Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Laying down the melody

with 2 comments

David Byrne

A few days ago, while browsing through How Music Works, the engaging book by Talking Heads frontman and famous nerd David Byrne, I stumbled across this description of his writing process for the album Remain in Light:

I begin by improvising a melody over the music. I do this by singing nonsense syllables, but with weirdly inappropriate passion, given that I’m not saying anything. Once I have a wordless melody and a vocal arrangement that my collaborators (if there are any) and I like, I’ll begin to transcribe that gibberish as if it were real words.

I’ll listen carefully to the meaningless vowels and consonants on the recording, and I’ll try to understand what that guy (me), emoting so forcefully but inscrutably, is actually saying. It’s like a forensic exercise. I’ll follow the sound of the nonsense syllables as closely as possible. If a melodic phrase of gibberish ends on a high ooh sound, then I’ll transcribe that, and in selecting actual words, I’ll try to choose one that ends in that syllable, or as close to it as I can get. So the transcription often ends with a page of real words, still fairly random, that sound just like the gibberish.

Byrne concludes: “I do this because the difference between an ooh and an aah…is, I assume, integral to the emotion that the story wants to express…My job at this stage is to find words that acknowledge and adhere to the sonic and emotional qualities rather than to ignore and possibly destroy them.” And while Byrne’s chosen approach may seem resolutely oddball, it has surprising affinities with the opposite end of the commercial spectrum. Here’s a description, by John Seabrook of The New Yorker, of the creative process of Ester Dean, the “top line” songwriter responsible for hit singles by the likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj:

Dean has a genius for infectious hooks. Somehow she is able to absorb the beat and the sound of the track, and to come out with its melodic essence. The words are more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they don’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude—they nudge you closer to the ecstasy promised by the beat and the “rise,” or the “lift,” when the track builds to a climax…

Dean’s preferred method of working is to delay listening to a producer’s track until she is in the studio, in front of the mike. “I go into the booth and I scream and sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not,” she told me. Dean concludes: “And I just see when I get this little chill, here”—she touched her upper arm, just below the shoulder—”and then I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.'” If she doesn’t feel that chill after five minutes, she moves on to the next track, and tries again.

Ester Dean

Of course, songwriters have been jotting down nonsense lyrics to feel their way into a melody for a long time: it’s why “Yesterday” was originally called “Scrambled Eggs.” And many of the conventions of popular music, from scat singing to the repeated lines in choruses, were developed by performers who were improvising by the seat of their pants. What strikes me the most about this method from a writing point of view, though, is its similarity to what Community showrunner Dan Harmon has called the spit draft—a version of a script that lays out the structure with dummy dialogue on the level of “Here’s the point where I say that we should all go get a sandwich” or “I have a joke here.” The point is to rough out the blocks of the action in as broad a form as possible to make sure the story itself works. And sometimes, the simple act of typing, like singing nonsense syllables, results in something useful, as the writer Megan Ganz notes: “When you write really quickly, you end up writing really good jokes anyway; it’s almost as if you trick your brain into thinking that it doesn’t matter.” (Compare this to Byrne’s diligence at matching the oohs and aahs in the nonsense words he sings in his initial pass on the track. What looks like an accident may turn into a way inside, and you’ll often have better luck at coming up with something good if you follow the clues that your brain has already provided.)

I’ve found that it helps to think of any rough draft in these terms. Elsewhere, I’ve described a first draft—or, alternatively, a detailed outline—as a kind of crude sketch of the entire story, much as a painter might rough out a cartoon of the overall work on the canvas before fleshing out any specific area, and I still think that it’s a valuable way of working. When I’m writing a draft, I’m often just typing with one eye on the outline at my elbow, and the point is less to come up with a readable version than to figure out how the whole thing looks on the page: the balance of dialogue to description, the lengths of the paragraphs, the places where a block of action transitions into another. Once I have that overall shape, with the paragraphs more or less all where they need to be, it’s far easier to drill down and refine the material within each unit. (It’s crucial to note, though, that all these approaches depend on an existing structure to follow: we aren’t improvising blindly, but laying down a melody over a particular track.) The hard part is convincing yourself to fight through to the very last page, when you know that everything you’ve written will need to be revised into some other form. But if you can think of that draft as a sketch to be filled in later, or as a string of nonsense sentences that will serve as placeholders until you can glimpse the contours of the whole work, it’s easier both to get it done and to open yourself up to the music.

Written by nevalalee

August 13, 2015 at 9:37 am

2 Responses

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  1. When the Stones were putting down the tracks for Exile on Main Street in Keith’s basement in France, they had very few words. On a lot of Stones tracks Jagger slurred nonsense for the vocal track — again, to get the vocal melody — then sorted the words out later. I believe Tumbling Dice, one of their best tracks, was done that way and in fact even the final version sounds pretty blurry…

    On the other hand, Tilbrook and Difford, who wrote most of Squeeze’s tracks worked in the opposite way, with Difford providing the words carefully laid out on paper (chorus, verse, etc) then Tilbrook setting them to music — more, perhaps, like traditional composition when a composer works with a libretto. Similarly for an Australian band I like, the Lucksmiths. And interestingly (well, maybe) both those bands are sometimes criticised for lacking the emotional component that is so important in popular music — they can seem like they think too much and don’t feel enough, and popular music is all about how it feels. Keith Richards once said (something like), the words are just to keep people listening by giving them something to sing along with.

    Interesting to look at the words first/music first dichotomy, however crude that classification may be.

  2. @Darren: Thanks for the Stones anecdote—I hadn’t heard that one before. The problem of putting words to music, or vice versa, is probably worth a blog post of its own.


    September 6, 2015 at 2:20 pm

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