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Communicating with melody

I’ve never heard songwriters explain how melody relates to the meaning of their words.

Is their approach completely intuitive? Or are interviews (where I always hear songwriters talking) the wrong place for that kind of discussion?

I don’t know. But I don’t have a problem talking about it here.

This is a continuation of my previous post on time signatures and rhythm. You may want to check that one out first.




Walking through the doorway, all on the same pitch. A pretty determined move, full of intention. Then it meanders kind of drunkenly as soon as the singer sees whoever it is that’s standing there.

A nice contrast between confidence and a lack thereof. What story does it tell?



melody 5:4

The ascending line implies optimism, a feeling of lightness. The descending line implies the opposite. Why is this person on the other side of the doorway so awful? How does the symbol of the doorway fit in here?



melody 3:4

The descending line isn’t hopeful. But the rise in melody on each downbeat is. A descent to the depths, all the while thinking that maybe things will be alright.

Maybe they will. This is an example of melody as foreshadowing. Things are bad, but they could get better.

You’ll have to write the rest of the song to see if they do…

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Different time signatures for the same lyric

You’ll need to understand rhythmic notation for this post. if you’re not sure about this, check out this post on sixteenth notes…


…and another on quarter notes and eighth notes.


How to make chord progressions a pro would love, Part 14: Rhythm


Take this line:


“I walked through the doorway and saw you standing there.”


I’ll set this line in 4/4, in 5/5, and in 3/4.

For all of these examples, I use triplets at the beginning of the bar for two reasons:


  • they fits naturally with the words
  • they have a sense of forward movement, supporting the idea of walking


The end of the bar changes in each example to illustrate how extending or compressing the length of the bar affects the lyric.



4:4 lyric

In 4/4, we get 4 eighth notes at the end of the bar. This feels plodding and unnatural, like you feel nothing. If you came through a door and saw someone standing there, you would have more of a reaction, whether you were surprised or not.



5:4 lyric

With 5/4, the eighth notes on “saw you” are extended to quarter notes. This is better. There’s a sense of hesitation, communicating surprise. But it still feels kind of stiff.



3:4 lyric

The sixteenth notes carrying the words “saw you standing” convey a sense of tension. It’s as if you’re so surprised that you stumble.


It could always be better

I’m not sold on any of these. I would need to tweak the rhythm in each one to get it to flow better. Triplets may not be the best idea. Introducing syncopation would probably help.

Endless choices…

The point is that by changing the length of the bar, you’re able to communicate in ways that you weren’t able to before. You get a chance to consider the lyrics and what the mean to you, and to your audience.

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