How to Fit Lyrics to Music Like a Pro

2018-04-03 Essay


by Alec Plowman

If you’re a fan of popular music, then the names Bernie Taupin & Elton John, Oscar Hammerstein & Richard Rogers, George & Ira Gershwin will probably mean something to you.

These incredible teams of lyricists/songwriters wrote some of the most famous and notable music of the 20th century, and they were prolific workers to boot.

As a songwriter, working with a lyricist can provide incredible benefits. That other person’s fresh perspective can result in lyrics that transform your music, bringing things to it that you didn’t even think were possible.

But, incorporating those lyrics into your song isn’t just a case of slapping the words over a melody. And indeed, many who have tried that approach have been left disappointed by the results.

Fitting lyrics to a melody is an art, and one of that escapes many aspiring songwriters. But, you don’t have to be in that category. If you’ve got a killer set of lyrics, these are the three techniques for incorporating them into your song like a pro, and taking your music to the next level in the process.

Adapt Your Lyrics

The lyrics that you have in front of you will form the basis to your song. But, they are by no means prescriptive. You won’t be following them to the letter, exactly as they are laid out on the paper.

Lyric writing is a process of adaptation. Like a screenwriter turning a novel into a film, you have to take what is on the page and transform it to fit a specific medium.

What does that mean in real terms? Well, for a great example, check out this section from the song “Black” by Pearl Jam.

During this section, the lyrics go like this:

“I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life
I know you’ll be a star
In somebody else’s sky
But why can’t it be mine?”

But that’s not what Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder is actually singing. The first three lines are more or less verbatim, but the last line is transformed into:

“But wa-hay, wa-hay, waa-aha-hay, can’t it be, a can’t it be-ee-ee-ee-eh miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-iiiiiiiiiiiiii-ah-hai-hine”

Now, I’m assuming that’s not how Eddie wrote the words down in his notebook. Rather, when he came to cutting the track, he adapted the lyrics he had to fit the melody in his head. That meant stretching syllables, as well as adding in and repeating words to mold the lyrics to the tune.

You have to be careful when using this approach. Manipulate the lyrics too much and you’ll end up with something that sounds unnatural.

But, when it works, it really works, and what Eddie Vedder does with the words here is masterful.

Far from feeling forced – like he’s trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – Vedder’s manipulations of the lyrics actually emphasize the song’s meaning. Through the stretched vowel sounds, you get a palpable sense of anguish entirely befitting of the words on the page.

Speaking of which…

Let the Lyrics Guide the Melody

Have you ever been handed an awesome set of lyrics that were great on paper, but didn’t do the job when you started to sing them? Perhaps the emotions of the words weren’t conveyed through the melody.

Finding the right music to match the words of a song is a fine art. Songwriters sometimes call it prosody, which, as Songwriters in Seattle note, is “the strength and function of music to embellish words – to create the emotion and put some life into them.” Prosody means learning to chose the right tones and the length of tones in a melody, so as not just to present, but enhance the words on the lyric sheet.

A great example of this is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” If you listen to the first line of that song, you’ll notice that the flow of the melody matches the words. “Some… where” is sung high, “over the rainbow” follows a musical arc like a rainbow, “way,” on the other side of the arc, is lower and “up high” has a lift.

Songwriters in Seattle correctly state that pitch is utilized in the vocal melody to enhance meaning:

“…the up and down dimension of music [is] used to perfection following the arc of the rainbow placing emphasis or spotlighting very important parts of the lyrical phrase.”

Don’t approach the lyrics and melody as separate entities. Your melody should reflect your lyrics, so always bear this in mind when writing it.

On that note…

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

One of the biggest mistakes that songwriters make when adapting lyrics is getting hung up on a melody that just doesn’t work for the lyrics they’re writing. You might have a great melody, but if the lyrics don’t work with it, it’s not the right melody for your song. Once again, we’re in “square peg, round hole” territory.

Writing a truly great song may mean taking a step back once your lyrics come in. The melody line might need to be tweaked and retooled to fit what is on the page. Sections of it might need to be reworked altogether.

If you had your heart set on a particular melody, this might seem like a pain. But, trust me, it’s worth it in the long run. Having vocals and melody working perfect harmony will make your song. So, keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to change some details in pursuit of a better track.