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Thread: how to write vocal melodies?

  1. #1
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    how to write vocal melodies?

    Hey. I was just wondering if any songwriters could give me advice on writing vocal melodies for songs. Guitar is my main instrument and lately I've been moving away from playing metal/prog stuff and seeing how I can do with more basic songwriting. But I'm having an unbelievable amount of difficulty coming up with good vocal melodies. How do you guys do it?

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    There's a few ways I'll use to come up with a melody vocally.

    One, just humming to myself aloud in the car or something randomly. it doesn't have to be words, just sounds are enough to get you heading in the right direction...da di da, di da, di da da di...something along those lines at any rate.

    Another way is to come up with a melody on guitar. Then once you have the basic layout you just have to choose words that fit the melody. I've only really done this on one song, but I really like the results. Plus when you write it out as a guitar melody first you'll also have your general mood figured out too which is nice.

    Another really good way is to modify the melody of existing songs. I think John Lennon said something along the lines of find a song you like, then first change the words, then the melody, then the rhythm. If i recall correctly dylan also started in this way with woodie guthrie songs.

    If you already have lyrics written out I think saying them aloud helps a lot too because you'll get an idea of how they'll mesh together and you'll know whether you have to change some words around to get the right effect. Hope this helps.

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    Hey!
    I usually just sing over the chord progression, riffs etc.
    I find the process of developing a good vocal melody one of the most exciting, at the same time one of the most difficult parts of the songwriting.
    One tip: You could record a vamp where you play what you are gonna sing over, and record different melodies over it.
    Btw, I personally think the text should be written before the melody, and when the melody is established, you can change the text so that it fits better. Just my point of view on it
    good luck!

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    I still have a hard time coming up with something original. Melodies that come forward are bits and pieces of old standards. That said, I do agree that the lyrics come first. That sets the tone and the story gives some idea of the rhythm needed. The chord progression is just a basic something in D as that is what I sing in. I play backup acoustic so the chord progression is a given for me. I understand others start with the progression, and others start with the melody. I guess it really does not matter which comes first as long as you get them all. Melody is my hard part.

    Excuse the ramble --- having the lyrics and the story down first is where I start -- for what ever that is worth.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 03-28-2006 at 02:56 PM.

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    ...

    thanks for the advice. The thing Lennon did is mostly what I've been trying lately, but I guess I've been afraid of plagiarizing? I suppose if you change it enough, not many people can notice. And I've always thought the best way was to write the vocal melody first and then write the lyrics to it so that you have a framework. But I'll try it the other way around. Great advice though.

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    Lyrics, melody...I've heard many choose one over the other.

    Singing what you play can help. Say, get a jam loop going, pick a scale (don't forget to sing your scales in practice), play a melody (uh, no speed picking!) then try to sing it.

    Sometimes I'll take a simple rhythm, one measure. Play any notes in a scale with ONLY that rhythm. It'll be annoying at times, but you'll stumble upon something worth whistling.

    Think of the notation to Jimi's "Purple Haze". Crazy rhythms defining his solo, but the opening riff? Totally simple rhythm. And that's what we play air guitar to.
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    Quote Originally Posted by iROBot99 View Post
    Hey. I was just wondering if any songwriters could give me advice on writing vocal melodies for songs. Guitar is my main instrument and lately I've been moving away from playing metal/prog stuff and seeing how I can do with more basic songwriting. But I'm having an unbelievable amount of difficulty coming up with good vocal melodies. How do you guys do it?
    I think a good melody should follow the rythmn of the way the lyrics are spoken in natural speech. The cadence of the language generates its own rise and fall and rhythmn. I recently saw an opera using everyday language to create the tunes. It was entirely built around the rythmns of street speech with phrases like 'know what ah mean' generating complete tunes and harmonies.

  8. #8
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by iROBot99 View Post
    thanks for the advice. The thing Lennon did is mostly what I've been trying lately, but I guess I've been afraid of plagiarizing? I suppose if you change it enough, not many people can notice.
    Exactly. Ideally, no one will notice - not even whoever wrote the original!

    The thing is, there's no such thing as total originality. If there was, it would be unlistenable. All inspiration comes from stuff we've heard before, it just gets all mixed up in our brains and comes out in new combinations. This method is just being a bit more conscious about it.

    But you do have to have a clear idea of the direction you want to go in. It's like you hear a song you like, but it doesn't quite go where you think it should. So you kind of grab the wheel and take it where you want to go.

    Bob Dylan - as StreetWorm says - was a sponge when it came to other people's material. But he made it his own. Eg, Girl of the North Country is based on Scarborough Fair - and you can tell when you know it, but I knew both songs for years before spotting the resemblance. Someone had to point it out to me, even thought the lines "Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine" survive intact. (Dylan's angle is nostalgic and romantic; the old folk song is actually sardonic and dismissive - basically he'll marry the girl when hell freezes over...) And of course "Scarborough Fair" became "North country fair".
    Dylan got the tune from English folk singer Martin Carthy (on a visit to the UK in 1962), from whom he also "borrowed" the fingerstyle guitar. (Compare it with Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" - Simon was also influenced by Carthy's guitar playing.)
    Dylan also took the old English folk song Nottamun Town from Carthy and turned it into Masters of War - same melody, completely different theme and lyrics.
    The point, of course, is Dylan had a strong enough personal take on the tunes to stamp his authority on them. (In addition, folk songs are out of copyright! Fair game...)

