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Avery

Question for the Songwriters [Melody]

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Hey guys,

Realize I've been away for several years now, (as part of an overall effort to spend less time on internet forums.)  But I've been checking this place from time to time.  I hope you'll bear with me now...Couldn't think of a better place to pose this question.

Anyway, I'd be really curious to get some feedback about something that's been a struggle for me for some time: How to write a good melody when writing a song. [that is a song you sing to, not an instrumental piece].

Everyone talks about lyrics, everyone talks about chords and instrumentation, but it seems like no one really talks about melody.

Whenever I try to come up with a melody to sing to when writing a song, it sounds way too similar to the chords I'm playing underneath. But in any good song I cover, I can tell that melody is similar but also really different than the chords that you play.

I've bought a book or two on songwriting but it seems that they are too formal and technical when discussing melody, and I don't think real world songwriters follow the approach in these books. I do know some basic theory, but still, these books seem a little excessive.

I can also tell that if you listen to enough music [whether rock, country, pop, folk, whatever] songwriters are obviously digging into the same bag of tricks, because I often catch myself thinking oh, these 3 songs have a similar type of chorus. Or, this artist always composes similar melodies.

So, what is your approach to making a good melody?

I hope this gets some responses; I know there are a lot of good songwriters here, but the forum has been awfully quiet recently.

Avery

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Ah.... the age old question - what comes first, the lyric or the melody?  The handful of songwriters I hang around with are very disciplined - they write lyrics first, and agonize over. them for days, weeks even, sometimes years, before those words fall into a song.  Sometimes theres just a wisp of melody that drives a hook that gets crafted into the lyric/tempo/key.  My observation is that most of these ideas are closely tied to the bass progressions and follow the root notes, at least at the beginning stages, the it falls into the songwriters style - be they a strummer or a finger picker travis style = those guys seem to find the melody somewhere in the treble strings as they are talented independent finger folks.   Write the words,  and then noodle.   You'll hear it.

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There are a couple of approaches you can try here...to come up with the melody first and build the chord structure around it, or try to find chord melody within the existing structure. Mother Maybelle Carter was brilliant at chord melody, and would often shadow the vocal melody with arpeggiated melody within the chords she played. I often do this in reverse, and find a vocal melody within the music. 

Songwriting is an absolute enigma. Nobody actually really knows what they're doing. I've been writing songs for 25yrs, am a former staff writer for Universal Records, have written and recorded ten albums for five different labels and a load of songs for other acts...I still have no idea where the songs come from, how to write a song with intent or what the formula is. 

Ask anyone from Carole King to a newbie and they'll all tell you the same thing. Magic can't be mapped.

I'm just glad and grateful when a new one comes along. 

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30 minutes ago, Jinder said:

...I still have no idea where the songs come from, how to write a song with intent or what the formula is. 

 

Ditto.

Some I battle for months, my last one ( a tribute to Jerry Riopelle) came to me in a matter of minutes.

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I'm a novice at best, so take it for what it's worth - but I either start with a lyric I really like, and try to come up with a melody that matches the tone I want to surround the lyric, or I start with a kick a$$ riff / melody - try to see what that makes me feel like and build lyrics around that, expressing the same tone.  Both are centered around the 'feeling' I want the song to have.

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I seem to snatch the good ones right out of thin air as they go by, it seems. I am not the only one who feels this way, but I have yet to hear a really good song that was written "forcibly". I know I cannot just sit down and force myself to write a good song.
 

Years ago, a songwriter friend was in an all night deli in Nashville, writing a song on a napkin. Across the table from him, David Allen Coe was writing "Take This Job And shove It".  My friend said he was sitting on the wrong side of the table.

I have three or four songs that I consider to be really good songs, and everyone who has heard them agrees that they are indeed good, and they get enthusiastic audience response. None of them took more than fifteen minutes initially to get the gestalt of the song. One has never been altered. Two have been edited so that they flowed (syllable count/meter) better. One had a verse added later. None  of my songs remotely resemble any of the others.

