Benjos Guide to Songwriting – VOL II

Last week, the article I posted was an introductory guide to songwriting, based on my experiences, as well as a guideline for choosing a theme to a particular piece of music. We broke the process of writing a song, into four separate pieces. This is not to say that this is the only method for writing a song, in fact, I would argue that there is an infinite plethora of methods one could use in approach to creating a musical work. However, for the sake of creating a “follow-along, step-by-step guide, today, we will be addressing the second of four steps to writing a song: Creating a melody.

Episode 2

Creating a Melody

Having successfully chosen a theme after the first article, this article comes as a loose guide; more of a push in the right direction really, to crating the melody of a song. While the lyrics and message of a song are what tend to give it an ability to be listened to forever without waning interest, it is the melody that creates the initial “hook” that appeals to a listener.  The hook of a song can be developed in two different ways in a contemporary setting – through the singer, or through the instrumentation.  For the rest of this article, think of the “hook” as the catchiest part of a song, or the recurring “motif” that brings the listener back to a familiar, yet catchy, melodic base.

Many songs start from a melody in an artists head – so in that case, the first decision is whether the song will create that melody using the instruments, or the vocals.  If you are a strong singer, or vocally creative, employing the voice to create the main hook can be intensely arresting. Think Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love”, Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect”or anything by Christina Aguilera. On the flip side, we have artists that use instrumentation to create the hook of a song; think Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, where the song is lodged in the listener’s mind for years after one listen, but the vocal part doesn’t move more than a few notes. Mark Knopfler’s “Money for Nothing” is an example again, where the vocals are so trivial in comparison to the strength of the guitar riff, that one could remove the vocals and still be mesmerized by the piece.

Each of these artists has songs that will last for generations, and each for different reasons. All this successfully displays is that there isn’t one way that works better than another, just different ways to appeal to an audience and display the mood of a piece, previously decided.

While it is relatively easy to choose if you want the hook of a song to be deployed through vocals or instrumentation, the more difficult task lies in the creation of the “tune” or “Motif”. First, we must look at the decision we made in theme during the first part of the exercise. If we have chosen something positive, creating a somber tune seems counter-intuitive to the creation of the tune, as would it be in the opposite standing.

When I was studying through a program hosted by Berklee School of Music following high-school, an exercise was done where the entire auditorium was asked to hum the same note. The instructions were simple – don’t force the melody, but if it feels like it needs to move, allow it. The host then slowly changed the chord structure, and amazingly, the entire audience created a melody together, without any prior communication.

I use this technique often – starting with a theme of a song, I choose 3, 4 , or 6 chords to use as a stencil for the piece, also known as a progression, and hum the one starting note, or “root” of the “key”, and without thinking of anything other than the chord progression, let the humming follow the progression. After 2 or 3 rounds around, you will be surprised to find that a melody has developed. Many song-writers will try to over complicate a melody, with the same intention we covered in themes – trying to one-up other song writers and create something new and bigger than previous writers. From personal experience, often-times the simpler a melody, the more appealing it is. Don’t believe me? “Call Me Maybe”, the biggest pop-song of that year, is so simple it could have been a nursery rhyme.

Shawn Meehan, one of the most influential writer’s I have written with, often challenges me to write a nursery rhyme. By his logic, these simple hum-along’s are the most difficult piece of music to write. You have an impossibly short piece of composition, to captivate an audience and have it remain in their head. This is the challenge of writing a melody – not only do you need to create a nursery rhyme, but you need to stretch it over the entirety of a piece, tying it in to the theme, by the use of the next topic we will be covering: lyrics.

Once again, there is no right or wrong way to create melody. For some writers, the idea just jumps into their head and falls on to the page later. For others, it needs to be written out in notation, or played on the strings of a guitar for it to come to light. The idea of a melody is to emit the emotion of the writer through the music of the song. Regardless of how it comes to being, the melody is one the most fundamental part of a song, so spend as much time as needed in this part; try different things, re-write, record, re-listen, and finally attach lyrics.

On how to write lyrics, check in next week for an article from yours truly.