Writing a song can be approached from many different perspectives. Sometimes the assignment involves writing the melody after the lyrics have already been established. The tune must support the words, not the other way around. While this may appear limiting initially, a little extra work to simplify our task can be just what is needed.
When the lyrics can’t change, the focus must be on how the melody can support them. Consider your audience. Will the end result be sung as a solo or by a group? For groups, keep in mind varying levels of musical literacy and skill in tracking with the melody. By this I mean, the simpler the better. Of course should it be a solo performance, should you consider the artist may adlib? Does the melody resolve easily to notes nearby as part of the chord?
The best songs always synchronize the lyrics and the rhythm of the words. When the words can’t be changed, this can seem constraining. However, do this. Talk through the words. What is happening as you read them out loud naturally? Can you hear the meter coming through? Are there natural rises and falls to the sound of the words? If so, this makes your job a little easier because it may be possible to fit your tune to match what the words are doing. Count syllables. Sometimes you will find the lines match. If so, even better for the sake of a tune because repetition makes it easier to remember.
The blending of the two
Here’s where it all comes together. Experiment with major and minor keys to try different emotional viewpoints of the harmony against the melody. Chords make a difference here. Try major, then the relative minor. What supports the lyric better? Don’t forget cadence too. I – IV – V is popular. But what if you tried iv after the I chord? Or the ii before the V? These are all possibilities to make the words resolve just like the melody does.
Finally, step away and come back. Give your brain and your ears a rest. To write a melody when the lyric can’t be changed can be difficult. But the way to do it is to break the work into small pieces. Complete each one till you have a song. Sing it. Are you surprised? Does it feel constrained of did you find a way to make it work?
I’d love to hear from you. Was this helpful? What ways have you found to write a song when the lyrics can’t be changed?