This one idea changed the way I write lyrics and melodies forever. No joke.
I first heard of this idea when reading “Writing Better Lyrics”, by Pat Pattison. He is a renown songwriting professor at Berklee College of Music. I never had the pleasure of taking his class while I attended, but his book alone changed my songwriting. He would often talk about the need to “preserve the natural shape of the language”. This idea has captivated me since I first heard of it.
The idea is that language has a natural melody and meter to it. We may not realize it right away, but the way we speak affects our communication as much as the words we speak. When we speak to one another, our brain takes a lot of shortcuts. And most of the time, this is helpful. If we were to break down every single word someone tells us, it would take forever. Not to mention, the inflection and emphasis we put on certain words can change their meaning.
People say that only about 10% of communication comes from the words themselves. Have you ever sent a text message that you meant to sound one way, but to the receiver, meant something different? In your head, it sounded the way you may have spoken it, but they didn’t have that context for interpretation.
Side Note: This is why I don’t recommend having any sort of serious conversation via text messaging. My rule is, people will interpret text messages based on the way they are currently feeling. It won’t matter what you meant, only how they interpret it. This can often lead to a negative misinterpretation and turns into a mess. I say this to emphasize how important communication is beyond the words themselves.
Let’s move this idea into the context of songwriting. Music is communication in context. The context is the music and the lyrics are the message itself. In a movie, for example, the music may get creepy when a character walks into a certain room. This musical context change lets you know something bad is likely to happen. In a song with lyrics, you can use these musical tools to emphasize the meaning of your lyrics. You can also use the melody and rhythm of your vocals to give further context to your message.
When we speak, we emphasize certain words over others. This mix of strong and weak emphasis adds meaning to what we’re saying and makes it easier to understand. Spoken communication has a natural melody to it. We may stretch out a word to exaggerate its meaning. For example, “Wow this line is loooonng.” vs “Wow, this line is long.” Based on these two sentences, which line do you think is longer?
We can use these tools and ideas to add meaning to our music and lyrics. If we fail to follow the shape of the language, it will hurt our communication. If your vocal melody is way off from how you’d speak, there’s a good change people won’t understand the lyrics at all.
You would never say “I’m going TO THE park TOday.” You would say “I’m GOING to the PARK today.” The first way not only sounds weird, it makes it hard to understand. Emphasizing TO THE makes it sound like an action you are going to do. In reality, “going” is the action, but making it weak means the listener is expecting something else.
Emphasis makes us tune in to the most important words, and helps us understand what is being said. This is critical when a person is speaking fast or for a long time. Most of this happens on a subconscious level, but once you start to recognize it, you can use it to your advantage.
Although this manner of speaking and hearing comes naturally to most people. It is not always so natural in songwriting. Even in major pop hits, you still come across unnatural emphasis on words or syllables.
One of my favorite examples is the song “Unconditionally” by Katy Perry. The standard empshasis of the word is something like “UN-con-DITION-ally”. But in her song, Katy sings it as “un-CON-di-TION-ally”. Singing it this way fits the melody, but forcing the word to fit by changing its emphasis makes it sound weird.
I’m not saying she did anything wrong, per se. But I can’t help but wonder if that song would have done better if she had kept the natural shape of the word. It was harder for me to enjoy the song because it would throw me off every time I heard that weird pronunciation.
I do believe that melody should be king in most situations. First of all, people seem to remember melodies more than lyrics. A simple melody with bad lyrics or no lyrics at all can still stick with people for decades. But lyrics, it seems, need to be especially profound to be memorable apart from their melody.
Beyond that, there are tons and tons of words available to write lyrics with, but only 12 notes for melodies. This is in English-speaking, Western music, at least. Doesn’t it seem easier to write a great melody and find the words that fit, rather than forcing a melody from lyrics? For this reason, I always try to start by seeing if I can change the lyrics to find words that fit my melody.
In music, “rules” are more like guidelines and there are always exceptions. If you are very commited to your lyrics, or you don’t care for your melody anyway, try changing it up. A great way to give yourself an idea or starting point is to speak the lyrics over the music. Pay close attention to the meter of your speech and which words you naturally emphasize. If you can record this practice, that would be best. Take note of any words or phrases that feel awkward and try to adjust your speech to make it flow better.
Once you’re happy with the way your lyrics sound spoken, you can begin to extract a melody from your speech. Pitch and rhythm are your main tools for emphasis. Higher notes stand out more as well as punctuated or elongated notes. If you’re holding out a big, high note, you probably want it to be on an important word.
In 4/4 time signature, the rhythm often has a natural strong/weak/strong/weak pattern built in that can help. If you overdo it, it might sound a little stiff though. Remember, musical concepts/theories are “tools not rules”. It’s all about being natural, so don’t force it.
If you found this helpful or have any questions, feel free to comment or reach out. I’d be happy to give you some personal tips or advice to help with your individual songwriting. If you have lyrics you’d like to put to music or you need to find the words to suit your melody, All Things Music is here to help! Thanks for reading and please share this article if you think it will help others.