Build-A-Song Part VI: Tips for Tunesmithsby Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2000
This is the sixth in a series of articles called Build-A-Song which present a step-by-step method for creating a song. By no means is this "the only" method for writing songs. In fact, the approaches to songwriting are as many as the writers themselves. But our Build-A-Song series will offer a sequential template for covering the basics of successful songwriting. I hope you will follow along and perhaps even try this method as you create your own. If you missed the other articles in the series, you may find them in the archived issues.
Part VI -- Tips for Tunesmiths
Way back in 1918, Irving Berlin wrote:
A pretty girl is like a melodyAlthough over eight decades have come and gone since Irving Berlin wrote those lyrics, every red-blooded young man in the world can still identify with this comparison between a beautiful woman and a beautiful melody. That drop-dead gorgeous girl walks into the party and a Eureka Moment takes place in every brain of every male in the room! They will not be able to forget her -- days or even weeks later -- no matter how hard they try! Hit melodies have a very similar effect!
That haunts you night and day
Just like the strain
Of a haunting refrain
She'll start upon
And run around your brain
In last month's segment we began our study of Melody by suggesting that even if you have little or no music training at all, you can learn to create hit tunes. You can begin by establishing the cadence of your lyric and then actually "speaking" the words in rhythm with emphases on different words until you start to hear a melody taking shape. In this month's segment we will continue to examine the matter of melody with some tips to consider as you launch out into the exciting world of composition.
Tip #1 -- Keep Attending Songwriting University
In the very first article in our Build-A-Song Series ( The Idea), I told you about a university for songwriters that is totally free of charge and has produced more hit writers than any other training resource available. And, best of all, it has branches in every town, city or rural community in the world. Do you remember what it is? That's right! It's the radio! Whether you are a novice musician or an educated and experienced composer, the radio is your best resource for learning to write hit melodies. But….you must learn to analyze what you are hearing and then begin to apply some of what you hear to your own songs.
Stretch yourself to become familiar with the Top Ten songs in at least four different genres of music -- perhaps Jazz, Country, Pop and R&B. Then, as you listen, try to figure out what it is that makes these hit melodies so popular with listeners. Listen for repeated musical phrases, fresh melodic intervals and harmonies, and changes in rhythm. Then go to your instrument (if you play one) and see if you can pick out those melodic patterns. Pay close attention to the places in the songs where there is an emotional moment -- a point in the song where you get goosebumps or feel like laughing or crying. Then, ask yourself -- What is happening here with the music to give me that emotion? Could I use a similar technique in my own song?
Remember that you are simply a composite of all the musical data that has been programmed into your brain over the years -- the more varied the musical influences you absorb, the greater your options and creativity when you begin to compose your own melodies. Every successful songwriter I have ever met -- without exception -- has testified that they have learned most of what they know from Songwriting U -- the radio.
Tip #2 -- Keep It Simple and Singable
In an attempt to write a fresh and creative melody, many aspiring songwriters actually "shoot themselves in the foot" by making their melody far too complicated to be sung and remembered. Your melody may be brilliant "musically speaking," but if your listeners can't hum or whistle it, it will probably not become a hit song.
The notes of the scale are very easy to remember. Somewhere along the way we have learned, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. Those are the tones of every scale and follow a progression that "makes sense" to most people -- a progression they can recognize and sing. As you begin to analyze popular songs, you will discover that their melodies often simply go up and down the tones of the scale. For example, consider the melody for The Rose, recorded by Bette Midler and written by Amanda McBroom. Much of it simply moves up and down between Do and Fa. It is simple; it is memorable; and it is beautiful! (It also sold gajillions of records and made lots of money -- not bad for Do to Fa!) Or how about I Believe I Can Fly, written and recorded by R. Kelly? Again, the melody goes up and down the very familiar tones of the scale to produce another huge hit!
But as you experiment with possible melodies, remember that most singers can comfortably sing an octave (from Do to Do) or an octave and a third (from Do to the Mi above Do). If you get too far outside those parameters, you will reduce the number of possible artists who will be able to sing your song effectively. Be sure that your melody doesn't make the singer look inadequate!
Tip #3 -- Remember Repetition
Another universal characteristic about hit melodies is that they almost always contain repeated musical phrases. The musical hook, of course, should be repeated in parallel places several times throughout the song in combination with the lyrical hook. But it is also very effective to create other short musical/lyrical phrases that are symmetrical to the cadence of the hook but in another part of the scale. These are called sequences that reinforce the measured rhythm of the hook statement. Subtly, they are repeating and echoing the rhythm of the hook and reinforcing that musical pattern in the listeners' minds. Remember -- the goal of the songwriter is to communicate to people, and there is no more effective way to do that than to repeat what you want them to retain in every way you can.
Tip #4 -- Pay Attention to Prosody
Prosody is the marriage between the lyric and the melody. Hit songs have "married well" and are completely compatible musically and lyrically. As Jai Josefs says in his wonderful book, Writing Music for Hit Songs:
As pop composers, whether we write our own lyrics or collaborate with others, we are basically film scorers and the film we are scoring is the lyric message of the song.An interval is simply the distance between scale tones. For example, the distance between Do and Mi is a Third; between Do and Fa is a Fourth; between Do and So is a Fifth etc. The smaller the interval, the more intimate sounding the melody will be. The wider the interval, the more dramatic or powerful the effect. Try to match the kinds of intervals with the meanings, cadence and mood of the lyrics. For example, the octave interval in the hook, Some-where over the Rainbow, matches the soaring feel of the lyric. You may want to use seconds or thirds for your verses and then go to more dramatic intervals for the chorus or the hook statement line.
In my experience, the best composers of melody are those who absolutely love lyrics and the best lyricists are those who absolutely love music. As in any good marriage, each partner is putting the interest of the other above his/her own. Hit melody writers care about the message of the lyric and will take all the time and effort necessary to make sure that the melody carries the lyric so effectively that the emotion of the words is present even when the melody is presented as an instrumental only. Be sure your melody conveys the meaning and feeling of the words.
Tip #5 -- Don't Settle for a B+ Melody
Melody is the vehicle that carries the message of your lyric to the heart of your listener. It's the part of your song that sticks with the listener and helps him/her to remember the words. Melody doesn't have to be complicated -- in fact, it shouldn't be complicated. But it must be good! Hold yourself to a high standard. Don't let your song be finished until it has the greatest melody you are capable of giving it. Take your time. Experiment. Think about it. If you have to change some of the other elements of the song to make your melody "pay off," do so! Listen to great songs and try some of the techniques you learn. Great, simple melodies will live on decade after decade and will be recorded by artist after artist. They are well worth the effort and thought required to make them great.
Several months ago my husband and I were having dinner in a Mexican restaurant. A mariachi band was going from table to table serenading the patrons. When they reached the table next to us, they asked the diners if they had a request. There was a little girl about three years old at the table who immediately requested Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The band delivered a beautiful Latin arrangement of that simple, memorable melody that has delighted children (and their parents) for centuries. Go write another Twinkle Twinkle, and I promise you.….people will be requesting your song generations from now.
Sixteen centuries ago Plato wrote this in The Republic:
Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.
I didn't know that Plato was a songwriter, did you?
1 Josefs, Jai, Writing Music for Hit Songs, New York, Schirmer Books, 1996
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.