In last week’s post, guest blogger Bernice Lewis talked about writing lyrics. This week, I’m writing about melodies. It’s the part that makes some beginning songwriters flee in terror because they think you have to have a PhD in music. It ain’t true. Janis Joplin once said she didn’t write songs, she just made ‘em up. Here are some tips to make ‘em up.
You need to play an instrument but you don’t have to be Eric Clapton. A few chords on a guitar, ukulele or keyboard will work fine. If you’re only a vocalist, it’ll be hard to write a melody unless you have an instrumentalist with you. (I know, I’m being vocalistist. That’s a word, right?) The cold hard truth is that making up a melody without an instrument is the most difficult way to go, especially if you aren’t going to keep it acappella.
Read Bernice’s post and write some words. Even if you’ve only got a verse and a chorus, it’s a good start. Now it’s time to find a tune.
Strum or play a few chords
Pick a few that sound good to you and play them over and over again. Sing your words over the top of the chords. If something doesn’t sound quite right, slow down and play each string or piano key in the chord and sing one of those notes. Experiment. You don’t have to be Streisand, just get out the notes. If that chord progression doesn’t work for all the lines, try a slightly different one for part of the song. In fact, that’s a good idea. You want some variety.
Some songs are written over a series of reoccurring notes. “My Girl,” made popular by The Temptations and written by William Robinson Jr and Ronald A White, is a great example of that. A lot of rock songs have a memorable reoccurring riff that ties everything together.
Play something different for the chorus
Melodically, you want to make the chorus sound different than the verses. If you’re using the same chord progression as the verses, use different notes. At least, start out higher. That’s a common device, by the way – to make the chorus higher than the rest of the song. It makes it stand out and since the hook is often in the chorus, this is a good thing.
If you use a different set of chords, however, be careful that you aren’t changing keys. Changing keys in a song is not a bad thing but you don’t want to do it in the beginning. This chart will help you:
Use short and long notes
If you’re singing mostly short notes for the verses, try longer notes for the chorus. If you’re holding out a note over three chord changes, try doing it differently in the next line.
Need a bridge (and I’m not talking Brooklyn)?
If you’ve already got 2 or 3 verses and you want to create some interest toward the end of the song, add a bridge. It’s the portion of the song that offers new information – sometimes the theme – and is usually a different melody. If you haven’t used a minor chord yet in your song, here’s a good place to do that.
Listen to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” written by Katy, Ester Dean, Mikkel S. Eriksen, Sandy Wilhelm and Tor Erik Hermansen. It starts low and gradually works it’s way higher, like a diagonal line that keeps going up. Some songs go up and down. Some start high and work their way down, then go up for the chorus. Make your melody move. If it mumbles around only 3 or 4 notes, you’d better have some groovy dancers or a killer horn section to go with that song.
Get an audio or video recording, write down the chords, tab it out – whatever method helps you remember and evaluate what you’ve done.
Don’t expect to write “Hallelujah” every time you sit down. Leonard Cohen already wrote it anyway. Each time you write a song, you’re exercising that writing muscle. And that’s a very good thing. No athlete is going to say they just show up for the games. You gotta get out there and bat a few balls. A lot of balls. I could go on with the balls metaphors, but I’m trying to keep this for polite company.
Find other songwriters. Many towns have groups that meet to present new songs or half-written songs to get feedback. Google “Songwriter group” and your town.
I teach songwriting via Skype and email from anywhere in the world. Contact me.
Want to know more about songwriting? More blog posts here.
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