Don’t Lock Yourself In

The vocal melody is one of the TWO most important parts of any song (lyric being the other).  Lyric and melody make a  song.  You’ll rarely hear someone walking down the street humming chord changes, or whistling a guitar riff (unless maybe they’re a musician).  The general population is attracted to the primary vocal melody, and if they don’t like it, then they don’t like your song.  If they can’t remember it, then they won’t sing your song.

Songs can generally be grouped into a couple of categories – songs written around a melody and songs written around chord changes or riffs.  As a music publisher, I’ve seen the majority of songwriters in my genre begin with chord changes rather than with a melody.  In contrast however, most of today’s successful pop writers, start with a melody.  Both processes can work.  However, if the vocal melody is one of the most important parts of your song, be extremely careful not to make it an afterthought.

Building your song around a chord progression can be severely limiting.  Amateur writers often use only the chords they know best … the ones their hands automatically go to when they pick up the guitar or sit at the piano.  They hang out and jam on some chord changes until they get something they really like.  Then they try to impose melody on top of the progression.

We can get very creative with the way we string our favorite chords together, and how long we stay on each chord, leading to hundreds of chord progressions for new songs.  However, laying down the progression first, boxes us in when it comes to creating melody.   It locks us in with regard to both the rhythm and the notes we can use in our melody.  And we may also limit ourselves with the way our phrasing and our pattern of repetition can work.

Try starting with a melody.  Work on building it without your instrument, if necessary.  Develop something enjoyable, beautiful and singable.   Then let the melody determine the rhythm and the mood and the chords that will support it.   This change of process sounds simple enough, but is extremely liberating for most writers.  When there are no more walls, no more limits, no more boxes, they find that their melodies truly begin to soar.  Their songs become more singable, more memorable and more enjoyable.


Every week I sit down one-on-one with a couple of Songwriting majors from Belmont University, in Nashville. I’ve done this for almost 2 years now and each semester I get to work with a new songwriter or two.

This week I noticed a pattern with one of the young writers.  She seemed to be having trouble with meter.  A quick look at Wikipedia defines “meter” as follows:

Meter or metre is a term that music has inherited from the rhythmic element of poetry (Scholes 1977; Latham 2002) where it means the number of lines in a verse, the number of syllables in each line and the arrangement of those syllables as long or short, accented or unaccented (Scholes 1977; Latham 2002).

What this student was doing, is actually very common among beginning songwriters.  I see it at almost every songwriter training event I go to.  At times this writer was stretching words to fit the meter in ways that were not comfortable to sing; often placing a one syllable word where a two or three syllable word should go. At other times she was cramming too many words or too many syllables into a phrase, making it sound rushed or “crowded”.  The end result was a song that was somewhat uncomfortable to the listener’s ear.

After discussing this at length, I asked if she came up with the music first, or the lyric, or both at the same time.  As I suspected, she revealed that she came up with the melody first.  Then she tried to fit what she wanted to say to the rhythm that she had already established for her melody.  Not always a good idea.  I personally believe that it’s much easier to “sing a lyric” than to “lyric a song”.

A song lyric should sing naturally, comfortably and beautifully.  I don’t mean that it has to say something beautiful, but it should flow beautifully in the way it sings.  It should fit together nicely, naturally and cleverly with the musical rhythm of the song.

Writing lyrics is truly an art from.  Listeners can always tell when little attention is given to shaping the structure of a lyric (as well as to the way things are said in a lyric), and professionals know that it is almost always songs with well crafted lyrics, that become the real hits.

Note:  Wikipedia has a great page on song meter that I believe songwriters will find extremely helpful.
Check it out here.