1. The key to a Top Line
Top lining is to turn a text and melody into an already finished music background. It is a very common way to write songs. The song Still Alive, from the video game Mirror’s Edge, is an example. Top line is written by Lisa Miskovsky.
If you are going to do a top line, the work will be easier if you do things in the right order:
- Feel where somewhere in the song the melody gets the most energy. The shape and the scar will determine that. In this place, the text will be most noticed by the listener. The text is required here! It should carry the whole song and make the concept of the lyrics clear. That’s why it’s so important to start in this place!
- Ignore for the moment what the song is about. Dedicate yourself only to finding a single line of text, we call it a key phrase. A key phrase has all the qualities required – go for the gut feeling!
- Let the key phrase tell you what the song is about and complete the rest of your top line. Now you have solved the toughest problem and have good creative flow!
2. Energy for the Chorus
Make sure that the form parts of your song contrast with each other. It gives the song dynamism, helps to make the song’s form clear and makes it possible to create expectations.
One of the most powerful tools you have is how to place the song in pitch. The song almost always gets the most attention in the listening and therefore controls the overall impression more than anything else in the mix.
A common pattern is to use lower pitches in verses than in choruses – to move the song’s “middle position” in pitch between these parts. A clear example can be found in the song Sulk, by Radiohead. Here the song is moved up one octave (eight whole steps) when the chorus comes. In Dancing on My Own, by Robyn, the difference is a fifth (five whole steps).
Have you written a song where the chorus does not start? If there is too little difference in midrange between verse and chorus, you can use a key change. Not just any key change, of course. Most useful is usually to go a jump counterclockwise or clockwise in the fifth circle. It gives an uncomplicated relationship between the keys. The key change itself is noticeable quite a bit, however, it has a clear effect on the melody that goes up a quarter (counterclockwise) or a fifth (clockwise).
What feeling does such a key change have if we think of the chords? An example can be found in the song Push, by Sarah McLachlan. It starts in the key Ace and changes to Bess in the chorus – a clockwise jump in the fifth circle.
3. The mysterious connection
There is no law that says that text in verses must deal with the same subject as text in choruses. If you want to create tension, consciously try to keep verses from choruses apart in terms of content. The text will engage your listeners, who want to understand what it is about. Searching for patterns, order and meaning is a basic need of us humans.
Let your text use ordinary comprehensible language and be clear about what the different parts of the form tell you about – but keep subjects, pictures, stories separate. It will create a feeling that you want to get something said that you do not say explicitly. It will create mystery.
4. Renew your melody creation – the simplest trick
Using the voice when writing melodies is a good way to work as we recommend, but the voice can also have a tendency to control your melodies in special ways, which can make your songs similar.
If you feel that you are repeating yourself in your songwriting, consider whether you often use the same key. If you are in a key you do not usually visit, your voice will work in a slightly different way. This is because the chord and melody tones get new functions. You move the central tone of the music, but you cannot move the voice register. A key position (a certain note) that feels comfortable can have a dormant character in one key, while the same note in another key can be a hint (which would like to move in a certain direction in the next chord change). Change key often when writing songs!
5. A trick for nice simple demos
Here’s how to record a nice demo with guitar and vocals in the simplest possible way: Record two tracks with guitar, but use a capo on one shot. Put the capo on a ribbon a good distance up, e.g. on sixth band. The two guitars will complement each other sound-wise and the capo will give you more ideas for nice colors.
Article by Johan Wåhlander and Jan Sparby, author of the book Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics.