Help, I just need some vocal HELP.
November 6, 2006 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Help me learn/improve on vocal melody writing techniques.

I've been playing guitar for 4 or so years now, I feel that I have "mastered" the whole "chord" thing. My soloing skills on my guitar are no good, but I am working on them. I can sing, but not as well as I'd like to, and I am working on every day. I am able to sing and strum simoultaniously. I play an acoustic (tacoma), and an electric (telecaster).

My musical tastes range from Wilco to Death Cab For Cutie to the Smashing Pumpkins to Radiohead to The Beatles and Bob Dylan. I want to write meaningful songs. I also want to write fun songs. I just really want to write songs.

I can write awesome (to my ear) chord progressions on guitar and piano, but I can NEVER sing anything decent to it.

I understand that most of these answers will contain the word practice. I practice every single day, for hours. I am looking for tips to speed this all up a bit... I have, and use, Ableton Live 5, with an M-Audio Axiom 25, a Triggerfinger drum controller, and an audio in-box with my guitar and mic hooked up, to make loops of my guitar work, synth stuff, drums vocals and everything, but to no avail, I fail!

(to give you an idea of my skill level, I can play and sing the Beatles' Blackbird decently, lots of Wilco songs, and some Radiohead. (and so many other songs it would take hours to count..))

posted by sindas to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Try the la la technique. Just sing nonsense to start out with.
Then move on to nonsense words.

Also, write tons of very metered rhyming poetry, even if it is bad. The meter of poetry is really good for getting the rhythm of vocals and songwriting in my opinion.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:38 PM on November 6, 2006

Are you more interested in learning the technical aspects of writing a melody line to go over a chord progression, or are you approaching it as more of an improvisational thing, where you come up with a melody without really "writing" anything?

If it's the former, perhaps do some reading in basic music theory. It'll give you a good understanding of the workings of melody and harmony, and how to use consonance and dissonance within a chord to your advantage. Some quick tips I can give right now:

– What draws a listener in to a line are alternating periods of stability (consonance) and instability (dissonance). As opposed to a consonant tone, a dissonant tone is one that wants to "move" somewhere. A good example of this is any 7th chord: the reason they all sound so interesting is because that last tone is dissonant against the root. The practical ramification of this is that putting these tones (according to what chord is playing behind it) in your melody line will give it movement and activity in the ears of the listener. Moving the melody line to stable tones will give a sense of relief and closure, which is necessary every so often to keep the listener aware of what key you're in and to allow them a bit of "rest." Most of the time you will want to compose your melody using the notes that are in the chords it is going over at any particular moment. This rule can be broken but non-chord tones will sound best as decoration, which is to say that emphasis should remain for the most part with the notes that are in the chord.
The tones of a 7th chord, in order of dissonance, relative to the root of the chord (if it's a regular major or minor chord just ignore the 7th):

Of course there are other chords you'll encounter but I imagine that regular and 7th chords will make up the majority of your songs. Other tones after the seventh have less defined properties, so use your ear.

– What makes a melody line sound truly concrete is a lack of repeated large leaps in pitch. Most memorable melody lines dance around a certain (somewhat small) pitch range, usually moving within that range by one scale step at a time. Much like dissonance, large leaps are a good thing when used to add interest to a line, but make sure that it still sounds coherent.

If you're more interested in being able to improvise a line, there are a few things you can try. First of all, if you're mostly familiar with improvising on a guitar, you might be thinking in the wrong way. A really talented improviser is capable of 'hearing' a line and, as a result of knowing his instrument well, can replicate it without trial and error. Of course, as a singer, you can probably do this with your voice without a thought. That's good practice for your mental improvisation abilities. A good way of extending your physical improvisation capabilities is to think of a line, have it fresh in your mind (sing it, maybe) and work it out on your guitar. Once you're done, think of another one. Repeat the process. Try doing the same thing with lines you hear in songs. Enough of this and you will have a much more intuitive understanding of the notes on your guitar.

I hope this helps! There are a lot of conventions that go into this stuff, all with varying degrees of complexity, but what's most important is that it sounds good to you.
posted by invitapriore at 10:54 PM on November 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

Record your chord progression, then noodle around on your piano while it's playing. Just improvise over your chords over and over, and if you accidentally play anything interesting, write it down!

Consciously try to vary things:

* Throw in odd intervals. Don't just move up and down in one note increments, but also make large jumps.
* Vary your rhythm. If you find yourself playing straight quarter notes to the beat, mix it up. Add in a flurry of fast notes, or syncopate the melody (don't match the beat), or stretch out a note for no particular reason.
* Start and end your melody lines in different places. It can completely change your song if you start the melody two beats before a measure or a beat after, rather than right on the downbeat.
* If you use lots of chord tones, try avoiding them. If the chord is C major, avoid the C E and G notes. Seconds, fourths, and sixths are beautiful things. A seventh can be really tense, or even sad.
* For even more spice, play notes that aren't even in the current key. An unexpected flat or sharp can take a melody from good to sublime.

