Saturday, November 03, 2007

On Songwriting: Music and Lyrics, or Lyrics and Music? REVISED

The answer to this chapter’s titular question is “yes.” There is no one way, better way, right way or wrong way to write a song. I’ve written a lot about lyric writing, to this point, because that’s usually where songwriting starts for me. And, often, as a listener, I tend to get drawn in by the lyrics. I say “usually” and “often” because there is no locked and set formula for me.

Everyone has a different way of working. And everyone probably has several different ways of working. In fact, if you, as a creative person, do lock yourself into a set, predictable formula for receiving ideas and expanding on them, your work will most likely become stale. Creative people need to be open to new stimuli, and be flexible with work habits. Creative people should look for and embrace opportunities to go out of their comfort zones.

So, there is no one, good, straight answer to the question “what comes first, melody or words?” I’ve written both ways. As I’ve said, the words, or some lyrical or thematic idea, are usually my impetus in writing a song. But, I do not like to write lyrics in a vacuum, that is, in a lyrical vacuum. Many of my best songs evolve when lyrics and music are developed together. I may get the lyrical idea first, but then I need to pick up the guitar and see what those lyrics suggest musically. In turn, I let the music suggest lyrical ideas, as well.

One thing I do believe: Music and Lyrics should live together in harmony. I’m not talking about the actual harmonic structure. I’m using the word “harmony” as in “the citizens of the world should live together in harmony.” Or, Lyrics and Music should have synchronicity. That is, they should go together, and they should sound like they go together. Pretty simple, eh?
But, you might be surprised at how many times I hear a song whose melody does not match the lyrics, or whose style does not match the subject. Just as your lyrics should express precisely the message you want to get across, your melody should support those words. Your music is just as emotively expressive as your words. It’s a complete package.

I did an experiment once. I didn’t know it was an experiment at the time, but I’ve come to see it as one. It concerns the music of the songwriter I mentioned in the previous chapter. I was explaining my dislike for this songwriter’s songs and one of the things I was demonstrating was his lack of attention to the relationship between melody and lyrics. My audience of one was skeptical, so I took my guitar and sang the lyrics to one of his hits to the melody of another one of his hits. The point wasn’t that I could manipulate the tempos and rhythms to fit. But, the point was made when someone in the next room poked her head in the door and, with obvious sincerity delight, said, “Oh, I love that song!”

That really shouldn’t happen. I would want even a casual listener to my music to say, “That doesn’t sound quite right.” Every song should be distinct in its personality. I find it much easier in print to describe lyric writing that melody writing. And who am I to say what makes a melody “good?” For me, it’s more intuitive. I have taken music theory classes and piano lessons. My last ones were many years ago and my skills are rudimentary. But I do understand the relationships between notes and intervals, major and minor. I have the vocabulary to communicate ideas. I understand concepts like relative minor, key signature, I, IV, V, meter signature, tempo, diminished, triads, sevenths, suspensions, timbre, legato, etc. I have the foundation.

I also know, as noted in an earlier chapter, that words have a natural rhythm. And words have a natural modulation of pitch and tone. So, just as you can train yourself to hear the natural rhythms in words and phrases, you can train yourself to hear the natural modulations in pitch and tone. Speak your lyrics out loud, conversationally. Disregard the rhyme scheme and patterns for the moment. Where does your voice want to go? Listen to the natural “ups and downs.” I once heard a songwriter suggest that one should walk with one’s lyrics. That you should literally take a walk and recite or think of your lyrics. There are natural rhythms and patterns to walking and your gait will change with your mood or ideas. And “walking your lyrics” connects them to something physical. You get that whole body sensation, you experience the lyrics kinesthetically. And all of this may help to suggest where your lyrics want to go melodically.

There are other factors that suggest where your melody might want to go and what kind of style or tone your music should have. Is your song an “angry” song? A love song? An angry love song? If it’s a song about flying, either literally or metaphorically, perhaps your melody should “soar.” Maybe your melody wants to have an upward motion to support the ideas. Your job is to capture a mood, a feeling, an ambiance. Tempo, time signature, lush chords, sparse lines, chord progressions, major sevenths, open fifths, even key signature – these all make a difference.

I can tell you that (but I can’t tell you how) your melody must be strong. I know that’s a very fuzzy statement. But, when I was young and trying to write songs, my brother David, eleven years my senior and already a professional in the music industry, said something like that to me, with no other explanation, and it stuck with me from that day to this. “Your melody has to be good.” It should, in most cases, be able to stand on its own. It should be strong enough that if you stripped away all of the instruments, harmonies and production, it would be able to carry you bareback where it wants you to go.

I didn’t need any other explanation – I let the music do the explaining. David’s simple instructional phrase was all it took to open my ears up to the sounds of melodies. And, once again, I guess I must refer back to the concept that part of this process is innate. I know what I like, you know what you like. Practice listening to melodies with new ears and try to identify why you like it. If you have the theory background and can intellectualize it, go right ahead. But whether you can or can’t, emulate. Yeah, copy. Emulation is one of the best ways to learn any art. You’ll eventually develop your own voice. A good, strong melody...? To paraphrase Chief Justice Potter Stewart, I can’t define it, but I know it when I hear it.

In general, I think a melody should be somewhat predictable, but it should have some surprises as well. By predictable, I don’t necessarily mean an imitation of someone else’s melody, although it may be evocative. It may be evocative of a lot of things. But, it’s the predictability, or familiarity, that can invite and draw a listener in, give him some comfort, and make him want to stay for the ride (and the twists and urns the ride may have to offer). By surprises, I don’t mean you should jar the listener, but take them to a new place. Use an unexpected chord in the progression, jump an octave in the melody (if it’s supported lyrically) or employ an unanticipated interval.

In my song “Edge of the Ocean,” I use a fairly simple chord progression – I, VI, IV, I, V – but I take the melody in unexpected directions. It starts on the keynote in an upper octave and then jumps down a fifth – or from a B to an E. This happens while the chord is shifting from the major I to its relative minor VI. The first six notes are very simple: three notes up the scale and three notes back down. And then the jump to the fifth below. Or: C, D, E, D, C, B, (down to) E. In context, it’s not jarring. And that interval jump helps to highlight, or spotlight, some of the important words` and ideas in the song. It draws attention to that spot and, instead of throwing the listener off, it pulls them closer.

There are so many good melody writers, past and present. Listen to them. Listen to Gershwin, Berlin and Porter. Listen to Don MacLean’s “Empty Chairs” and “Vincent.” Listen to Teddy Geiger, he writes a great pop melody, as does Lisa Loeb. Listen to the simple eloquence of that song “Delilah” by The Plain White T’s. On the far end of the spectrum is Joni Mitchell. Listen to her album “Blue.” Her melodies take twists and turns and leaps that would scare a circus acrobat, but she makes it work. And on the other end of the spectrum you might find Leonard Cohen.

Lyrics and music together should sound natural, as if they had always been that way. It should be seamless. The listener should not be able to hear the songwriting process. That’s distracting. When you’re watching a film or a play, and you notice The Acting or The Directing or The Lighting or The Photography, when any one of the individual elements stands out to you, it’s a distraction. You may still enjoy the event, and that’s OK. But, it’s those rare pieces of art and entertainment that transcend all of that. They pull you in and you forget that you’re watching a Performance. It’s when you don’t notice the hard work and skill and time and effort that went into it, when it looks easy, that something close to artistic perfection, if I may even suggest that such a thing exists, is achieved.

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