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Composing vocal lines

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Black Bones Iron

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After all, we vocalists should be able to write vocal lines in our genre.

People who have any knowledge in this field, please tell us everything you know about this.

My specific question is what follows, however any other information is welcome:

If I want to write a song e.g. in a folk Johnny Cash acoustic singer/songwriter style, how should I "mount" my lyrics on what I'm playing on the guitar. I don't know, it may be a long story, so if you can advise any books or reference material, please do.


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This is a big subject. It crosses over to "songwriting". Specifically melodic construction over chordal harmony. And then lyrics on top of that. Lyrics can play a big role in melodies.

People approach this from different angles. Lyrics first? Or Melody first? Or chords first, then melody, then lyrics? Or a combination of all three together? There are no rules.

This is one way to approach it: develop the chords / verse and chorus / on guitar to where you've got something that sounds right. Right number of bars, good use of dominant, sub-dominant and tonic chords that creates good tension and release, etc. Now play around with melodies by singing nonsense words with the chords. Once you have a good melody you can fill in the blanks with lyrics. I've used this approach many times and it works.

Obviously there is a ton more to songwriting than that.

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I've read a number of books on songwriting. I have written a few songs.

You can write for whatever genre appeals to you. I have a high, clean voice. And I can write a heavy metal song and have done so. What made it heavy metal? The arrangement of instrumentation and the lyrics. Lack of heavy rasp had nothing to do with it.

And here are some of the rules that I follow. Simple melodies and clear lyrics that get to the point. Not many people really have the patience or desire to listen to Tolstoy's "War and Peace." And they are not that interested in your private jokes. A well-written song grabs the listener. And is NOT expository. The lyrics lead the listener to the conclusion.

Also, good songs are not vocal melodies all the way through, start to finish. Give the other instruments in the band a chance. The voice is another instrument, not the only instrument. And that can be hard for us singers to remember. We are just as self-centered as the lead guitarist. The simpler the lyrics and melody, the more listeners are likely to remember them and sing along with them. Mick Jagger is not the best singer. In fact, just about anyone can sing his lyrics. And that's the point. Not that one needs to match their voice to his. Just the same, believe it or not, it's not about the singer, it's about the song.

It's alright to put some acrobatic notes in a song. As long as they serve the song. But showing off to show off can detract from that. I have been guilty of that. Did some stuff that was neat but just didn't fit the song and had to get rid of it.

Some songs I have written did not start out with the chorus but with a viewpoint. A message, as it were. Some songs wrote themselves in about 10 minutes. Others, not so fast. It can be work, like any job.

And not one method will work every time. Sometimes, you hear a chord progression and that leads you to a song. Other times, you think of a vocal melody and have to figure out which chords fit that.

Even worse, you will think of bits and pieces that don't go anywhere but save those, as you might scotch tape them together, elsewhere, elsewhen.

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I have a tip here that is pretty valuable. It doesn't do much for melody writing, but I have this application called Masterwriter that helps you write lyrics that is just awesome. Check it out.


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I find a knowledge of theory important for songwriting. I'm no expert on actually composing but my theory is fairly good. Make sure the notes that land on the first and third beat of the phrase (presuming it's in a 4/4 time signature) actually go with the chord harmony. E.g say the first chord is C which is made up of the notes C E and G. Make sure that on the 1st and 3rd beat of the bar the melody is a C E or a G. Say for example you were singing an F# over a C chord, this wouldn't sound pleasing to the ear. Of course if it's a 7 or 9 chord you can use the 7 or 9. The notes in between the 1st and 3rd beat can be anything really, especially if your just 'passing' on the note and not holding it. This may all come naturally to your ear but knowing the theory helps to work out what is working and what isn't. If that doesn't make sense, let me know!

Also, improvise, improvise, improvise over the same chord sequence until you come up with something that you like. Look into the circle of 5ths. This will help with your chord progressions

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I have a few suggestions in addition to what has already been said:

1. Tap out melodies in rhythm only of numerous genres with one hand, while keeping the beat with another. You'll find that 'timing' is actually as important as the notes themselves. Likewise try reading random lines, and making beats.

2. Write out words. And hear the melody in your head rather than sing it. You see I just came up with a random melody when I did wrote that. Grabbing my guitar, I remembered what the melody was and can confirm it here:


Write Out Words And Hear The Melody

No it's not the best melody (not the most passionate phrase and the result was a bit stock) but connecting words, lyrical phrasing, to pitch taps into a vast resource in the human conscience. Even as I read this post I can add melody to it in my head.

3. Play an instrument, but think of words as you play it. I 'talk' with my guitar. All of the time and it makes for some really conversational melodies.

4. Guess the next note you're going to play on an instrument with your mouth. Guess the next note you're going to sing with an instrument. Chicken or egg.

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There are a lot of books on songwriting.

What's nice about some of these books is that most exercises boil down

to "write a little song" based on a certain concept. It's less theory and

more practice. So you get experience constantly writing short musical

passages with lyrics.

The Songwriter's Workship: Harmony (Berklee Press)


The Songwriter's Workship: Melody (Berklee Press)


Songwriting: Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure: Tools and Techniques for Writing Better Lyrics (Songwriting Guides)


The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Art of Songwriting


The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition


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Something else I just thought of, that I should have included before. One of things I have been working on lately is, when singing a cover song or singing along with the radio or a cd, is to pay attention closely to the vowel sounds that work for me. They might be different than the original singer, and that's okay. I was doing that on Sunday and shifted toward a eh sound on a song and it made my voice darker.

Anyway, when composing a vocal melody for a song, vowel choice still applies. And because of vowel choice, that is going to influence lyrics, as well. Sure, there is the idea of the song to be presented. But lyrics should be composed with a link to how your voice works, which vowel sounds work best for you. That is, even though I have said before that singers sound best on songs written by or for them, there is still work to do and you have to spend as much work writing for you own voice as you might spend working a cover song into your voice.

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