Brace yourself. Grab hold of something and make sure you know where the barf bag is, because I’m about to deliver some news so shocking, so life altering, that your world is going spin backwards. Here it is: songs are meant to be sung. Oops…here’s the bag. There you go. Get it all out. Take a moment to clean yourself up, and when you’re ready we’ll continue…

The Hard Truth
Yes – songs are meant to be sung. It seems obvious, yet I hear songs all the time that don’t seem to have been written with “singability” in mind. Remember – we’re writing songs, not poetry. How your words “sing” is just as important as their meaning. For this reason it is vital that you always check your lyrics by actually singing them. The sound of every line and every word should support the melody and aid in the vocal delivery.

Following are a number of techniques you can use to help to make your songs more singable.

Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound in a series of words. Basically, it is a string of false rhymes. Assonance makes a lyric easier to sing and speeds up the pace of a line. Read this line aloud:

1. It’s lucky for me to be free when you leave in the morning.

2. It’s lucky for me to get back while you’re here in the morning.

See how the repeated long “ee” sounds in the fist line give it a smoother flow? Line 2 doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as well.

Alliteration, or “head-rhyming”, is the practice of grouping words with similar sounding beginnings. It is a great device to pick up the pace of a lyric and make it easier to sing. Compare these two phrases by reading them aloud:

1. A little bit ‘o lovin’ lasts a long, long time.

2. A small amount of lovin’ goes for one or two days.

Did you notice how much easier the first phrase was? Alliteration facilitates speech and singing because fewer mouth and tongue changes are necessary to complete a phrase. Beware: take them too far and alliterations can turn on you, becoming tongue-twisters, (as in “Peter Piper picked….”).

Prosody describes the patterns of stress and intonation in language, and the practice of arranging words in a lyric according to their natural pronunciation. If that’s too much to wrap your brain around, just remember this: you have to sing it the way you say it. To quote Mike Meyers, don’t put "the em-PHAS-is on the wrong syl-LAB-le.” When you are writing you will often find that the word you want to use stresses a syllable that doesn’t jive with the meter of the lyric or the melody. Your options are: rearrange the line so that the word you want to use can go elsewhere, or find a different word. Don’t become so married to a word that you use it anyway - it will always sound awkward.

Melody Lines
Vocal melodies are often linear. In other words, they ascend and descend on adjacent or nearly adjacent notes in a given scale. This is because big intervals are tough for most people to sing. A classic example is Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Arlen and Harburg. The opening two notes are an entire octave apart; a tall order for even experienced vocalists. (Note to reader: Arlen and Harburg broke this rule for a very good reason - to create emotion in the melody - but that’s a topic for another post…)

Key & Range
When an artist cuts a song they will generally transpose it to the key that works best with their voice. Still, you should try to compose (and record demos) in keys that are easy for most people to sing in. More importantly, keep the melody within a reasonable range; don’t stray too high or too low. You want your song to be marketable to as many artists as possible, and most are not blessed with a Mariah-Carey-like range. Obviously these ideas don't apply if you are writing for your own (or a specific artist's) voice.

Singing is a process of transient consonants and sustained vowels, and certain vowel sounds are easier to sing in high ranges than others. For example, the sounds “oh” and “ah” are easier than “ee” and “oo”. As you mate words to notes, keep the vocalist in mind. Use “open" vowels sounds on difficult high notes and “closed” vowel sounds in lower registers where they are not a struggle. Don’t pair a word like "mood" or “dear” with the highest note in a climactic chorus.

*Photo by brtsergio.


Chris said...

Good article, but I sing a bit and I disagree with your last paragraph about the vowels and high notes. I have a 3 1/2 octave range (of which at least two sound pretty decent), and I can do the Paul McCartney doing Little Richard high "oo", but I couldn't do it if it was "oh" or "ah"... I couldn't get enough air pressure behind the wider opening. Speaking of vocal range, I keep hearing that M. Carey has a 5 octave range and that seems improbable - on a really good day I can "hit" the C two octaves below middle C, and I can barely whistle the one three octaves above middle C, so she must have at least one octave only dogs can hear.

Aaron Cheney said...

Hi Chris,
Thanks for commenting!

I'm assuming you are male, since you describe what you're singing as "Paul McCartney doing Little Richard". I'm thinking those kinds of "ooos" are a "head-voice" (falsetto) thing, as opposed to a normal "chest-voice". I gave it a try just for fun, and you seem to be right - in falsetto voice an "ooo" does seem easier than an "oh". Interesting.

The main point is: make sure you are always thinking about how the sound of your lyric mates with the melody; make the singer look good!

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