How to Set Words to Music

Updated on March 15, 2013
JohnMello profile image

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Break words up into syllables
Break words up into syllables | Source

Setting words to music can be a complicated process - until you realize that the underlying common element between the two is rhythm. By breaking down your chosen words into rhythmic constituents, it becomes easier to turn those words into a musical idea.

Rhythm in music refers to the way the beats are arranged, the stresses that give us strong and weak accents. Rhythm is what makes the difference between a march and a waltz, between a polka and a ballad. And just as a piece of music has strong and weak accents, so does a phrase or sentence.

Start With the Words Themselves

To set words to music, start by breaking the words up into their constituent syllables. Any phrase or sentence you come across will have its own metre, such as the iambic pentameter so prevalent in Shakespeare. But even blank verse and prose will work, because the words themselves contain everything you need, whether or not they've been written for the purpose.

The real secret behind setting words to music is discovering where the strong and weak accents lie within the words. For example, take a look at this excerpt:

  • My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun

If we break it down into syllables, we get the following:

  • My mis - tress' eyes are no - thing like the sun

Taking the process one step further, the next task is to highlight the strong and weak accents as below. Strong accents are represented in bold:

  • My mis - tress' eyes are no - thing like the sun

Nothing like the sun...
Nothing like the sun... | Source

This example uses a line from Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, written in iambic pentameter where the strong-weak accents are regular. To prove this is not always necessary, here's an excerpt taken from a random page of the dictionary - i.e. part of a definition:

  • An object bent so that it can catch or hold something

This is part of the definition for the word "hook." Let's see what it looks like when broken down into syllables only:

  • An ob - ject bent so that it can catch or hold some - thing

And now, let's identify the strongest accents:

  • An ob - ject bent so that it can catch or hold some - thing

You can see immediately how it differs from the Shakespeare example. The accents are no longer regular; but far from being a bad thing, this variety could be the impetus that helps you produce a great new melody

Turn Accents Into a Rhythm

Whichever words you use, the process is the same. Once you've identified the strong and weak accents, the next step is to turn the syllables of the words into a suitable rhythm.

If we take the example from Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, the rhythm might look something like this:

Source

This might be the easier rhythm of the two to construct as it follows a regular pattern of strong and weak accents. The second example is far less regular and can be approached in a number of different ways. Here's one example of how it might be done:

Source
Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting
Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting

Breaks down the creative process from beginning to end, from coping with writer's block, to song construction, chords, and even self-promotion.

 

Turn Rhythms Into a Tune

The final stage of the process involves turning your rhythm into a melody. As with the words you choose, this will be a personal decision. The best way to go about it is to experiment and try out lots of different options. Remember there is no right or wrong solution: when you come across something that works, something that sounds right to you, keep working on it until it's as good as you can get it.

Here are some quick tips on how to get a melody going quickly:

  1. Base it on a scale pattern - that could be a major, minor, pentatonic, blues or whole tone scale, going up or going down
  2. Try jumping around - ignore the scale idea and try the opposite, moving from one note to another with plenty of gaps, i,e, not smoothly as in a scale
  3. Combine 1 and 2, using scale passages and leaps together
  4. Repeat certain notes - every syllable doesn't need a different note. Try using repetition to see if that produces a memorable result.

Source
Source

Add the Finishing Touches

When you get something you're happy with, why not take it one step further? Try to harmonize your tune at the piano or keyboard. This can help keep you focused and make sure your melody doesn't start wandering all over the place.

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Questions & Answers

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      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        4 months ago from England

        Message for Ifegbayi Olubukola

        Thank you for your email. If you would like to place your lyrics in a comment I will be happy to look at them and suggest what you might be able to do. I can only offer suggestions, however, but I can help you extract the rhythm from your words. Let me know if that sounds good to you.

      • profile image

        nelson olagunju 

        20 months ago

        nice

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Enjoy...

      • profile image

        rainne06 

        5 years ago

        Sure. I wish to learn more about music from you. Keep up the helpful tips and... oh my! You have a lot of hubs about music! I'm really gonna check them all out!

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        WOW rainne06. That's high praise indeed. Thank you so much!

      • profile image

        rainne06 

        5 years ago

        I love this hub! It immediately caught my attention and piqued my interest, and I don't regret that I checked this out. This inspired me to work on my song/s and turn it into a piano music or however it must be said. Thanks a lot!

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks DzyMsLizzy! Part of the fun is turning the words into your OWN rhythms, and there are always lots of possibilities.

        Thanks GusTheRedneck and RealHousewife for your kind remarks.

      • RealHousewife profile image

        Kelly Umphenour 

        5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

        Wow! Wow! Excellent hub and congrats on HOTD!

      • GusTheRedneck profile image

        Gustave Kilthau 

        5 years ago from USA

        Howdy John (JohnMello) -

        I can tell you right off the top of the list that the FIRST two things I do not do well at all are music and art. Something I do much better is to read good articles like this one. Thanks.

        Gus :-)))

      • DzyMsLizzy profile image

        Liz Elias 

        5 years ago from Oakley, CA

        Congratulations on HOTD!

        Very well explained and clear. You are right about infinite variations being possible; as I was reading your second example, it occurred to me that the, "that it can" phrase could also work as a triplet.

        Voted up, interesting and useful.

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks smw1962. Nice to know it's appreciated.

        Thanks DreamerMeg. You can do it both ways, but this is just one approach :)

      • DreamerMeg profile image

        DreamerMeg 

        5 years ago from Northern Ireland

        Very interesting. I never thought before about how the words and music came together. I had assumed they started with the music, then added words to fit!

      • smw1962 profile image

        smw1962 

        5 years ago

        I love how you approach music in such a logical, well thought out way. Many people don't realize there can be great beauty in logic.

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks francisassissi and wayne barrett for taking the time to read my hub. Hope you find it useful!

      • wayne barrett profile image

        Wayne Barrett 

        5 years ago from Clearwater Florida

        Thanks for the help. Me and my wife are trying to work on a song and we were just talking about doing this last night.

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks Toytasting! Hope it helps...

      • Toytasting profile image

        Toy Tasting 

        5 years ago from Mumbai

        Congratulations, John Mello for HOTD! Truly well deserved. This is such an interesting Hub. My daughter has just started learning Music, this should help her understand music better. Thank you!

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks Glimmer Twin Fan. Good luck!

      • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

        Claudia Mitchell 

        5 years ago

        Fascinating hub. I only know that I enjoy listening to music, but what you have written here makes so much sense. Now, for the rest of the day, I'm going to be saying things and then setting them to music.

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks VivaLaVina. Glad you enjoyed it!

      • profile image

        VivaLaVina 

        5 years ago

        Wow.. this hub just brings me back to those days when I was able to read the notes (when I was a kid, studying music). Now, I just forgot all of them! Hmm, but of course, I'm still able to sing, only that I couldn't recognize which note is to what keys. Also, this brings back the memories when I was singing in a choir in high school. Oh, so beautiful!

      • JohnMello profile imageAUTHOR

        JohnMello 

        5 years ago from England

        Thanks chef-de-jour!

      • chef-de-jour profile image

        Andrew Spacey 

        5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

        I enjoyed this hub. I don't know a middle C from a high G but I love poetry and the rhythms within sentences and individual words. I think you've approached this subject in a clear and open way which is very useful for the beginner and those who know a little about music.

        Votes.

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