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!