then learn your favorite songs on your instrument. Even if you are a beginner, you can pick out a melody on the piano. Just try until you figure out how to make it sound right.

If you don't play an instrument yet, hum songs without singing the words.

When you listen to or play a melody, notice how patterns repeat and how they change. Notice when the notes go up or down. Do they jump way up, or skip just a little? Notice how the rhythms change or repeat. Soak it all in.


By the way, some writers are afraid that if they listen to other people's songs, their own songs will come out sounding too much like something that's already out there. I disagree. Any new song is made of bits and pieces of other songs.

Imagine you have a big box of Legos. Some of the pieces came from a Star Wars set, and some from a pirate ship set. But you take those sets apart, dump the pieces together and use them to build a dinosaur. The more different sets you dump into your box and mix around, the more interesting things you can build out of the various parts.

Well, the big box is your brain, and the different Lego sets are the songs you know! The more songs you hear and/or learn, the more great new melodies your brain will be able to create out of all the bits and pieces.

Try These Ideas Now

But don't worry, if your Lego box is pretty empty at this point in life you can still write a great melody. We'll assume you've got words and you're working on a melody for your song.

(Of course you could write music first then words, but if you are new at writing melody, it will probably be easier to write words first.)

Here are a few things to try right now to help you write a melody:

-> Get a tape recorder (or a digital recorder) and use it! Don't worry about anyone else hearing your work - keep your tapes secret if you want. But use the recorder to listen back to yourself. It helps a lot. Really. I will mention it several times below. Because it helps. Really. Trust me!

-> Talk it out. Speak the words to your song out loud several times through. Try to say them with feeling, as if you are reading lines for a play. Record yourself and listen back. Unless you talk like a robot, you will hear the pitch of your voice go up and down as you speak. Is there almost a melody there already? You can bring it out by mimicking your voice with an instrument - try to play your words the way you spoke them on a piano or guitar. Remember your voice is an instrument, too - try singing along the same pattern you spoke the words.

-> Use an instrument. If you play an instrument, use it to work out a melody. I like to use guitar because I can play chords and sing at the same time. But any instrument will work. (If you have to use your mouth to play your instrument, then sing the words along in your head while you play.) Just try different things until you find a melody that works.

-> Groove to a beat. Just about any "toy" keyboard you can buy these days comes with built-in beats. If you have a keyboard like that, play a beat that most closely fits your song. Adjust the tempo (speed) so that it's comfortable. (Try it slow at first - speed up if needed later.) Record yourself while you sing along and see what happens.

-> Change your instrument. If you usually write with a particular instrument, and your melody is coming out boring or too familiar, then put that instrument down and use a different one - or maybe just use your voice instead. Sometimes this happens to me - I play the same old chords on my guitar and it just isn't helping me think of a new melody. Any other instrument I pick up, even if I don't know how to play it very well, will lead me to a new melody I might not have otherwise come up with.

-> Use trial and error. Take one line from your song (I like to start with the most important line - maybe the first or last line of the chorus) and sing it as many different ways as you can come up with. Change something each time, and record yourself. Then listen back and see what you like or don't like. Here are some things to try changing: Change which word gets the most emphasis; Hold different words out longer, or sing them really short; Add empty space between some words; Repeat some words; Try singing on one pitch, or note, for as many words as you can before it just has to change; Make the pitch go up after the first word, then try going down instead; Try making different words land on the highest pitch, then the lowest.

Keep it up until you get a melody you really like. Usually once I get one line to really sound great, the next line and the next follow pretty easily. Sing the second line the same way, or the same way but at a higher pitch, or with the same rhythm but a different melody. Before long you'll have the whole song figured out.

-> Make the verse and chorus different. Once you figure out how to sing the chorus, make sure you sing the verses differently so your song will be interesting to hear. Change at least one thing as you go from verse to chorus or chorus to verse. For example you might change from long slow notes to short fast ones, or change from lines that go up in pitch to lines that stay the same or go down.

-> Revise! As you try these different things, remember that you can always change the words, too. If there is a word or two that doesn't fit well, or is hard to sing, change them to something that fits better. I often end up changing my words quite a bit as I start to fit them to a melody - it's kind of a back and forth process.

-> Don't force it! As you try different melodies using the suggestions above, pay attention to how you pronounce your words. Make sure you don't end up singing a word with the wrong emphasis. Otherwise your listeners will have a hard time understanding you. For example, if you are singing the word "dinosaur" make sure it sounds like "DINE - o - sore" and not "dine - O - sore."

-> Emphasis the right words. As you write your melody, consider which words are most important and make sure those words are brought out by the music. For instance if you sing "I took my DOG for a WALK" that's really clear. "Dog" and "Walk" get the most attention and even if that's all the listener hears, they will get the idea. But if you sing "I TOOK my dog FOR a walk" you run the risk the listener will hear "Took" and "For" but miss the word "dog" - and therefore have no clue what you're singing about.

Even if they hear "dog" they might wonder why the word "for" is so important. Of course people don't really think about such things when they're listening to a song. But when you're listening your brain is processing the information and these thoughts happen without you even knowing it. You might just be left with the feeling that the song didn't make much sense, but you don't know why.

You don't believe me? Try it yourself. Sing "I took my DOG for a WALK" and then sing "I TOOK my dog FOR a walk." Which one sounds better? I rest my case.

Hey, you just made up two different melodies! You're getting the idea! Now go try it with your own songs!

Have fun!