If your songs start with words first, here are some basic ways to approach writing melodies to those words.
- First analyze the lines from more mechanical point of view:
- Where are the strong words/syllables?
- Which syllables are long/short?
- Next, figure out what kind of feeling you want to convey in the stanza
- If you have chord progression for the section, figure out the possible first notes — start with the notes that make up the first chord.
- Start singing the lines along with the chords, if you have them. If not, just sing the lines, figure out the chords later!
In the video, I demonstrate this by using this poem:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sugar is sweet
So are you
To build your melodic writing foundation, I would start out by honoring the natural rhythm of the words. The above stanza doesn’t feature too complicated a word, but do pay attention to where the strong syllables are. “Violets” is VIO-lets, not vio-LETS. Similarly, the strong syllable of the word “sugar” is the first one, though that syllable is also short, so don’t assign it to a long note.
As you can see, words do suggest a lot on their own what kind of melody they want to be paired up with. Paying attention the natural up/down and rhythm built into the language is a great starting point for melodic writing to lyrics.
Now, as with any songwriting rules, you can break it — but do so knowing the consequences. The Cranberries’ rocking anthem “Hollywood” completely ignores the way that word is normally pronounced, and the result is jarring and tension-filled. (Approx. 1:27 in the video below)
This is not Hollywood
Like I understood
It’s not Hollywood
Aye, aye, aye
Such word-to-melody pairing can disorient listeners (“what did she just say?”) because it’s harder to decipher the lyrics this way, but even after the confusion is cleared up there’s no denying this melody feels unnatural and uncomfortable. But, that tension in this case does serve this angsty rock anthem.
So my recommendation here is to start out by honoring the built-in rhythm and emphasis of the language, but not militantly. Deviate if you must, just know that an obvious/blatant ignoring/mispronouncing does create a tension, so make sure that serves the effect you’re going for in your song.