Thanks for the topic. Made me think. 🙂

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13 hours ago, Avery said:

 

Anyway, I'd be really curious to get some feedback about something that's been a struggle for me for some time: How to write a good melody when writing a song. [that is a song you sing to, not an instrumental piece]

 

 

Curiously, to me that what you wrote here separates the two.  As, in my later more recent years of songwriting, I now make sure that every melody on a completed song will stand up melodically as an instrumental song as well as a song with its lyrics.  Then,  I decide whether to keep the lyrics or remove them when I perform the song, based on whether the song works better or is more effective when I perform it with or without the lyrics.  I try to make the melody convey the same feel/mood as the lyrics...so sometimes the lyrics together with the music complement each other and sometimes I find the lyrics are no longer needed and I use the song only as an instrumental song,, and sometimes on a particular song I find I am unable to adequately instrumentally convey the melody, so I need my   singing of the lyrics to do that so I include the lyrics in my performance of the song.

Just my approach to melody.  How this all channels through me and why is still a mystery, of course.  Just as others have said.  I keep working on it none-the-less.

QM aka “ Jazzman” Jeff

 

Edited by QuestionMark

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I always write with the chord progression first, then apply a melody to it, then mumble some syllables, then try to  translate the mumbles into words.  The melody part usually comes pretty easily, but when it doesn't, I try to find a note within each chord to aim for, then string together notes from the previous chord "target" note to the next chord's target note. It's not efficient, and I vastly prefer the divine intervention method, but I've had good results with it from time to time.

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Glad to see you back here Avery!! I always enjoyed your contributions, and I remember you giving me great feedback on my early songs. I'm still writing and I have asked myself the same thing you do many, many times. It really is a wonder where the songs/melodies come from. In relative terms (I know I'm a beginner…), melody is the part of songwriting I struggle the least with. Playing and especially singing is where it hurts for me, although singing has come along okey recently.  My way of writing is to find a topic first, then a few starting lyrical lines. The melody tends to come out of those few lines, from just how the words sound together. I then pick up the guitar looking for chords, riffs etc. Once a partial melody is set, the rest tends to fall into place based on those early short lines.

I find songwriting a MARVELOUS hobby! It's the unknow, or magical, part that fascinates me. I imagine a sculptor or painter having a pretty good mental image of what the end result will look like. Writing a song is different; it just happens. That's what I love about it, having that first idea, but not knowing what will come out in the end.

Do you have anything for us to listen to?

Lars

 

 

Edited by Lars68

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Yes, good to see you back in the forum, Avery.  Folks like you are an asset  to it.  I hope life allows you to return more often........Regarding melodies-----I don't know.  I just kind of try and find something that fits in the chord progression I'm fooling-around with and fits the mood of the song.  I'm pretty much 99% fingerpicker, so I do what Dan mentioned: I use notes off of the treble strings to enhance the melody I'm searching for.   I also use those notes for finding a melody..  Doesn't mean I'm a good or even adequate fingerpicker, but I do know how to use slides, hammer-ons, pull-off, and bends to build a melody.  Like you, I try to avoid letting the chord progression dictate my melody to the point of the melody sounding just like the progression.   It's easy to fall into a rut with chords if you alter your melody to match the primary sound of a full chord each time you change chords.  That's why I'll use single notes a lot.  They're in key and fit with the progression, but not in the  typical way.  The progression just gives me the general direction of the melody, but the notes in the chord progression can lead the melody on its own path and still be in-sync and in key.  Also, I often substitue a chords relative minor to give a different flavor........I used to fight with it, just as you are, but stop and think about how many songs are written with the same chord progressions and they all have different melodies.  Paperback Writers is 2 chords, but sounds very intricate.  Elenor Rigby is the same two chords and a very different melody.  Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgereld and I Walk the Line are very heavy on the I, IV, V chords, but have totally different melodies.  There are only so many different chord progressions, but within those progressions there are thousands-upon-thousands of different melodies............   I just try different things and go different directions.  Maybe I need to stay on a chord for another measure or half measure, or maybe I have to cut a measure short and go to another chord to get find a melody, or I may have to change the rhythm of a song as I try different melodies.  Some folks have it all down to a "science,"  For me, it's "trial and error."  ..........I;ve got songs that I started years ago and I've never finished them.  Love the lyrics I've written, but can't find where I  go from  that point....lol.....haven't even thought of a melody yet.   Someday, I'll be glancing at the lyrics again and the proverbial "light will come on" and I'll finish it all within a short time......and then I'll look for a melody....lol......Writing songs is a form of therapy for me and the older I get, the more therapy I need....lol...

