Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Use an Existing Melody to Write a New Melody

Hello Monty,
I DO perform at my local church and very often at least once a month we have Gospel Concerts. I have so many different beats.. and I am finding it so hard to get a melody to it! How do I go about that? I have tried all sorts of different melodies from other songs. It could just be me but can you suggest anything?
Many Thanks,

Hi Elsie,

It's not just you - coming up with a melody can be a challenge. Many people feel they can't do it. I remember as a kid, trying to invent a melody, but everything I hummed turned out to be an existing song. Once I broke through that barrier and actually sang my own melody, it became easier and easier to do. Now melodies flow out of me like water. However, it's still often a challenge to find a good melody to match a particular set of words. When I write words first, I almost never settle on a melody right away - I'll try many different ideas until one finally sticks.

It sounds like you have written some words and you want to find a melody to go with them. You've tried all sorts of melodies from other songs, but none of them fit. I'll give you something new to try in a minute. But first, a word or two about using existing melodies.

Using an existing melody from another song is sometimes appropriate. If you make a joke out of the original song, that's called a "parody." Weird Al Yankovic is the master of parody. He took Michael Jackson's song "Beat It" and changed it to "Eat It," making it all about food. More recently he changed the Kink's classic "Lola" to "Yoda!" These songs are funny because the new lyrics resemble the old lyrics, while totally changing the meaning of the song.

But I don't think you're trying to write a parody. Another case where new words get put to an existing melody is what educators call "piggy back" songs. New words can "piggy back" onto a familiar tune in order to help teach a lesson. These songs are easy to share, because all you have to do is say, "Sung to the tune of...", and anybody reading the words will also know how to sing it. Barney (the big purple dinosaur) did this a lot. "I love you, you love me..." is sung to the tune of "This Old Man," for example.

However, melodies are protected by copyright, which means somebody owns them! John Lennon and George Harrison were each famously sued for songs they wrote with melodies that resembled other songs. Copyright law allows for some exceptions, called "fair use." Both parodies and piggy back songs (if they are educational) CAN fall under fair use, although the law is somewhat tricky.

Some melodies are so old that their copyright has expired. Those melodies are in the public domain, which means you can use them. So, make sure that if you do use another song's melody, it's in the public domain. Here is a website that will help you identify which songs are in the public domain:

But, if you are writing an original song, what you really probably want is an original melody to go with it - one you can call your own!

I'm going to give you a crazy suggestion that I think will help you write a melody. I say it's crazy because it seems sort of the opposite of what you've been trying. I've written a song or two this way, and it's a fun exercise.

1. Find a song you really like. You're going to use it as a model. Better yet, have a friend choose a good song for you that you haven't heard. If you are unfamiliar with the melody, that will be an advantage.

2. Copy out the lyrics word for word on paper or on a computer. Make each line of words cover the same number of beats in the song, either four or eight beats per line. (Or three or six... depending on the time signature of the song.)

3. Now put a new piece of paper next to that (or a new window on the computer) and start writing your own song. Chose a totally different topic from your model song, so that you won't be using similar words and ideas.

4. As you write, copy certain things exactly from your model song. This is important! Give your song the same number of lines. In each line use the same number of syllables. Copy the same pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Copy the rhyme scheme.

Example: "Like a bridge over troubled water" --> change it to "I'm in love with a purple monkey"; that's fine. But don't change it to "I'm in love with a purple antelope" because the number of syllables is wrong (10 instead of 9). And don't change it to "I'm in love with a tangerine tree" because although it has 9 syllables, the stresses are wrong ("-ine/Tree" is unstressed/stressed, where "water" is stressed/unstressed). Make sense?

5. If you find yourself uninspired, then write nonsense. Just focus on the patterns of the syllables and use any words that fit. It's only an exercise after all, and it's really about the melody. You can always fix the words later if you want. But do this quickly now.

6. If you're using a song you know, put your paper away for a couple of weeks, and don't listen to the model song during that time. This way you can come back to the words with a fresh pair of ears.

7. Get your paper out, try to forget the song you copied, and write a new melody for your words. Use a piano, guitar, or just your voice. Sing the words all on one pitch if you have to at first. Try different combinations of long notes and short notes - which words sound better when you hold them out? Have the pitch go up at the end of a line; then try it going down. Just keep singing it until a great melody clicks into place.

I'm guessing that with your new set of words you'll find it much easier to write an original melody. Why? Because these words follow an established pattern that another songwriter has already used to write a melody. If that writer had success with this pattern, so can you.

Once you've enjoyed some success at writing melodies to existing word patterns, go back to the words you wrote that you were having trouble with. By then you'll have some new skills for smoothing out the words and arranging them into a pattern that can support a great melody.

Give it a try, have fun, and good luck!!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Music Lessons Can Help

Hi. My name is Amanda and I'm 19 years old. I like to sing and write songs, but the problem is that I can't seem to get my ideas on paper. I tried so many times to write a song and it never turns out right. Then when I try to play my guitar or keyboard, I can't hear the difference between one note and another note and I can't seem to get the rhythm. Can you help me? Thanks!!! -Amanda

Hi Amanda,

If you enjoy listening to music, then you aren't tone deaf, which means
you just need some musical training. I would suggest that you take
voice, guitar, or piano lessons. Once you have the basic musical skills
down, songwriting will seem a lot easier.

Thanks for your help! I will try getting into music classes when i get the money. I gotta get a job to pay for it, or I'll never be able to afford it. About how much do lessons cost?

I really hate to guess how much lessons might cost you. It would depend so much on where you live and who you hire. Also on whether you get individual lessons or sign on for a class.

There is a website,, where you can type in your area code and get a list of music teachers near you. Also if you Google "piano lessons", "guitar lessons", or "voice lessons" you'll find many resources online - some of them are free. These might be good places to start until you can afford to hire a teacher.