Writing melodies with Young Writers’ City

For this blog I was asked to think about an aspect of the work that’s been interesting or challenging or provoking or enlightening. I’ve chosen to describe a part of the songwriting process with the young people that has become my favourite part, albeit the most difficult – the creation of melody. How can somebody just sing out their ideas? Where does that confidence come from? Where do those ideas come from in the first place? Why is melody so important? Why does a good melody lodge itself in your head for days on end?

As a facilitator of songwriting sessions there’s only so much I can prepare for; I can plan the activities that I hope will provide some interesting discussion about the theme we are working with and from that I can get some creative writing that can be shaped lyrically. I can have some ideas about how to get some actual music from the class – such as rhythm games and activities, using clapping and body percussion and spoken phrases, chime bars or glockenspiels to make catchy little tunes that can be repeated to form riffs or hooks. I can compile their ideas into a piece that I hope they will like and that hopefully they can hear themselves in.

The hard part though is when the song has to take off and exist through their input alone.   This is when somebody comes up with a melody for the words and they are sung for the first time. This is the best part. And the scariest. Scary for me because I can’t plan this part – I’ve no idea what they’re going to come up with or if they will come up with anything (they always do) and scary for them because it’s a hard thing to be asked to just sing out loud in front of me or their classmates.

So with each class, I had a small group who had volunteered to help with the singing.

In each case they were very reluctant to offer ideas or sing anything out loud and so we talked about the melody and what we thought it should do. It’s really interesting that in both cases before anything has been sang they have really clear ideas about how they would like the melody to go.

We discuss it and I ask them questions – should it start high and stay high or move down after? Or should it start low and travel up? Should it taper off at the end? Or should it all be on one note? What is the movement or shape of the melody for this line? Can we draw it with our arms? I ask some of them to just speak the first line of the song and we listen to where their voices naturally go down or up, and then we draw the shape with our hands. I give them some examples of what these ideas would sound like if sung and we talk about what we like or don’t like.

And then.

And then there are some very shy snippets of singing that get broken off with laughter and embarrassment. And then finally someone will be very bold and sing a bit and it’s a case of seizing it and making them sing it again and again and then I learn it and sing it and then we record it (often just on my phone) and then it’s there! There is something so joyous about a new melody that everyone feels works. A little thrill ripples through the group and then the whole process starts again with the next line, but with the group being more vocal and forthcoming about their ideas.

The challenge for me is not to help them! I mean, I help in that I give them examples because I’m not afraid to sing, I encourage them, trying to coax out the tiniest wee tune, I can help solidify what they’ve got so we can all learn it and sing it confidently, but my own rule is not to make it up for them. I don’t need to. They’ve got it. We have such a short amount of time to get something, say 20 minutes max that it’s amazing that they always produce the goods.

I’ve made a few tracks for classes using the rhythms they’ve created with their spoken phrases and the melodies from their chime parts. These are translated into drum parts, bass lines, chords, floating melodies that become little riffs that come in and out but always based on what the young people have given me to work with. Just a basic track, but without a human voice it’s just so-so. However, once the young people hear their words sung or rapped over it, almost everyone’s attitude changes. It sounds like a song!