Songwriting – Melody or rhythm?

Tree Sparrow No 3 IMG_0003.JPG
Tree Sparrows – nothing to do with the post, but I like them.

I’ve had an interesting experience recently. This may be something everyone else knows, but I’m not sure that it is. It was a bit of a revelation to me.

What I used to assume

I’ve started making experimental sound clips of tunes in the collection using GarageBand. This involves trying to teach myself how to use it. Quite a number of enthusiasts have put GarageBand tutorials on youtube.

I’m not that musical but I have at least picked up from somewhere the notion that most music has three ingredients, melody, harmony and rhythm. Hitherto, I think I would have assumed that a person writing music would start with a tune, the melody. They would then work out from it, adding the other ingredients.

One of the differences between musical people and the rest of us, is that a musical person would instinctively know what time signature to give it. Because in English words are usually iambic, if the tune is going to be for a song, very often the melody will start on the last beat of a bar. The same applies to a dance because people need something to lead them off. The composer would then harmonise it.  If there are drums available, they would have to fit round this.  Likewise, if the percussion is coming from guitars, those playing them would both have to provide a rhythm that drives the melody and to chose chords that fit the harmony.

I did know that there have been tensions over the years among songwriters, lyricists and composers as to whether one person writes the words first and someone else writes music to fit it, or whether one writes words to fit music that is already written. I’ve seen Topsy Turvy. There are bound to be examples of both in this collection, particularly as it’s built round the concept that many tunes and words are interchangeable.

Nevertheless, I’d always assumed that the core is the tune, the melody. The rest follows on from it.

The revelation

What amazed me about the youtube tutorial was that the process was completely the other way round. The composer started with the drum track. He laid down a set of percussion riffs, each the appropriate length for an introduction, a verse, a chorus, an instrumental interlude in the middle, and an ending. He spent a long time and a lot of effort adjusting and fine tuning these, so that they were both related and different. He also copied them and moved them around so as to develop the sequence of events the eventual composition would follow.

All through this, if there was any tune at all, it was still in his head. Neither the melody, nor any words, yet alone the instrumental riff in the middle, got composed until the whole of the drum track had been assembled. When the time came to add them, they had to fit the drum track, not the other way round. The drum track was in control.

At the end, there was some tweaking of all the parts, but this did not change or re-engage with the basic process.

Two reflections on this 


Shortly after this, I happened to be listening to fairly recent popular music, and realised that this revelation had changed the way I heard it. I do not know how that particular creation had been composed, but if one assumes that it might have been composed from the bottom up rather than the top down, it both sounds the same but also different. It might well work differently in one’s head.

What I’m wondering is whether this is something everyone else has always known except me. After all, I’m not that musical. Or is this a change that has taken place in popular music over my lifetime? I’ve a suspicion that even with the classic pop music of the sixties, the melody usually came first.

Second – the Sax test

Having said that, this site is about singing psalms. I suspect that anything that is going to be sung communally is probably best still composed melody first. Of course this may be a generation thing, but I think it might explain why church congregations can’t sing a lot of recent praise songs. They just aren’t suitable for congregational use. If you want something people can sing together, it has to have a melody they can catch and sing.

I’ve referred to this as ‘the Sax test’. If there isn’t a clear tune with a straightforward metre, that you can play on a saxophone, the congregation won’t be able to sing it.


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