Usually this opening paragraph is where I try to sound funny and charming. I tell some sort of relatable disarming joke or anecdote, and hopefully you the reader then think to yourself, “Oh he’s funny, I think I’ll read what he has to say about songwriting instead of scrolling through Reddit while I’m on the can.” But recently I had another baby boy, and am currently very sleep deprived. So instead, lets pretend like I said something hilarious and you are now laughing uncontrollably (go ahead, i’ll wait)… Done? Good, now that you are sufficiently entertained, lets talk about songwriting.
People come to the craft from all different backgrounds. I have a friend and co-writer that was an english major in college and later worked in marketing, another who was a civil engineer, and I myself was a Jazz guitar player. Everybody’s journey is unique, but I have found that when people first start out, depending on the nature of their journey, they are either lyrically oriented or melodically/musically oriented. I can’t tell you how many aspiring songwriter’s songs I’ve listened to, where their melodies seem to go on and on with no real shape or form. They appear to be a product of an attempt to put music to preexisting “stream of consciousness” type writing. Or conversely, how many well crafted melodies I’ve heard with clunky lyrics that stretch out syllables in unnatural ways, and convey a story that has nothing to do with the emotional weight of the melody. All of this is usually the result of what the main focus of the writer was while they were writing the song, melody or lyrics. This also leads to the question I hear almost all the time from inexperienced writers: what do you write first, lyrics or melody?
The truth is that they are both one and the same. A good melody is language. It has punctuation, It has commas and periods, paragraphs and phrases, and above all a story. A melody without those elements is like a paragraph with no punctation and no logical content. Impossible to read or comprehend.
In the same way that melody is language, language is melody. The sound of the words used is as important as the message they convey. Consonant, vowel and plosives sounds, sibilance, and the rhythmic make up of multi syllable words all contribute to the music of language. Rhyming schemes are a way to convey tension and resolution, and a good story should have emotional weight, while rising and falling with the crescendo and decrescendo of a well crafted melodic phrase.
So how do we learn this? If we are lyrically oriented how do we learn melody? If we are melodically oriented how do we apply that to lyrics? Well, if you’ve read my last blog post, or if you’ve had a conversation with me that lasted more than a minute, you know that I am a big believer in listening. Spend enough time listening to great songs, and you will learn through osmosis. For lyrics, that translates into reading. I read A LOT. Reading great authors is like listening to great composers. Their words are a symphony of language, and the importance of reading in helping you become a better songwriter, can’t be overstated.
Listening and reading aside, there are many things you can do that are more proactive to help you learn and identify when you are going in the right direction. For example:
The compositional elements of melody are things every musician should have a basic understanding of (and yes, songwriters are musicians, regardless of what the bass player or guitar player in your band says). Things like question and answer phrases, motifs and the various ways of developing them, form, tonality, the basics of how to create tension and release in a melody, diatonic permutations, mirroring (the process of playing a phrase in retrograde or inverted intervals), etc, etc. All of these are concepts you can learn and study from books and articles about composition, or from your music teacher, or at an actual music school. Combine this with consistent listening and your melody game will be on point.
At the same time you are doing that, spend some time learning about the different types of rhymes; close, perfect, similar sounding, consonant only, vowel only. Try to analyze how different types make you feel (for me a rhyme is resolution. I use it to alleviate lyrical tension, among a million other uses). Learn about different rhyming schemes, like symmetrical or asymmetrical. Try to rhyme only specific syllables in a multi syllable word. Learn about internal rhymes, and experiment with large rhyme shapes vs small rhyming shapes. You will find that most rhymes, have a reason (was that funny? In a “dad joke” kinda way?).
Spend some time studying the three act structure in creative writing so that your stories are engaging. Look up object writing exercises and make them part of your daily routine. Listen to how Eminem creates intricate musical composition with nothing but rhyme, rhythm and story.
Here is a good one: sing your lyrics (Whether or not you are a singer). It will help you gain an understanding of how different sounding words behave within a melody. For instance how a rhythmically fast phrase with plosive syllables, sounds and feels more impact-full and “staccato,” than the same rhythmically fast phrase sung with more vowel sounds.
Once you start thinking about lyrics and melody as being inseparable parts of a greater whole (the song), then it wont matter how you came to the craft (through lyrics or music). You will write better songs. You will understand that your melody isn’t just something used to support your story, it IS your story. You will see that your lyrics are more than just something to sing along to, they are part of the sonic identity of the song just like the guitar, or the piano. And as for that old question; which comes first words or melody, you will understand that regardless of what form the inspiration took, the sooner you start crafting your lyrics and melody as one, the sooner you’ll be on the path to writing a better song.
This article was reposted with permission from Red House Studios.
LA Session Group is honored and at the same time thrilled to share experiences and advice from some of the best musicians, songwriters, producers, and artists the music industry has to offer. The following article gives readers valuable insight into songwriting from multi-platinum songwriter and producer Chen Neeman courtesy of Red House Productions. Chen is a LA Session Group member offering one-on-one co-writing sessions and coaching. To book Chen for a songwriting session, simply click here.