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Music Composition 101 - How to Work with Lyrics

Words help elevate a song. Learn how to use them to your advantage.

Everyone loves singing along to their favorite song and screaming the words out at the top of their lungs. However, it can be challenging to work with lyrics. Regardless of genre, if you are writing music, you will inevitably have to deal with words. This can be challenging for some composers, so here is a list of things to do to maximize your lyrics' potential and help you craft your piece.

Select the right text

First of all, before you begin writing with lyrics, you have to have the words selected. Many songwriters will scribe their own words, but in classical music, poetry or other external works are often used. If that is the case, you will need to select lyrics that you will be comfortable setting to music. Poetry especially has a built in cadence, so finding one that is lyrical in its writing will help you out. However, one that is free verse or prose will present a challenge that may be fun to attempt.

There are lots of resources for public domain or royalty-free words that you can use. If you choose to use poetry or writing that is copyright protected, be sure to obtain permission before writing your piece. The last thing you want is to work for months on something and the day before it's premiere find out that you are not allowed to perform it.

You are always free to write your own lyrics as well. This gives you the most creative freedom and you can always tweak the words along the way if you need to. However, this is sometimes difficult and requires its own set of skills, so I won't go into the specifics of lyric writing in this article.

Use correct lyrical syllabic emphasis

If there is anything that grinds my gears, it is lyrics that do not fit the musical line. The industry is chock-full of these examples. To me, it is a sign of lazy writing. Generally, in "pop" genres the music is about scalability and repetitiveness, so they will try and squeeze things into a song that really don't fit. However, this can occur in any genre of music. When you are writing on your own, you are free to be as creative as necessary to make things work.

The easiest way to achieve this is to speak through the text first. Where do the emphases lie in the line? Once you determine that, make sure that your melody peaks at that particular point. Sometimes just a simple tweak in note duration or pitch can solve an emphasis problem and make your piece sound 10x better.

Let's take the line below:

Roses are red, violets are blue

It's Valentine's Day, and I love you

Most people would say the line like this:

RO-ses are RED, VI-olets are BLUE

It's VAL-entine's DAY, and I love YOU

However, if we were actually to speak this in conversation, it would sound like this:

RO-ses are red, VI-olets are blue,

It's VAL-entine's day, and I LOVE you.

Using this, you can craft a melody that hits on the correct beats.

Many people would be tempted to write a rhythmic line that hits the word "Day" and "You" on the beat because that's how the beat of the poem works. However, that's not how you would say it and that would translate as being very corny sounding in the music. So, take the time to make the small adjustment and remove that emphasis, and it will make your piece sound more professional.

*A blatant example of this is Katy Perry's song "Unconditionally." If you were saying that word it would be pronounced uncon-DI-tionally. However, the way the song is written it is sung

un-CON-dit-TION-al-LY (and then later uncondi-TION-AL-ly). We would never say it like this, so why write it?

Use text painting

The idea behind text painting is that you have the music reflect directly what is happening in the words. For example, if the line refers to something rising or jumping, your music can either be getting louder or higher. Not only does this elevate your piece and make it more exciting, it will also help to better illustrate what the words are trying to convey, and help tell the story.

Text painting can be used on the macro level when writing the piece as a whole. If the lyrics or mood of the song is sad, or angry, you'd probably want to stay away from certain "happy" sounding chords and melodies.

A quick example would be Tal Bachman's "She's so High." Notice how every time he says the word "high" the melody literally jumps up above the range he was just singing in.

I use this technique a lot in my music. You can hear examples of it during the beginning of The Eternal Calm. Listen to the music as it sets the scene of an army singing a durge as they transition into battle. Perhaps the mist is clearing in the early morning and the army slowly comes into focus at the top of a hill? Can you also hear the "charging trumpets blow?"

Think about singability

Language is full of vowels and consonants and it is easy to get tongue - twisted when singing a line. Try to keep that in mind as you construct your melodies and pieces.

For instance, a bunch of consonants in a row will be hard to articulate effectively, especially at faster tempos. Whereas vowels are easy for singing loud and long, so try to have your climaxes hit on a vowel sound. This is often done naturally by singers, and anyone who has spent any time in a choir will know that you NEVER hold out the consonant sounds. Always straight to the vowel! However, it is important that you write a line that accommodates this natural tendency.

Even within that world, there are certain vowels that are easier to sing at different ranges. For me personally, "Ooh" is much harder to sing up high than an "Eee" sound. So, if I was writing a line I might want my high note to hit on the word "me" instead of "you."

Conversely, consonants are generally used as bridges between the vowels. You often hit them and get out of the way and their main job is to form the missing pieces of the words to create the language. Think of a train. The vowels are the train cars where you want to spend most of your time, but the hitches are the consonants. Very important in keeping the whole thing together, but you don't want to linger on them.

Some consonants are an especially great percussive tool and can be used for that purpose. K,P,S,T, and D are a few examples. Starting a big powerful phrase with one of these sounds will give you a strong sound. Or they can be used to evoke a particular instrument or soundscape.

Take this piece Doluri by Alexi Matchavariani arranged for choir. Hear all the percussive D sounds? What instrument do you think this is emulating?

So the general rule of thumb is:

Vowels = high and long notes, easy to sing melodies on

Consonants = short and percussive, used to convey words and language

Both can be used to create a plethora of desired sounds, but this is a good starting point.

In general, I am a believer that the text should lead the piece. In other words, all musical decisions should be made around what is best to serve the text.

By now, you have a basic understanding of the elements needed to compose music. You should be on your way towards writing your own piece. If you need more information, or want to revisit other writing tips, be sure to check out more of my Music Composition 101 articles.

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