Edited by MissouriPicker

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I play many popular songs backwards... You would be surprised how many unique melody lines are to be had when listening to music backwards.

As for lyrical content, you’re on your own with that one.

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If you can whistle the tune, it usually makes for a good melody that you can sing to/over as well. But other than that, just let your creativity speak, work in tandem with a piano if you can, and assemble the chords later. Of course, there are many ways to skin a horse, and you could go the other way as well, starting with the chords first.

If there'd be a formula, we'd all be rockstars now, I guess.

Edited by Leonard McCoy

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I'm not much of a melodic songwriter. James Taylor claims the very same thing. Not that I'm James Taylor, mind you. But for me, the words always come first because songs have to tell a story. You have to get the story down pat before putting it to music.

Once I get the story, I'll start playing around with melodies in whatever key best suits the story and my voice. It is a hit-and-miss process. I've come up with progressions that I've liked, only to decide a few days (or a couple of years) later that I can come up with something better. Once you have the melody, then you can go back and edit the lyrics for meter, meaning and what Pat Pattinson refers to as "prosody." (If you're the least bit interested in songwriting, or in improving your songwriting, go to YouTube and watch Pattison's videos or visit his website: https://www.patpattison.com/)

At the other end of the spectrum are guys like Al Stewart. I've read where he'll have a melody (and he is a great melodicist) and walk into the studio with two or three sets of lyrics for each melody. Each lyric will be different. Then he'll record  whichever one he feels works best. Given the quality of his songwriting, I'm guessing his "rejects" are better than 95 percent of what other people record.

It is a matter of finding your strength and going with it.

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I'm very quick to say that I agree with just about everything that's been written in this thread so far. The one book on song writing I've read(Hodge/Casey Songwriting for Idiots) reiterated over and over again something along the lines of, 'if it sounds right, it is right'. Doesn't get much more liberating that that.

So this happened to me yesterday. I've been practicing "Tangled Up in Blue" due to the KT Tunstal version that was posted here a couple weeks back. Something inspired a Dylan-esque set of lyrics for a song whose subject I had already written(poorly) and recorded(even more poorly) maybe 5 years ago. Only problem, is that this new song, as it stands, would be a total rip on Bob Dylan. I had his song's melody and rhythm going through my mind. New lyrics to "Tangled Up in Blue" rhythm and melody do not make for a new song.  I wrote it all down anyhow, and hope one day I will do enough noodling with chords, riffs and lead to come up with something that will fit without having to change the phrases in a manner that takes away the goodness. 

This was hours after finishing a first mix-down of an old school adolescent Rocker that I wrote after coming up with a basic riff during a noodling session. After getting a basic idea for the subject matter, I proceeded to write the song with the Traveling Wilbury's "She's My Baby" in mind as the type of sound. Vocally, I had a bit of irreverence and vocal styleings of Frank Zappa hit me. Alas, I was unable to pull that part off. This one, however, was not a rip . I was able to remove any rhythm and melody from my sound reference song. I think the only reason for that is because I started the song on the guitar instead of legal pad.  

And just like that, a new idea or approach to a song just hit me on a song I've been trying to write for years. When the muse visits me, it does so like a rambling, stumbling drunkard who sticks around for a few weeks before moving on.  

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This is a great topic! Excellent discussion. I’ve been writing for years and seldom liked the finished project. Last summer something just happened and I can’t get enough! Most of my songs show up during the early morning hours in some form - usually a few phrases and a piece of melody. Some develop in a few hours some never do. I wish there was a way to harness the technique but I cannot begin to figure it out. One of the songs I’ve written that I enjoy the most started as a little guitar riff but most are born of an interest or experience. I have no illusions about the quality of my material but it sure is enjoyable to see it develop. Even if I don’t think my stuff is that good - how many musicians do you know that even try to be creative? I suspect the majority  just cover everyone else’s material. I have several friends that are great musicians - definitely my superiors - but have never even attempted to write a song. When you think about it - it’s a pretty cool creative element. 
Just a few ramblin’ thoughts....

Looking forward to more of your thoughts on how it works! 

Stay safe! 

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