Setting Lyrics to Music: Tips from Song Written

I haven’t had much to say about lyrics on this site, but they obviously form a core component of songwriting. For those of you who tend to write lyrics before music, there’s some great advice available over on Nicholas Tozier’s blog Song Written.

I highly recommend you read the article and try experimenting with some of his ideas, whether you’re primarily a lyricist or not. If nothing else, the techniques he describes can help you generate melodies you might not have come up with using your normal methods. In this post, I’ll briefly describe what I take to be the core idea of his article and look at how to integrate it with some of my Practical Chord Progression exercises.

Nicholas suggests that in order to fit melodies to lyrics in a new way, we ought to adopt a new perspective on spoken language. He has us consider the difference between a sentence posed as a question and asserted as a statement. Try it out:

“You’re going to arrive?” vs. “You’re going to arrive.”

The first ends with a rising tone, the second with a falling tone. Melody in spoken language!

So how can this help us set lyrics to music?

Simple. Learn to listen carefully to the natural melodic ebb and flow of your speech. Then experiment with matching melodies that follow that ebb and flow. This works with rhythm as well as melody.

Like any interesting songwriting technique, this is going to take some trial and error. If you find that coming up with melodies without chord progressions is a daunting task, why not combine this approach with some of my chord progression exercises? As an example, I’ll discuss doing this with the Light and Shadow exercise.

EXERCISE
Before coming up with a chord progression, write two sections of lyrics, one positive and happy, the other plaintive, melancholy, or dark.

Sometimes verse and chorus involve a lyrical contrast of this kind. Perhaps the verse describes a time when everything was going well and the chorus an unhappy aftermath. Or it could be the other way around. The verse might describe a difficult period and the chorus a sense of accomplishment or joy in getting through it.

These are simplistic recommendations, so feel free to come up with more interesting ideas!

Now that you have your lyrics, go through the Light and Shadow exercise and come up with your chord progressions. But here’s the twist: Speak your lyrics as you come up with the corresponding chords.

What you’re doing is setting a rhythm to ensure that your lyrics will fit the progression. As always, this simply provides a solid starting point for further development.

Now, taking each part one at a time, start by speaking your lyrics and attempt to gradually transform them from spoken words into a melody. Do this by following the natural tonal ebb and flow of the sentences. Repeat this process until you’ve refined it into something you really like.

And don’t forget to head over to Song Written for more advice on lyrics in songwriting.

Once you’ve transformed words into melodies, why not submit your results as an example to those of us still staring at pages of lyrics, not sure what to do with them?

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John

John Thomas Mumm has been writing and studying music since 1997. He has recorded hundreds of songs and five self-produced albums. His day job is as an academic philosopher, and in his spare time he writes fiction and brews beer. Most recently, he's started studying the fine art of the cocktail. So far he's finding that the principles of balance in drink mixing aren't completely unrelated to the principles of balance in songwriting.

2 thoughts on “Setting Lyrics to Music: Tips from Song Written”

  1. I’ve been looking for ways to branch out a little bit lyrically so that I make sure I’m always evolving as a songwriter. I’m gonna try a few of the things you mentioned, thanks for the suggestions!

  2. Love this post!!!! The exercises are a great way to incorporate music into the lyrics from the start, really thoughtful idea. The idea about chord progressions and two sets of lyrics is something I never thought of either. Definitely admire your posts I’ve started writing myself over at musicbymandi.com/songwriting-blog

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