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Songwriting Lesson: Matching Melodies and Lyrics

24 Oct Posted by in Blog, Tips | Comments
Songwriting Lesson: Matching Melodies and Lyrics

I would like to start off our little coaching session with a tip that is crucial for good song development. It’s sad but true that many songwriters ignore this skill I am about to tell you resulting in underdeveloped songs. It’s also a skill that’s not easy…I suppose that’s why many overlook it. Here it goes!


It use to be popular for two individuals – a lyricist and a music composer – to work separately for the same goal. Some famous examples are Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers, or George and Ira Gershwin. Each had a skill that complemented the other. One was good with words and the other melody and music. These two skills required an assortment of tools  the writers would use to put together a polished song. The point I am making is today it is common for one person to do both jobs requiring an understanding of both processes – blending lyrics with melody.


Tools of Songwriting: What this means is those things you know or techniques you learn that makes a song sound good. That is put as simply as I can. There are lots of tools to learn, but the good news is the more you learn the easier the job gets.


Let me introduce to you the process of choosing the right music to match the words of a song. This skill is sometimes called “prosody” – a big word that simply means using the right music to enhance and give depth to specific words in a song. Its the strength and function of music to embellish words – to create the emotion and put some life into them – learn to choose the right tones and length of tones to enhance the words. This is when you put on your composer hat and be cognizant of choosing the right music or melody – catching the mood of the words of the song you are writing. In the simplest form let me describe the use of music to enhance the lyrics of a song. A good example is a song you are familiar with, I’m sure. That way I know you can hear the melody that I’m describing. “Somewhere over the Rainbow” – so do you have the melody in your mind?


Somewhere over the Rainbow way up high


I want you to notice the arc of the melody as you sing…Some…Where (Up high) over the rainbow…(this follows a musical arc…like a rainbow – you can picture it)…way… (is the other side of the arc down lower)  “up high” (….up has a little lift to it as well). What would it be like if you ended “up high” with it going down low? It would give a different meaning to what the lyric writer wanted. Now say the phrase in a monotone voice. In other words just speak it without up and down emphasis. That would be quite a dull song wouldn’t it? So what tool did the composer use? Pitch….the up and down dimension of music used to perfection following the arc of the rainbow placing emphasis or spotlighting very important parts of the lyrical phrase. Also, the length of tone given to each word or syllable in a word is carefully chosen. For example: the composer did not linger on the word “the.” Correctly, the emphasis is on “Somewhere….(it’s prolonged)…and….”rainbow” (it’s split with each part of the word extended giving it punctuation). Then of course “up high” lifts at the end of the phrase. Now for a very important part of the lesson: Highlight the important words in your lyrical phrase with these powerful tools. The success of this song is understandably credited to the detail given to blending melody with lyric in such a masterly fashion.


Now to top this lesson off is to mention the hardest part of songwriting that I know. Let’s say you developed a melody with the first verse; emphasis is on the right words and the lifts all make sense. You have a dynamic first verse. Now the second verse you’re typically stuck with the same melody but you have to say something different. Here is where a skilled writer creates a well written song. The writer must choose the right words to follow the melody with all its dynamics in place, emphasizing or spotlighting the proper content of the new and different lyrics of the second verse. Warning! Do not end up spotlighting words or parts of phrases that have lesser value or you will end up with a weak second verse. Give careful thought to make sure emphasis is not on words like “the” or “is”….You don’t want to give listeners any reason to lose interest in your song at any point. This requires more skill but if you do it – carry it through and don’t be lazy – your songs will have an incredibly polished appeal to them.


This could be a difficult lesson that may take years to master. Many say it’s not that important but the masters of the craft take all these tools painstakingly into account when writing their songs. This lesson is intended to introduce this tool – not to master it overnight. Be aware of it and use it when writing your next tune.


David Rix
David has taken the long and winding road to becoming a professional, published Seattle songwriter. After many years of touring the US as a solo artist performing wherever he laid his head, he settled in Seattle where songwriting became his primary focus. He has experienced tremendous professional growth in the last few years with Songwriters in Seattle (where he also volunteers as an Assistant Organizer) and continues to be a powerful connective force in the creative community.

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