Let me offer up a simple example of these ideas: Traumerei (Reverie), by Robert Schumann.
* The melody has large intervals mixed with small intervals.
* The notes don't fall right on the chords.
* The first time I heard the song the out-of-key notes in the middle absolutely floored me.
posted by Khalad at 5:55 AM on November 7, 2006

All the advice so far is good. I find that it is useful to use and apply theory when practicing, then try and incorporate it into a song. This serves as good practice for the technique, and also expand's one's available arsenal of stuff you can use in songs.

Writing vocal melodies:
- Just play your chords and sing *whatever* words come into your head. Just try out different melodies and rhythms until something happens that you like. I generally record the instrumentation into Ableton Live and then sing over it, thus freeing all of my attention for coming up with melodies. Once you have a full vocal melody (but where the words are the bullshit that came into your head), you can sit down and write some proper lyrics that actually mean something to you.
- As a cool exercise, try singing along to songs you like, but improvising a different melody from the lead vocal.
posted by pollystark at 6:33 AM on November 7, 2006

Best answer: If you really want to brute force some revelations (or, possibly, hair-rending frustration) in melody writing, do this:

Take a chord structure for a verse or so of a song—some particular thing that you've written that you'd like to lay a melody over—and write a couple dozen melodies over it. One after another. Sit down and sweat them out. Make up some words and sing 'em, or sing ooh ooh la la la, whatever you prefer, but sing something.

Different words each time, or recycle the same words. Make each one as different from the others as you know how. If you block up, turn on the radio or put your mp3 player on shuffle and try and emulate the feel of the first thing you come across, against your chords. Do not be afraid to be silly. Do not be afraid to plagiarize. You are learning, not putting out an album.

Essentially, don't just practice. Cram. Force yourself to do the thing that you're bad at—in the case of melodic songwriting, the toolset you're trying to build is such a vaporous, undefinable collection of insights and experience that this method can actually get you somewhere.

Even if every one of those twenty-some melodies is trash, some will be more trash than others, and you can start to pick out the good bits, the things that feel right. Keep a mic handy and repeat the good bits for the record.
posted by cortex at 8:42 AM on November 7, 2006

Regarding all the kit... maybe stop using it for a while. It's great to strip things back to basics so you can focus on what needs work - the actual songwriting. Just have your acoustic on standby wherever you go. Pick it up and strum and sing, anything at all; pollystark has it right when she suggests just rattling off anything that comes into your head. Sing nonsense, and you'll stumble upon a lyric or melody that you like. But then I find that the randomised approach works best for me; it might not work best for you.

A "technique" I've used in the past to actually get things finished is to rigidly impose a format. It might be something like a set number of syllables per line, a rhyming format for the lyrics (A,B,A,B,C,D,C,D... etc), using an acrostic to fix the first letter of each line, and so on. Then I'll free-wheel until I plug all the gaps. It works well for me.

As for melody, well, I've tried working out what makes my favourite tunes so great. I haven't done it yet :-) A favourite device of mine is to repeat the same melody but try to alter the chords, and vice-versa. For inspiration, I'd suggest looking into the musical modes, even if you just listen to them rather than trying to write anything using them. To begin with they sound odd, and that's good. Otherwise, try writing an alternative melody to your favourite tunes (record the chords yourself and start singing along, maybe change the time signature). So many techniques... one of the best basslines I've ever dreamt up was made by randomly splicing scales in different time signatures using Reason. Feels weird as hell to play on a real bass, but it's fonky as fock.

Have fun :-)
posted by ajp at 12:27 PM on November 7, 2006

Response by poster: to answer all the comments about music theory, I've taken a few classes in it, and writing music in that fashion always sounds mechanical to me.

Keep the suggestions coming, I am already feeling better about my chances. :-p
posted by sindas at 1:12 PM on November 7, 2006

Have you tried collaborating with anyone? People with experience as lead singers often have a good melodic sense, together you might be able to create a full song from some of the chord progressions you like.

Being in a band will force you to produce material, which might help you be less critical of your own work. I doubt that none of your melodies were decent, they just didn't meet the standards you have for yourself (which are generally a lot higher than the standards we have for others.)
posted by InfidelZombie at 1:45 PM on November 7, 2006

I've taken a few classes in it, and writing music in that fashion always sounds mechanical to me.

Agreed, and really it's got to be an organic addition to your bag of tricks. I learned everything about modes, scales, harmonizing, etc. a long time ago. It's knowledge that has revealed its usefulness and depth over time, as it sits in the back of my mind while I listen to or write music. It was little more than just "information" when I first learned it.

What I like is discovering why a piece of music sounds the way it does. Hey, the part of this melody that I love is a minor 6th... And so is this other, equally sad song. A minor 6th is a sad-sounding interval, hmm, let me file that away... Could be useful info.

Or... I wonder what makes songs have that almost cliched "arabic" sound. Ah, take a major scale, flat the 2nd and the 6th. Let's see that would be D Eb F# G A Bb C# D. Not exactly minor, not exactly major. Weird, it's symmetrical in a way, and it's got two big whole-plus-half step intervals. Let me play around with that a bit on the piano -- hey, I could make some really great melodies with this scale.

I know music theory can make songwriting really dry, but darn it, I hope people don't just dismiss it out of hand for being too "soulless" or whatever. It's very good stuff to know! :-)

Once you know the rules, you can deliberately break them, like adding spices to a soup.
posted by Khalad at 2:42 PM on November 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

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