Lyrics & Melodies: Songwriting Tips for Non-Musicians

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Continuing our recent theme of songwriting, this week we’re going to touch on something that may seem a little out of the ordinary at first, but you may be surprised to learn that it’s actually quite common. The last two weeks have seen us talk about writing music with the aid of two different instruments; the piano and the guitar. Both these blog entries assume at least a little training with each musical instrument. You need to be able to read music (or at least tabs), and know chords, and a whole plethora of other musical ideas and concepts to be able to follow the tips those articles suggest. But what many people may not realize is, you don’t need to know a single thing about how to play an instrument or read music to be a songwriter.

Some songwriters are classically trained session musicians with an intricate understanding of musical notation and theory. Others simply never picked it up; they can’t tell the difference between a G and a C# on the page; wouldn’t be able to play a simple chord if their lives depended on it. Take Michael Jackson for example. Though the man was an obvious musical genius, he couldn’t read music, and while he dabbled in a few instruments (including piano, but mostly percussion), Michael couldn’t play any with anything resembling proficiency. However, I think we can all agree he was, and will go on to be, one of the most prolific songwriters of the modern age. There are more people out there in this group than you might think, and this week, it is them we are speaking to.

The inability to play an instrument certainly creates challenges for a songwriter, but it can also lead to some of the most inspired and inventive music available. Without the ability to play, it can be difficult for songwriters to clearly communicate their ideas to musicians and singers, so this week we’re going to make a few suggestions to make the overall songwriting experience a little easier, and a bit more productive for those out there who can’t play.

Melody

If you can’t play an instrument, it’s likely your songwriting process begins with lyrics. That’s fine, but lyrics without an accompanying melody is a poem, not a song. Make sure you have a melody. If you have a lyric written and can imagine a general rhythm or flow, you’re halfway there. If you can sing your lyrics with a melody already springing to mind, you’re already there. But if you find yourself struggling, there are a few options to help.

  • Karaoke Tracks – Buying or streaming karaoke tracks to write lyrics with can be a great place to start. Karaoke, as we all know, excludes the vocal track, so you can experiment with your own vocals with a style or genre you think will fit with your message. Just be sure to use this method for inspiration only. These tracks are copyrighted, so only use them as a jumping off point, and make your end result unique.
  • Web Sites – There are a number of wonderful web-based interactive tools for the aspiring songwriter. With sites like JamStudio.com or Ujam.com you can create song tracks for your lyrics, or make a track to write to. Whether it’s a guitar riff, a driving bass line, or a solid drum groove, you should be able to find the right sound and energy for the song you’re writing.
  • Software – There are many music apps (like Garageband for Mac and Xpress for PC) that have libraries of pre-recorded drum, guitar, and keyboard loops you can string together and use for inspiration.
  • Collaboration – Collaborating without someone more experienced with the musical side of songwriting is another option. Working with someone will help you improve in areas you’re not as skilled in as you learn from their process and experience.

Record a Rough Vocal/Melody Track

Once you’ve got your lyrics and melody figured out, the best way to communicate it is to simply sing it into a voice recorder. Regardless of whether you’re using your smartphone, computer, or something else, it’s a good idea to use a metronome. This is useful for a few reasons. The first is the most obvious: a metronome will help you stay on tempo. Secondly, when you eventually play this rough recording to your musician, the rhythm of the metronome will help them understand your phrasing and timing. It will be a big help to your eventual studio recording team.

Find a Musician

Now that you’ve got your melody, lyrics, and rough recording, it’s time to hire a musician. Who you hire will depend a lot on your goals. The specific musical instrument they play should reflect the tone and themes of your song. You also need to decide what level of collaboration you want from your musician. Some are willing to work with you to make your song a hit, but they will almost certainly require a co-writing credit. If that’s not the route you want, you can make sure they play only what you want, with no collaborative element at all.

However you choose your professional musician, the goal should remain the same at this stage: putting chords to your lyrics and melody. Regardless of the level of collaboration you’re comfortable with, you need to be directly involved in this step. More often than not, simply sitting with your musician and listening to your chord options will present the solution. The right chord can make all the difference when setting the tone and mood of your song. You’ll know it when you hear it. Be patient, this process may take a while, but is totally worth it!

Record a New Vocal Track Over Your Chords

You’re almost ready to bring your song to the session musicians and singer. This step is to record another rough vocal track over the progress you have made to this point. This fresh touch will help make sure everything is working well together, and will reveal any lyrical or melody problems that were less obvious before the chords were added. Remember, this vocal track doesn’t have to be great, it’s just another tool for your session musicians and singer to understand exactly how you want to tune to be performed. The more tools you give them, the easier it will be on everyone in the studio when it’s time to actually record a final product.

Let it Sit

Probably the hardest thing for any new songwriter to do it put the work down for a while, let it ferment a bit in the back of your mind, and come back to it later. This can be especially difficult if you feel like your song is done and can’t be improved anymore. Your instinct may be right, but leaving the project for a while might reveal small issuse later, or give inspiration time to work on parts your subconscious isn’t happy with. After a break, you may come back to find your work prefect, in no need of any improvements, but if there is even one small change to be made the wait was worth it. Remember, the more prep work you do before actually getting to the recording studio, the easier and more enjoyable the process will be for everyone involved in the end.

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