More often than not, songs seem to come together as a gradual and simultaneous creation of lyric and melody. Maybe a snippet of melody has been running around in your head with a bit of lyric attached. Or maybe you’ve got a title or hook idea that has a bit of melody to go with it and the song grows organically from there. There are other times, however, when the division of labor is much more clearly defined. Maybe your collaborator is gifted melody writer and presents you with an entire song structure with the melody hummed or sung but no lyric. This can be a fun and ultimately rewarding way to work but it helps to have a bit of a plan before starting out. Below are a few tips on how to write a lyric to a finished melody.
Upon repeated listens, a melody will often convey an emotional tone. In the figurative sense, this means the melody is communicating the kind of story it wants you to tell. But in a much more literal way, melodies sometimes sound like specific words. Listen to the melody and ask yourself what it sounds like the words should be over a particular phrase. It can help to go to the point in the melody that feels like the hook and start there with your lyric as that way you’ll have a general conceptual direction for the rest of the song.
Melodies – with their peaks and valleys – have their own set of emotional dynamics. The key is to line up important words with important melodic moments. Try to avoid, for example, putting the word “but” on a long, held high note. The word “you,” for example, would work much better given that long vowel sounds are easier to sing and “you” refers to the person to whom you’re singing. Thinking this way will make sure that the melody serves the lyric and vice versa. In the best songs, both the melody and the lyric carry their weight and support one another.
For the record, it’s not enough just to fit words into an existing melody. The words have to sound good and fall naturally on the listeners ears. First and foremost, a lyric shouldn’t distract the listener with an awkward pronunciation. If you do choose to emphasize an atypical syllable in a word, just know that you’ve bringing additional attention to that word. Rules are made to be broken but break them on purpose.
Although you should make your best effort to write a lyric that matches the existing melody, there can – and should – be some give and take. What I mean is that if a slight melodic tweak would help make the most appropriate word fit more naturally, check with your collaborator. Often these small melodic tweaks are the difference between a good and a great lyric and melody pairing.
Songs can be written many different ways. The key is to approach each style of songwriting with a plan. As a lyricist, if you’re presented with a completed melody, hopefully the above tips will serve as a good jumping off point.