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Remember back in December 2010, Paul McCartney and Jimmy Fallon singing “Scrambled Eggs,” McCartney’s purported original lyrics to The Beatles’ hit, “Yesterday”? I was watching the video again today because I had been preparing to write this article about how lyrics affect the shape of a melody. According to the story, McCartney had a great melody in mind, but didn’t have a useable lyric yet, so he substituted a funny tale about scrambled eggs, and his love for a woman. If that’s all true, it’s a good example of a song where melodic shape actually preceded the lyric.
In McCartney’s case, I believe the melody was, in the truest sense possible, born of an inspiration. The languishing contours of that melody eventually guided the evolution of the lyric we know and love today.
My guess is that most songwriters find the opposite to be true. While some might derive entire melodies before even knowing what the lyric will be, most writers start with only bits melodic shapes and ideas, to which they add words.
In effect, you’ll find melody, harmony (chord choice) and lyric all get worked simultaneously. And you’ll also find that the lyrics you set can and should affect the shape of a melody.
It would be interesting to know how much the melody of “Yesterday” changed and evolved as McCartney worked on that famous lyric. I would not be surprised to know that some melodic changes occurred.
As you work out your song’s melody, you will find that the kinds of things you write about, especially the emotional impact of words, will tend to influence the shape of that melody. Here are some things you should keep in mind as you work:
Lyrics that describe determination, dedication, and forthrightness will have greater impact if you:
- use many repeating notes;
- start on a strong beat
- pitch the melody at the outer reaches of the singer’s voice (high or low).
Lyrics that describe love, tenderness, compassion will have greater impact if you:
- use a distinctive melodic motif (often a leap) (i.e., a particular interval that recurs);
- pitch the melody centrally in a singer’s range, with higher notes reserved for more emotional moments.
Lyrics that tell a story will have greater impact if you:
- use mainly stepwise motion, with leaps at more emotional moments.
- pitch the melody centrally in a singer’s range.
It’s entirely possible to start with a completed melody to which you’ll add words, as McCartney did, but you’ll probably find that lyrics, melody and harmonies all get worked out at the same time.
So don’t fall in love with your melody so much that you can’t bring yourself to modify it as you add lyrics. It’s the lyrics that convey the message to your audience, and the melody needs to support that message.
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