    The greatest songwriters in pop - and Dylan and the Beatles would be among those, right? - are great because they drew from a wide variety of influences. They absorbed everything, without prejudice. They seem to sound totally original, unlike anyone else - until you learn all their influences. They you can see that they are just an amalgam of everything they listened to.
    Eg, if you get a pot (a real big one...), throw in Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Smokey Robinson, Arthur Alexander, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Lonnie Donegan, Roy Orbison, a pinch of vaudeville, a handful of show tunes... stir it all up... what would come out would be the Beatles (Lennon and McCartney anyhow). It would be inevitable.

    For Dylan, you'd need Woody Guthrie (naturally). But also Little Richard, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Dave Van Ronk, Leadbelly, Elvis Presley, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Mississippi John Hurt, Cisco Houston, Blind Willie Johnson.... the list is almost endless. But it's all there in his music. And there's nothing in his music there apart from what he's heard. All those influences - given a sensitive intelligence and some self-belief - can't fail to produce "Bob Dylan". (The lyrics are another matter of course, but he also read hungrily, and his love of Verlaine and Rimbaud is well-known.)

    So - in a sense - the best thing you can do is just listen voraciously to music all the time. Collect it the way a bird collects twigs for its nest. (And read poetry to inspire your lyrics.)

    Quote Originally Posted by iROBot99 View Post
    And I've always thought the best way was to write the vocal melody first and then write the lyrics to it so that you have a framework.
    It can work either way. The classic tin pan alley two-person collaborations generally involved a lyricist writing the words first; then someone else would set them to music. That's still the way Elton John and Bernie Taupin work. The tasks are totally separate; a lyricist would never normally suggest a tune, and the composer would not normally make any changes to the lyrics.

    Today a lot of rock bands work the other way. UK band the Smiths worked with music first (guitarist Johnny Marr's chord sequences and riffs), and then singer Morrissey would work out lyrics and melody to fit, by improvising stuff over the backing. AFAIK, REM work that way too.

    Jagger and Richard mostly worked that way too. Keith Richard would come up with a riff and a chord sequence, and sometimes a phrase or two - and Jagger would do the rest.

    Lennon and McCartney were different in that they mostly each wrote their own songs. But commonly the other would suggest a middle 8. Ie, they'd each write melody and lyrics for different sections of a song. (It wasn't always as demarcated as that of course, it would often overlap.)
    In the early days, songs would be more like genuine collaborations, but the separated a little more towards the end. But right from the early days you can often tell which songs are John's and which are Paul's.

    Of course it was Lennon and McCartney who broke the mould of the old tin pan alley system, where professional songwriters would supply songs for singers. It was very rare before then for a performer to write their own material (one or two did).

    There's one famous story of "melody first, lyrics later" about McCartney. The tune of "Yesterday" came to him in a dream - he woke up with it in his head - but he had no words. He had to make up nonsense phrases to start with (that fitted the rhythm), until some good words occurred to him.
    I think a lot of pop/rock songwriters work that way. Naturally, as musicians rather than poets or authors, it's tunes or chords that will come most easily, in the natural course of fooling around on the instrument. Getting words to fit - which also make enough sense, and feel good to sing - can be harder.

    After all, some people are naturally good with words, others with music. Pretty obviously, singers are going to find it easier to come up with words or melodies, because that's their trade. Someone who mostly just plays guitar is going to find that harder simply because they're not dealing in words and tunes from day to day, they just strum chords or play riffs.

    The key to lyrics is having an idea first. Something for the song to be about, even if it's something vague.
    Or you can have just one phrase, a group of words that sounds musical in some way, maybe comes with its own (vague) tune). I agree with coxford, good songs have words whose rhythms flow from natural speech rhythms. Verbal phrases naturally have their own patterns of accent, of long and short sounds. If you get a phrase you think could be the kernel of a song, exaggerate and simplify its natural rhythm so it fits a musical beat. Then look for a melodic shape that feels natural. IOW, the rhythm comes first. (The rhythm of a song without the notes is more recognisable than the notes without the rhythm.)
    Once that phrase has become singable, then you can develop it from there: find what chord or chords fit it. Think about what a second phrase could be (maybe same rhythm and tune as the first, ending in a rhyme).
    In my experience, it always works best if you take a back seat and let the song write itself, as it were. Generally, after you've sung one phrase - and maybe repeated the tune - you get a feel for what ought to happen next: maybe it goes up in pitch, or down; maybe it repeats again, with a little variation. You hum, and maybe strum, thinking about the words you've got and what they suggest. But really try not to think about the chords theoretically. Hum first, feel where the tune wants to go, and then see what note or chord that is. It's like baiting a hook to catch a fish. You don't stomp into the river with a net; you wait patiently. Too much conscious effort can make inspiration evaporate: you can easily overthink it.
    If you dry up, go off and do something else for a while.
    Last edited by JonR; 09-13-2011 at 10:21 PM.

  9. #9
    Registered User Color of Music's Avatar
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    I wrote this in another thread, but I would say figure out the harmonic progression and then extract the melody from that because harmony is melodic.

    I posted two versions of Mary Had A Little Lamb (actually one) as chord progressions to make a point about implied melody (bits of melody heard within the harmony)

    The first was "bare bones" while the second was more colorful (using prolongation and other techniques.) Nevertheless, it is still the same song.

    If you can grasp the concept of voice-leading and how it functions within harmony, then extracting melody from harmony may become clearer to you.
    Last edited by Color of Music; 07-14-2012 at 01:04 AM.

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    I usually listen to the melodies of my favorite songs and change them up a bit.

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    Great tips in this thread. Thanks everyone!

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    I like this thread because I've learned so many things from people who love music dearly. I really love to sing and play some instruments,however, I am not that good in composing a song. I think a song writer really compose a song because of their gracious ideas.

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