How to set song lyrics to music and easily create a tune.

A non-technical guide for hands-on musicians & song writers.

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How to write a tune for sonh lyrics

Music for the Samuel Wehman songs – by Rick Townend

In this article Rick suggests some easy, non-technical ways that a musician or song writer can create a tune and set his lyrics or existing verse to it. This article was intended as a help for those wishing to perform songs from the Wehman Universal Songster.

When setting songs like those in the Samuel Wehman collection to music,
I can suggest a number of approaches which may help. 

Note to ‘letting your mind roll’:  different people have different musical instincts and experiences, and if you find that the songs suggest to you a different feel or music from what I’ve set out, go with it!  Your ideas may be the ones which catch on with audiences, so be true to your own purpose.

Getting a start to writing an original tune:  

Something mechanical may help - for instance,  pick a key-word of some sort – say wehman - write it out on a grid with the rest of the alphabet  and give each letter a music value (A-G), like this:




































Now, spell out a word – perhaps part of the song you want to set - say ‘Farmhouse’:  


So, you have C E D D E B F E B and let’s just add another C to end the phrase to make it ‘come home’ - C E D D E B F E B C.  Play or sing that a few times, trying different rhythms;  try it in waltz-time and in 4/4, fast and slow, with notes different lengths.  If C is not your natural singing key, re-write the bottom row of the grid so that it reflects your voice.  Now see if departing a bit from the phrase gives you something nicer – it probably will: this is just a start after all.

Some nuts and bolts of putting chords to traditional-style songs:

The ‘three-chords’ I mentioned above are a pattern deeply embedded in western music.  If your song is in the key of C, the main chords are C, G and F.  G is one fifth above C (counting up the normal major scale – C-D-E-F-G) and F is one fifth below (C-B-A-G-F).  You can also get to those places by counting four in the opposite direction, but standard musical jargon refers to them as fifths.    Similarly:

In the key of G the main chords are G, D and C

In the key of D the main chords are D, A and G

In the key of A the main chords are A, E and D

In the key of E the main chords are E, B and A

That may be all you want to know about chords.   If you are curious about music and its structure you may see a pattern emerging:  in fact if you go through all the possible chords, travelling a fifth interval each time, you get to this list:    C-G-D-A-E-B-F#-C#-G#-D#-A#(=Bb)-F-C.   You have covered all the white and black notes on the piano, and arrived back at C.  This is called the cycle or circle of fifths, and there are some interesting things about it.  For instance, if you take a chord – say B – and make it a ‘7th chord’ (B7) it ‘wants’ to go backwards around the cycle – to E.  Make that E into E7th, and it too wants to go backwards, to A.  If you play a chordal instrument – guitar, banjo, piano, autoharp, zither etc. – you can try this out and see how it works. 

The point of all this is that, in the main, the Wehman songs seem to me to do best with a strong and standard harmonic structure and, if you are not confident about finding chords which match your tune, understanding or getting familiar with this bit of music theory may help you.

However, this is not to decry other approaches – for example a more modern chordal setting, with some non-standard chords and chord-changes thrown in. or an older traditional approach, singing the tune to a drone not which remains throughout the whole song, or a more Celtic or continental feel, with minor chords or set in 6/8 time, or make the song more classical-sounding, with a moving bass-line for your tune to run against. 

I hope you enjoy investigating the Wehman collection as much as I have – good luck with the music.

Rick Townend

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