Lyrics and music: songwriting masterclass part #2, techniques

In Part #1 we focused on how our interviewees find inspiration for their lyrics and music. Now that we have the inspiration, though the next requirement is that we, literally, “set it to music.”

My grateful thanks to our three masterclass experts who have so kindly contributed to this series of articles: jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, pianist/vocalist Charlie Wood, and South Sea Company vocalist/bassist James Miles.

So what are key points to consider when taking a song onwards from the initial inspiration?

James Miles: “I begin with chord patterns”

“Most of the time, I begin with chord patterns and as I start to fuse these patterns together, I can usually start listening out for melodies (instrumental or vocal) which would suit the characteristics of the chords. The reason I usually start with chord patterns is because I tend to find that these lay the foundations for most songs, and if your foundations are sound, then it’s just a case of adding little ingredients as you go along,” says James.

“I have a great fondness for a lot of instrumental music, and I would say that at times that music can convey a lot more than words. We can interpret instrumentation in a million ways as it is not a rigorous language, and it is more often the case that it is a melody that ends up stuck in one’s head as opposed to anything else.”

Charlie Wood: “never try to force a lyric into an uncomfortable melody”

“I like to keep my mind pretty open and flexible when writing, so I’d say the best thing for me is not to impose any limits or preconceptions on myself. However, the songs I like best all display an awareness of the rhythm of spoken language and have a ring of truth about them,” says Charlie.

“I would never try to force a lyric into an uncomfortable melody (I’d change the melody first) and I’d try to be as truthful as possible – not necessarily honest, self-confessional, etc. (although that’s fine), but truthful about the human condition as I see it and about the behavior of human beings towards one another. A songwriter, like any writer, has to be a great many different characters and sympathize with all of them.”

Jacqui Dankworth: “the melody and the lyric should complement each other”

“I find a very good way to write songs is to work with other people, because this can lead to some very interesting and far-reaching ideas and combinations of melody and lyric. It doesn’t always work out, of course, and the only way you can find out if you can work well with someone else is to try it and see,” says Jacqui.

“As I mentioned before, I’m coming at the whole songwriting issue as a performer first and foremost, so as you can imagine when I’m writing a song – whether on my own or with someone else – I am most concerned that the music has to “sing” right. Also, I believe that the melody and the lyric should complement each other, although you can achieve some quite interesting effects by, say, writing a happy, upbeat melody and combine it with rather dark words.”

And the Big Question: should lyrics rhyme?

Jacqui Dankworth: “If, like me and many other jazz musicians, you follow what’s recommended in the Great American Songbook, then lyrics must rhyme. And that’s really hard to achieve without it all seeming gratuitous! However I have to admit that some of my best compositions don’t actually rhyme…”

Charlie Wood: “It isn’t important that lyrics rhyme, but they’re inherently poetic (even when unintentionally so). I think writers ignore the poetic or symbolic content of their work at their own peril.”

James Miles: “I think that this can sometimes be a way of making a chorus slightly catchier, or a verse fit well, but at the end of the day, it’s not worth sacrificing any significant meaning for.”

Phew, that’s a relief then. No more “moon in June…”

In Part #3 we’ll share our experts’ advice on how beginners can improve their approach to writing lyrics and music.

This article is one of a series of three. Links are as follows:

Part one: inspiration

Part two: techniques

Part three: advice

Now, set your  writing to music:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English


Photograph of James Miles – many thanks to Kristell Gathoye